By Moshe L Kuskin
Dear Michael, After listening to most of the nearly six hours of programming you devoted recently to your vociferous objection and sometimes vituperative attacks against the practice of metzitza b’peh (suction of the blood from the circumcision wound by the mouth of the mohel), I must sadly conclude that ignorance only breeds more ignorance. By constructing a house built on sand you have done nothing but create needlessly disparaging and denigrating opinions in the minds of millions of your listening audience, Jew and Gentile alike, toward Torah observant, Orthodox Jews, suggesting that their purportedly obstinate adherence to an ancient and even primitive custom makes them akin to the followers of Shariah law. This is in spite of your self-characterized “mea culpa” which you made, stating that your intent was not to insult Orthodox Jewry, plus your occasional avuncular tone and praises for religious Jews.
Your discussions centered around three aspects regarding this practice-1) medical science; 2) the authority or lack thereof of Religious Law, and 3) the aesthetics of the practice. With regard to the first aspect, we may simply have to agree to disagree. As many callers pointed out, the number of cases cited where infants contracted Herpes, supposedly from contact with the mouth of the Mohel, is statistically insignificant. I’m sure you understand this as someone with a PHD in epidemiology. Furthermore, not even one of the cases cited contains conclusive scientific proof as to the exact cause of the viruses in the infants, rendering the statistical argument even more worthless. Your hyperbolic comments, insulting those who disagreed with you with the rhetoric of “where did it come from, then-from thin air?” belie your protestations to the contrary that you are a seeker of truth with many scientific degrees. Were the babies placed in incubators with no human contact immediately after the circumcision and kept there for days, weeks, or months until the Herpes manifested itself and was discovered? Was there even one case of DNA fingerprinting to connect the DNA of the Mohel to that found in the Herpes virus? Obviously, there are numerous scenarios through which these infants could have contracted the virus other than from the mouth of the Mohel, beginning even from the time of birth.
The fact remains that the legal battle over whether informed consent forms regarding metzitza b’peh must be afforded to parents of infants about to be circumcised, based on claims of the New York City Health Dept., is still being adjudicated in the courts, and refutations of the city’s claims of transmission of the Herpes virus from the Mohel have been submitted by such eminent authorities as Dr. Daniel Berman, Chief Infectious Disease Specialist at Westchester Square Hospital, Dr. Brenda Breuer, Director of Epidemiologic Research at the Dept. of Pain Management and Palliative Care at the Beth Israel Medical Center of New York. The latest brief, submitted to the court by the TENN Medicine’s Center for Evidence Based Medicine further refutes the report of the New York City Dept of Health and expresses the salient point that in three decades of circumcisions in the community of Kiryas Joel in New York state, where thousands upon thousands of brisim have been performed, all with the practice of metzitzah b’peh, there has been only one reported case of the Herpes virus in the circumcised infant and it was conclusively proven in that case that the Mohel was NOT the source of the infection.
Your second attack against the procedure stemmed from the fact that you insisted over and over that this practice is derived from the Talmud, which is merely a document written by men in the 13th century, and based largely on the opinion of Maimonides, a medical authority of his time. With all due respect to your vast secular knowledge, these statements are laughable to anyone in the Orthodox community with a basic knowledge of Judaism. Orthodox Jews believe that the Talmud is part of the Oral Law, the basic concepts of which were transmitted to Moses at Mt Sinai along with the written Torah, and was merely “redacted” not written, as you or I might write an original treatise with our own interpretations. In fact it was redacted in approximately the 4th century, primarily by the Sages Ravinah and Rav Ashi; the Rambam who lived in the beginning of the 12th century, was merely transmitting this mesorah , or tradition, handed down from G-d at Sinai to Moses, which continued as an Oral tradition until it was recorded as mentioned above. His knowledge of medicine or science, while great for its times, bears little, if any, relation to his writings on this matter.
