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Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Metzitzah Debate with a Chabad person

Please note this is a very long entry. If you are interested in this subject, I would encourage you to read the whole thing. Please comment below!
Disclaimer: I do not believe the individual in question is a fair representative of Chabad, and I do believe Chabad representatives in general are a lot more open-minded and caring.

Over the recent holiday, I had a conversation with a person who considers himself a Chabad rabbi (I'll grant his Chabad-ness, but I don't give much credence to his being a rabbi). This was the first time I encountered him since he told someone who had hired me as a mohel that I was unfit to serve as a mohel. (The father followed his advice and cancelled the hiring)

I wanted to know why he felt this way, and we proceeded to have the following conversation, which focused mostly on our approaches to the concept of metzitzah.

Before I recount our conversation, here are the links to my previous posts on this subject, where I have outlined my analysis of the halakha (Jewish law), and why I choose to do metzitzah in the manner that I do.

A Thought On Metzitzah
Early Sources for Metzitzah

The first time I met the person in question, he asked me why I don't do metzitzah putting my mouth directly on the baby. I told him that I do metzitzah with a sterile tube using the power of the mouth because this is my understanding (on the shoulders of great rabbinic scholars and poskim) of a safe method for doing metzitzah. As I have written here, sterility is (along with general hygienic practices) one of my biggest concerns in the performance of a bris.

When he persisted in saying "The halakha is to do it with your mouth directly," I told him that I understand halakha differently. And that while I agree that metzitzah must be done, I don't believe his method is ever advocated directly in any classic halakhic source (Talmud, Maimonides, Shulchan Arukh). As he was further persistent that I was wrong, I told him I won't put my mouth on a baby because I think it is a disgusting thing to do. (You are welcome to understand my words however you like.) [I subsequently wrote an article which The Jewish Week published, in which a similar idea was expressed by a respected Rabbinic scholar of the 19th century.]

He said to me, "How can you say something the Ribboinoy Shel Oilum said to do is disgusting?"

I said, "Show me where the Ribboinoy Shel Oilum said to do what you are advocating."

He said, "In the Gemara (Talmud), Rambam (Maimonides), and Shulchan Arukh."

As I mentioned before, none of these explain how to do metzitzah. So I know he is either making things up, or he does not know what he is talking about.

Anyway, I wanted to end the conversation "agreeing to disagree," and he apparently left the conversation convinced that I am a heretic.

Fast forward to our recent conversation.

I confronted him to express disappointment in him for not calling me himself to explain why he had instructed the father to cancel on me (instead of having the father do it) and to tell him he must understand that our difference on this subject is hashkafic (philosophical) and not halakhic (a question of Jewish law). I certainly advocate doing metzitzah (a halakic point), but with a sterile tube (method being one of a hashkafic difference). For the safety of the baby.

He then proceeded to give me the following arguments, each of which I will address:

1."This is absolutely a matter of halakha." – If so, the Chabad mohels who use a sterile tube also don't know halakha according to this man (and yes, there are Chabad mohels who use a tube).

2. "The Rambam (Maimonides) says to use the mouth." – This is not true. His exact language is this:

רמב"ם הלכות מילה פרק ב:הלכה ב
כיצד מוהלין חותכין את כל העור המחפה את העטרה עד שתתגלה כל העטרה, ואח"כ פורעין את הקרום הרך שלמטה מן העור בצפורן ומחזירו לכאן ולכאן עד שיראה בשר העטרה, ואח"כ מוצץ את המילה עד שיצא הדם ממקומות רחוקים כדי שלא יבא לידי סכנה, וכל מי שאינו מוצץ מעבירין אותו, ואחר שמוצץ נותן עליה אספלנית או רטייה וכיוצא בהן.
Translation: How do we circumcise? We excise all the skin that covers the glans until we reveal the entire glans. Afterwards we remove the thin membrane underneath the skin with a fingernail and fold it back on each side until we see the flesh of the glans. Afterwards one does "metzitzah" on the circumcision until blood is drawn from the distant places – to avoid a dangerous situation. Anyone who does not do metzitzah is to be removed [from the role of mohel]. After metzitzah is done, a plaster or compress is put on.

Note how he says to do metzitzah but does not say how it is to be done.

3. "How did the Rambam do metzitzah?" – I don't know. He may have done it the way this Chabad "rabbi" suggests. But maybe he did not. The Rambam does not say how he did it. Furthermore, were the Rambam alive today, I have no doubt the Rambam would side with me. The Rambam was a rationalist who recorded the medical science of his day. Read Mishneh Torah Hilkhos De'os Chapter 4 and see that the Rambam advocates bloodletting – albeit on a limited basis. This is the Hippocratic method of medicine which is now considered to be wrong - The concepts of sterility as we know it, which have saved countless lives from catching infection, have only been around since the late 1800s. Were the Rambam alive now, I have no question that his rationalist (and medical) mind would advocate sterility and care in the treatment of the fresh circumcision wound of a newborn – in other words, doing metzitzah with a tube.

