Suckers for Strawmen?
There was a very strange op-ed in the Jerusalem Post yesterday.
It follows an analytical article last week, by Sam Sokol, entitled "New York circumcision controversy emblematic of longtime Orthodox ideological split." This article described the controversy surrounding metzitzah b'peh, the oral sucking of the circumcision wound. It also quoted my own blog post on the topic, in which I argued that the strenuous opposition to any form of regulation of the practice is rooted in a policy established by Chasam Sofer, that whenever there is a perceived threat to Judaism, even a minor custom is elevated to an inviolable principle.
Yesterday's op-ed in response, "A scientific perspective on ‘A New York circumcision controversy,’ was written by Dr. Daniel Berman, Professor Brenda Breuer, and Professor Awi Federgruen, the same trio that have been arguing in defense of metzitzah b'peh in several other forums. In their response, they write as follows:
...Sam Sokol wrote, on these pages, an article entitled: “Analysis: New York circumcision controversy emblematic of longtime Orthodox ideological split,” advancing two positions: (a) “Contemporary medical knowledge” supports the assertion of a causal link between MBP and HSV infections, as stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “several prominent contemporary decisors of Jewish law (poskim)” – specifically Rabbi Tendler, described as a son-in-law of Rabbi Feinstein, and Rabbi Slifkin, otherwise known as the Zoo Rabbi; (b) MBP is practiced by a fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox.
The authors proceed to argue that there is no causal link between MBP and HSV infections, and that MBP is not practiced by a "fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox" but rather on 80% of Orthodox circumcisions in NYC.
Now, I am not qualified to take a position on whether MPB is significantly dangerous - I leave that to the experts. And indeed, I have never advanced a position on this. (Nor have I ever taken a public position on whether if there is a slight danger, this should be reason to abolish the practice.) So why do the authors claim that I did? It's very strange. Perhaps the reason for there doing so can be seen in their deciding to add that I am "otherwise known as the Zoo Rabbi" - maybe this is a cheap attempt to try to trivialize me?
Another misrepresentation is that the authors claim that Sokol's article advanced the position that MBP is practiced by a "fringe segment of the ultra-Orthodox," which they proceed to neatly refute. But Sokol said no such thing. In fact, he wrote that "more modern elements reject the ancient practice which in turn is embraced by the more conservative ultra-orthodox factions."
The authors further claim that it is "factually incorrect" to claim that MBP "opposes a rational (I think that they meant "rationalist" - NS) approach to Judaism." But they don't even get into any discussion regarding the fundamental reason for the practice given in the Gemara - that it is for health benefits - and whether the given reason has any basis in contemporary medicine. Is it because they don't have anything to say about this that they set up strawmen instead?
For the seminal study on this topic, see Shlomo Sprecher, "Mezizah be-Peh―Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?" See too the recent blogpost by the Rationalist Medical Halachist, "MBP - Dispelling Some Common Misconceptions." (If any qualified person wants to write a response to the scientific claims in the op-ed, I would be glad to post it.)