Your correct insistence that no mention of “MBP”, as you called it, exists in the Torah where the commandment of circumcision is given is of absolutely no consequence. The entire written Torah, which contains Laws derived even from the single omission or addition of just one letter (because these words diverge from basic Biblical grammar) can ONLY be understood with the explanation in the Oral Law (the Talmud). Has a Jewish court ever enacted the Biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” in 3,000 years of Jewish History? Of course not, as the Oral Law explicitly states that this verse is referring to monetary compensation-in other words Tort Law, as it is known in the secular world. And so it is with all laws of the Torah, including circumcision. Its mention in the written Torah is brief and its explication is found only in the Oral Law, originally transmitted to Moses from G-d at Mt. Sinai.
Your logic that since these laws and customs are man made by individuals who lived many centuries ago, before the microscope and germ theory were discovered, and therefore this practice should be modified in view of modern medical science may be impeccable, but it is based on entirely false assumptions, as pointed out above.
I know already that your reaction to this letter, if you ever read it, at this point will probably be “How could you believe that G-d could command such a disgusting procedure?” Which brings me to the third point of your objection-the aesthetics of the act. You described this on your program in the most denigrating terms, suggesting that it connotes deviant behavior akin to the horrors of pedophilia. Immersed as you are in a sick, secular culture which venerates females of the lowest nature, gives accolades and honor to miscreants and pursuers of the most morally abhorrent behavior, and where, from listening to the news, one would think there is no more pressing issue in America than being “gay”, your mind naturally leads you to react in a manner attuned with the sick, morally corrupt culture in which we live Let me provide you with two examples of an elevated, spiritual way to view this procedure. After Abraham, the Patriarch of the Jewish People, was commanded by G-d to perform the commandment of circumcision, he viewed this act and the physical manifestation of that act as something holy. He had merited to being spoken to by G-d and to carry out the will of His creator in performing this commandment as an everlasting covenant with himself and his descendants, the Jewish People. In fact, when he sent his loyal servant Eliezer to fulfill a mission of returning to Abraham’s homeland to bring back a wife for his son Isaac, he made Eliezer swear that he would fulfill his mission, as commanded, and the object which he gave him to swear upon was his Bris Milah. In today’s world of moral filth, this might also conjure up images of deviance in your mind, yet it was an act which bore neither connotation nor denotation of anything other than holiness. A second example of this idea may be found in the Talmud. A famous and pious Sage, Rabbi Gidal, would sit next to the mikveh and instruct the women in the laws relating to how they should immerse themselves. The Rabbis asked him, “are you not afraid of the evil inclination?” (that lustful desires might overtake him). He replied, “the women appear to me as white geese.” In other words, due to his great spirituality there were no base thoughts that entered his mind, since he was immersed in holiness. The act of circumcision is a basic commandment in Judaism. It is performed in an atmosphere of holiness, usually after morning prayers in the synagogue, and the mitzvah, itself, actually confers holiness upon the child. It is only your sensibilities, formed outside the guise of any holiness which causes you to find this procedure repugnant.
We Jews pride ourselves on the fact that when asked by G-d if we would accept the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we responded whole-heartedly and in unison “n’aaseh v’nishmah,” which translates “we will do and we will understand.” We placed the primacy of our acceptance of the Torah upon fulfillment of its commandments, ordained by G-d, Himself. The understanding of those mitzvos would come later and was secondary to our acceptance. Would there be a conclusive change in the physical environment, proven by medical science and accepted by the leading decisors of Jewish Law that the practice of “MBP” is indeed dangerous and inimical to the health of the infant, then this practice would certainly be modified. But until that happens, we maintain the holiness of our unbroken “mesorah”, regardless of your personal psychological discomfort. Whether the reason for the procedure is medical or has some spiritual significance is inconsequential. If it is a part of the G-d given tradition of halacha handed down to Moses at Sinai, we follow the law accordingly, and take no heed of non-believers and detractors who would ridicule or seek to undermine our beliefs and practices.
In conclusion, I bear no personal rancor towards you, nor is my intent to impugn your intellect in any way. However, your misguided views, based on a lack of understanding of the Torah and observant, Orthodox Jewry, which was expressed to millions of listeners, has done a great disservice to yourself and to your listening audience.
Moshe L Kuskin