“This is the way it was done, the way we always do it, the way it should be done,” says Hadassah, a soft-spoken 28 year old Chassidic woman from Borough Park. Why does she do it? “I try not to think about what we do,” she admits. “That's the beginning and end to it.”
Really? I say. “It doesn't make sense to do things and not think about it,” she agrees. But “you grow up like it, that's what you are used to.”
We are talking about the ritual of metzitzah b’peh (“oral suction”), direct mouth contact to draw blood from a newly circumcised penis. The mohel sips wine, extracts a small amount of blood with his mouth, spits it out, and continues with the ceremony.
First based on a Talmudic injunction to draw out blood for the sake of avoiding danger, presumably on the basis of ancient Greek medicine, such direct oral suction was the way circumcision was practiced in Jewish communities for hundreds of years. Only later, beginning in the 19th century under the pressure of modern scientific theories of disease, did MBP give way to substitutes (involving a sterile pipette). While the use of such techniques is now universal in non-Orthodox communities, as well as widespread in modern Orthodoxy, MBP is still widely practiced.
The mere description of direct suction makes many readers instinctively recoil. Beyond repugnance, 30 cases of herpes and 3 deaths have been connected to the practice in a review of the scientific literature between 1988 and 2012. And the opinions of medical experts are clear. Miriam Laufer, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Maryland, says, “Given the fact that the majority of adults have acquired HSV [herpes virus] infection and can occasionally shed HSV in their saliva and the devastating consequences of HSV infection in newborns, I would think that we should consider metzitzh b’peh an important health risk and it should not be practiced.” Even many Orthodox rabbis find reason to forbid the practice. Rabbi Yosef Blau, of Yeshiva University, agrees with Laufer: “As a community that relies on current medical knowledge to determine matters relating to health risks, modern Orthodox mohalim will not do metzitza b’peh.”
Yet the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, finding little success in its attempt to require consent from parents before MBP, has chosen to work with community leaders and rabbis to reduce rates of infection among mohalim; evidently, therefore, the practice is not in immediate jeopardy. Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel, opines that “evidence for an inordinate danger posed by MBP is lacking,” and that, lacking such evidence, the ancient Jewish reverence for custom should be respected.
It might be easier to understand why some rabbis would see nothing wrong with MBP. But why would anyone take part in the ritual, let alone advocate it for their children?
Hadassah (not her real name) allows as how there might be some reason to be leery of direct oral suction. “I get why someone might think about it, it makes people uncomfortable, there are risks.” But her three boys, ages 4, 6, and 8, all went through direct oral contact. “There was never a question of not doing it,” she said.
What does she and other adherents of MBP see in the ritual? Against the judgment of the scientific and medical establishment, who sees it as unnecessary risk taking; and the raised eyebrows of some of their Orthodox brethren at what they see as an unnecessary danger (“The mere chance of endangering our newborns ought to overrule a ritual custom,” says Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, an Orthodox journalist in New York), what do they find in it worth preserving?
As a physician myself, halachically observant (though not Orthodox), and the father of a son who underwent conventional circumcision without oral suction, I thought I would find passionate defenders of MBP, ultra-Orthodox Jews for whom the spiritual meaning of the practice outweighed its obvious risks, imbuing the most intimate of rituals with a sacred adventurousness.
But what I found was a surprising conventionality, a willingness to go with the flow because it's what is done. Hadassah, for example, hasn't thought about it much, because it's the tradition. She grants that “in every circle there are people who [might] have questions about MBP,” just like in every other area in life, but in her circles, “it's mesorah [received tradition], taken for granted.”
If it's taken for granted, why is it such an important part of the tradition? Katle Kanye, the pseudonym of a widely read Chassidic blogger, writes that seeing MBP as a ritual under attack is part and parcel of many ultra-Orthodox Jews' self image as an embattled group. “True or not, it appears to us [Chasidim] that those who oppose MBP would like it better if they could ban circumcision altogether.” Shafran concurs: “There is an automatic, reflexive negativity among Orthodox Jews toward being told by secular writers or authorities to discontinue a Jewish practice.”
But what about positive reasons for the ritual? Yes, Katle Kanye says, there is a Kabbalistic text which maintains the importance of direct oral contact, but “that reference is for community bosses and sermon writers. The ordinary people don't ask where it comes from. It's just what the Jewish community does and should keep doing. And no one wants anyone to think their kids are the equivalent of uncircumcised [for not getting MBP].”
A Chasidic father, known as “The King of America” on the popular Chasidic chat site Kave Shtiebel, agreed that government efforts to restrict MBP made his observance more meaningful. “The mohel did MBP for all my kids,” he messaged me in Yiddish. “My wife and I were very happy that God gave us the merit of doing the mitzvah properly. Usually in America you don't need much self-sacrifice to do mitzves. But when [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg interfered, I asked the mohel to let me do the MBP myself, so as to be even more punctilious in the mitzvah and make it as beautiful as possible. Of course, it doesn't compare to the self-sacrifice which our parents had, but even so…”
Psachyo Friedmahn, a Chabad-affiliated man in his 20s, plans to train as a mohel, partially so that he can perform MBP on his future sons (that is, with direct oral contact). He seemed exceptional among those I talked to for his insight into why he, personally, supports the ritual: “I am part of a community which practices it,” he told me, “ and I also recognize a broader religious value of the practice” — based on Kabbalistic texts mandating direct oral contact. He sees it as a custom, but a valuable and binding one.
Not all those who support MBP are Chasidic. Chaim Neustadt (not his real name) is 30 years old, wears the “Charedi uniform minus the hat,” and has had difficulty finding an ideological camp he can entirely call home. Nevertheless, he affiliates, broadly speaking, with the frum (religious) Baltimore Orthodox world. Before he had his son a year and a half ago, he asked advice of a rabbi he respected regarding direct oral contact during the circumcision. This rabbi cited the ruling, well-known in Orthodox circles, that an uncircumcised Jew cannot eat from the Paschal sacrifice.
Neustadt remembers that rabbi's advice.”According to the hard-core understanding, a baby whose circumcision lacked direct oral suction remains [as if uncircumcised], with no remedy. … So if [in the days of the Messiah] the bringing of the Paschal sacrifice is renewed, don't you want your son to [be able to fulfill the commandment] then too? While he characterizes himself as “ambivalent” about the whole thing, he says “he just let it happen” for his son; “it was a given.”
Positive reasons aside, those who allow MBP to be done for their children do acknowledge the risks. Many mention that friends or family members are not suspected to carry herpes, and thus they feel comfortable using them as mohels. “It helps to have a mohel in the family,” acknowledges Hadassah. “I trusted [ours] explicitly; I know he is overcautious.” “I've never heard of a herpes complication here,” said Neustadt. “The mohel was the head of my kollel [yeshivah for married men].”
Friedmahn, of Chabad, wouldn't have much to say to someone who had objections to the practice. “If a person finds it off-putting solely for medical reasons, and therefore believes it should be strictly regulated, I would find such an attitude very understandable, and I wouldn't really have much to say.” Neither would he be sure how to respond to those “who seek to vilify religious observant Jews who engage in the practice.”
Hadassah seemed — on prompting — to have already devoted some thought to those who might be opposed to the practice. “In every circle there are people who have questions, who have awareness [about the problems]. People who have questions in life. I've heard of such a thing.” If someone had questions, she concluded, “I would help them deal with it.”