A mohel performing the possibly lethal procedure of metzitzah b’peh on a baby he has just circumcised.
Someone recently challenged me to defend kashruth, Jewish dietary laws. The person I was speaking with was quite sure that the Biblical requirements about what animals we may or may not eat had to do with health issues that are no longer valid. I responded that kashruth had nothing to do with physical health issues and everything to do with our spiritual health: turning our dietary habits into yet another opportunity to sanctify our lives by encountering God. Every time I choose not eat something traif, forbidden, I am reminded that God has offered me the opportunity to be something more than just animal that consumes whatever is put in front of him.
That said, I too can readily acknowledge that quite often, some Jewish traditions seem obscure if not totally bizarre.. Navigating the divide between meaningful religious experiences and those ritual or a commandments which seem irrelevant if not absurd, can be successfully accomplished utilizing the intrinsic values of Judaism. So for example, Judaism believes that human life is sacred and a Jew must do everything possible to save another person whose life may be in jeopardy. That fundamental Jewish value explains why capital crimes prescribed by the Torah such as not observing the Sabbath or disobeying one’s parents were never enforced. Rabbis of every age agreed that in such cases, the crime just doesn’t fit the prescribed punishment.
Three-thousand years ago, much of humanity communed with whatever deity they believed in through animal sacrifices. The Torah tells us that Adam, Noah and the Patriarchs of Judaism, all offered animal sacrifices to God. Did God really need or want animal sacrifices? Of course not. But thousands of years ago offering up something of great personal value like an animal as gift to a god made sense. It was an expression of gratitude, fidelity and obedience. Like the Jewish dietary laws, the Torah took animal sacrifices from the mundane to the sacred by prescribing dozens of rules and procedures for the sacrificial cult.
Some weeks ago, a Jewish baby in New York City died of a herpes infection a few days after his Brit Milah, his circumcision. Health authorities immediately feared and after testing were able to confirm that the baby had contracted a herpes virus from the mohel (plural: mohelim), the specially trained person who had performed the ancient ritual. How? The mohel in this case utilized a practice now shunned in much of the Jewish world that is still regrettably practiced by many Hasidim and rigidly Orthodox Jews, metzitzah b’peh, suctioning off some of the blood shed from the circumcision wound using the mohel’s mouth.
Drawing blood from the wound of a circumcision is an important part of the ritual; the blood serves as evidence that the procedure has taken place. The shedding of blood is a symbolic but important affirmation of a fundamental Jewish practice that dates back to the first Jew, the Patriarch Abraham.
With greater knowledge about how germs and disease are spread, decades ago, most mohelim, began using sterile suction devices to draw blood from the wound. So why do some haredim, rigidly Orthodox Jews insist that the clearly dangerous practice of metzitzah b’peh continue? Out of fanatical loyalty to the idea that “the way it was done in the past is right, true and ergo, the will of God.”
The baby who recently died was certainly not the first to die from this practice. In fact, the mohel who performed the deadly circumcision, Yiztchok Fischer, was associated with another baby’s death in 2007. At that time, Fischer tested positive for herpes and was asked not continue the practice. He promised he would not; he lied. And for the record, Fischer is not the only mohel serving the haredi community of New York who still performs metzitzah b’peh. At least 3 and possibly 4 Jewish male babies have died from the procedure in recent years.
So why doesn’t the New York State Health Department simply outlaw the procedure? Politics. The haredi world can easily deliver tens of thousands of votes for a politician. And in the same way that the Catholic Church likes to play the victim-card by suggesting that there is a war against their faith because the government won’t legislate their beliefs on abortion, homosexuality and birth control, every effort to ban metzitzah b’peh has been met with cries of “religious persecution” from the haredi-Orthodox world.
Our Patriarch Abraham so loved God and was so committed to obeying the Divine Will that he was willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. The story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, serves to remind us that one sacrifice that God cannot and will not accept is that of a human being. Insisting on the metzitzah b’peh procedure makes a parent nothing less than a pagan who is more committed to worshiping at the altar of “we’ve always done it this way,” than worshiping the God of Abraham who long ago forbid that human sacrifices be brought to His alter.