Suckers for Orthodoxy
In the course of researching the topic of metzitzah b'peh - sucking the blood of the circumcision, via the mouth - I came across something fascinating. The August 2004 edition of Pediatrics contains an article discussing health problems that resulted from metzitzah b'peh, and digresses from a medical discussion to report the following:
Because the Talmudic injunction to perform metzitza did not explicitly stipulate oral suction, 160 years ago, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (Chasam Sofer), a leading rabbinical authority, ruled that metzitza could be conducted by instrumental suction, a ruling quickly adopted by most rabbinical authorities. Consequently, the great majority of ritual circumcisions are performed today with a sterile device and not by oral suction by the mohel. However, some orthodox rabbis have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs and strongly resist any change in the traditional custom of oral metzitza.
Chaim Dovid Zweibel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America, took great umbrage at this. He responded as follows:
Putting aside the question of the accuracy of the authors’ rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer (see, for example, She’eilos U’teshuvos Maharam Shik, Orach Chaim 152), or the correctness of their assessment of how “the great majority of ritual circumcisions are performed today” (in the Orthodox community, at least, I believe that many if not most brissen, certainly in the New York metropolitan area, are done with metzitza b’peh), the notion that rabbis who require metzitza b’peh do so because they “have felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs” is nothing less than outrageous. This type of haughty condescension has no place in a medical journal and is an affront to the great geonim, tzaddikim and morei hora’a of our generation and generations past who have insisted that metzitza must be done b’peh as a matter of strict halacha. To impugn the religious motivation and halachic integrity of these Torah giants is a libelous cheap shot that reveals far more about the animus of the authors of the Pediatrics article than it does about the halachic status of metzitza b’peh.
In fact, the authors' rendition of the halachic view of the Chasam Sofer is entirely accurate, as R. Dr. Shlomo Sprecher has demonstrated in a superb article in Hakirah. But what especially interests me here is R. Zweibel's outrage at the claim that rabbis who required metzitza b’peh felt threatened by criticism of the old religious customs, which R. Zweibel considers to be impugning their religious motivation and halachic integrity. After all, Chasam Sofer was explicit that this was his motivation and the basis for his halachic determinations!
I understood from our Sages that it is necessary to be one who preserves the Torah. They warned against those who provide an opening and seek leniencies for the radicals of our people who desire them. If these radicals find a minute crack, they will greatly expand it into a breach… Therefore, it is best to elevate the nature of the prohibition… That is because due to our many sins there is a great increase today of people who say they have no concern with Rabbinic prohibitions since G-d did not command them… We find the wicked writing on Shabbos because they claim it is only a Rabbinic prohibition. They have no concern with anything which has been commanded only by our Sages and not by G-d Himself… (Chasam Sofer, Kovetz Teshuvot #58)
Chasam Sofer himself saw no need to apply this policy to metzitzah b'peh, which in his time had not been challenged by the Reformers. He was able to evaluate it without any meta-halachic considerations, which is why he could make the simply and accurate observation that it was instituted as a medical precaution and thus could be freely abandoned if the doctors determined that it was harmful. But for disciple Maharam Schick, with whom metzitzah b'peh was something that the Reformers attempted to abolish as part of their general approach, it was necessary to apply his mentor's approach to this issue, and to elevate metzitzah b'peh to the level of halachah l'Moshe miSinai. He may not have been consciously employing this approach, but if not, it was surely operating subconsciously. And since it was the explicit policy of his mentor the Chasam Sofer, it is ironic that R. Zweibel considers it to be a deficiency in religious motivations and halachic integrity. He is effectively leveling these accusations at Chasam Sofer!