Jewish and secular newspapers in New York City have been filled recently with reports and commentary on the controversial circumcision practice of metztizah b'peh, the oral suctioning of blood by the mohel from the lesion to the penis during the circumcision ceremony. As The Jewish Week put it recently, "some fervently Orthodox" mohelim have insisted upon retaining this ritual, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Bloomberg administration "have agreed not to ban this practice after vigorous lobbying by New York's fervently Orthodox community." This despite warnings by health officials that this practice can and apparently has led "to the potentially fatal danger of transmitting herpes to vulnerable newborns."
As historians of Judaism in the modern era, we would note that this controversy is not unprecedented in modern Jewish history and that arguments raged around the continued performance of metzitzah b'peh during the 19th century as the Jewish community struggled to adapt to the modern world. A brief examination and summary of elements surrounding those debates will place the current policy debate in a broader historical context and may help clarify policy options for those charged with establishing public health policy on this matter.
The most significant modern writing on this question was authored by Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1768-1839) of Hungary in a legal opinion he issued in 1837, when he was asked whether an instrument such as a sponge might be used in lieu of oral suction during the rite of brit milah. Better known as the Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Schreiber was head of the prestigious Pressburg yeshiva and remains famed as the ideological architect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in the modern world. He popularized the slogan, Chadash assur min ha Torah, which he understood to mean, "All innovation is forbidden by the Torah."
In his responsum on the subject of metzitzah ba-peh, the Chatam Sofer based his ruling on several Jewish legal texts. He noted that the foundation for the ritual of metzitzah b'peh is found in Mishnah Shabbat 19:2, which lists metzitzah b'peh as one of the four steps involved in the circumcision rite. The Chatam Sofer observed that the Mishnah states that the rationale for this part of the ritual was hygienic - i.e., to protect the health of the child. He also cited a passage in Nedarim 32a as a warrant for the position that metzitzah b'peh was not an obligatory part of the circumcision ceremony.
As a result of these texts, the Chatam Sofer contended that Jewish tradition instituted metzitzeh b'eh solely to prevent danger to the infant and stated that metzitzah b'peh was not a required part of the circumcision ceremony. In light of the rationale for this part of the ceremony, he concluded that a sponge or other instrument that could soak up the blood and safeguard the child could be employed instead. Those numerous Orthodox rabbis who have not insisted on metzitzah b'peh in the past two centuries have essentially followed his reasoning on this matter.
In light of the unparalleled prestige that the Chatam Sofer enjoys as a legal authority within the world of Orthodox Judaism, a puzzle remains as to why a number of Orthodox rabbis have dissented from his position and maintained that metzitzah b'peh is an inviolable part of the circumcision ritual.
The late Professor Jacob Katz of the Hebrew University offered a suggestion as to why this is so in a monograph he published in his Hebrew-language "Divine Law in Human Hands."
Professor Katz reported that the Reform Rabbinical Conference held in Brunswick, Germany, in 1844, discussed the issue of circumcision and that the question of whether metzitzah b'peh was potentially damaging to the infant was addressed. During the discussion, a Rabbi Levi Herzfeld emerged as the foremost critic of this practice, and he urged that the ritual be abolished because of the danger it posed to the health of the 8-day-old boy. While the conference took no formal vote on the matter due to lack of time, other rabbis at the conference concurred with the opinion of Rabbi Herzfeld.
As a result of the criticisms these Reform rabbis lodged against a number of traditional Jewish religious practices, as well as metzitzah b'peh, seven Orthodox defenders of the tradition immediately responded in an Orthodox collection of Jewish legal opinions titled "Torat ha-Kenaot" by claiming that this Reform opposition voiced against metzitzah b'peh was motivated solely by a desire to destroy the tradition. These Orthodox spokesmen asserted that the cautions of the medical profession on this topic should be disregarded and were unyielding in their resolve that the ritual be maintained. In so doing, the ruling of the Chatam Sofer on the subject was either ignored or rejected.
Through their insistence that contemporary Jews should honor and observe this practice as a sacred part of an inviolable Oral Tradition, they transformed the ritual of metzitzah b'peh into one of boundary maintenance that separated Orthodox from Reform Judaism. For these men, the performance of metzitzah b'peh was now an obligatory part of the brit milah ceremony. n
Els Kooij-Bas is a doctoral student at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands who is completing her dissertation on the topic of mid-19th century Orthodox-Reform disputes. Rabbi David Ellenson, pictured above, is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and serves as an adviser on her doctoral committee.