When I told him that "Halakha is determined by what is written in our halakhic codes," and that since he has not brought a real proof for his approach, this remains a "Hashkafic and not halakhic issue," he said to me

4. "Halakha is determined by Minhag Yisrael." In other words, what Jews have been doing for a long time determines Jewish law and practice.

This is a hard argument to refute – but only in cases where Rabbinic figures have had a hard time either adapting to modern times or removing a Rabbinic Decree (Gezeirah D'rabanan) (kitnoyos on Pesach, Yom Tov Sheni in the Diaspora, rules of kosher cheese, and buying fish on which you can't see the scales, etc). To illustrate how ridiculous an argument this is in this context, I will bring a few ludicrous examples.
  • For hundreds of years in Europe only the rabbi got his hands on a lulav and esrog (1 set per town), and everyone else shared with him. I guess this means we should not be buying a lulav and esrog on this holiday. Minhag Yisrael!
  • For thousands of years, Jews never used Intravenus (IV) to hydrate, or medical machinery to keep someone alive. We should therefore only seek medical help that does not use modern science. Minhag Yisrael!
  • For thousands of years, Jews never used electricity in their homes. We should not have refrigerators (let alone use them on Shabbos or yom tov), or lights in our homes (relying only on candles – Minhag Yisrael) or use anything (such as air conditioning – surely the Alter Rebbe never used it) because it was never done before. Minhag Yisrael!
And since plenty of significant rabbis have offered alternative methods of metzitzah on account of health and safety concerns (such as the Chasam Sofer, Rav Elyashiv, as well as the RCA Beis Din (see their analysis here), it stands to reason that this falls under the rubric of a practice that responds to the times. Most of the "controversy" around metzitzah began as a response to early Reformers who did away with the practice completely (calling it, and circumcision itself, 'barbaric'). While most Jews do advocate circumcision (not 'barbaric' under the right conditions), metzitzah remains a practice done primarily by Orthodox Jews. It is only the method which is up for either debate or conversation. Rational people might prefer one way over the other, but no one will consider the other method "invalid" or the brisses done by such a person "invalid" - except, apparently, this Chabad 'rabbi.'

Then he said the two most ridiculous points in our conversation.

 A. I am quoting him verbatim. "Avi, I don't give a damn about anything except God and Halakha. Nothing else matters. I don't give a damn about anything else."  My response: "You are a Chabad Rabbi and you are basically telling me you don't care about people?" His response: "God and Halakha. That's all that matters." Considering he doesn't know halakha, that's a pretty blanket statement to make. I don't care how charismatic, funny, caring he is. The man is a fraud, phony and a fake.

As I have pointed out, this is not even a halakhic issue. It is purely Hashkafic. I do metzitzah in a safe and sterile manner. So if he knew anything about halakha and really cared about it, he would be open to seeing another side to this coin.

B. "I have been to a few brisses of yours. I was once present when a Reform Cantor said to me, 'That mohel has just taken God out of the bris.' The fact that you wear gloves, that you use the tube, that you focus more on cleanliness than on the tradition shows that the brisses you do are not kosher."

I can't vouch for the comment of the Reform Cantor, because I didn't hear it. I find it funny that a Chabad rabbi would bring proof to anything from a Reform figure because of Chabad's notorious feelings about Reform Judaism. In either case, he basically said that the hundreds of brisses I have performed are invalid (in his opinion) because I take steps to preserve the safety of the baby and make sure that the circumcision part of the bris is done under the most sterile conditions to avoid the possibility of any infection coming to the baby.

As far as "taking God out of the bris" is concerned - I have no idea what that even means. My job is to explain the covenant (which I do), to help guide those who don't have the background as to why we do this (which I do), and walk the parents, in particular the father, through their/his responsibilities in the "mitzvah" component of the Bris Ceremony (which I do), while saying all the brachos (blessings) and tefillos (prayers) which are part of our ritual (which I do). 

I continue to thank God every day that the brisses I have performed have NEVER resulted in a trip to the hospital. Period. I have NEVER had a baby need stitching on account of bleeding issues or any other care on account of infection issues. I know for a fact that many mohels can not make such a claim because I have spoken with a number of parents who had unfortunate experiences in the aftermath of their son's bris (as well as physicians and surgeons who have told me of their own experiences caring for babies post-bris).

And so, to this Chabad individual, I wish him the best. I feel for those who are under his influence and who are guided by a rabbi who is guided more by his personal hashkafa (worldview) than by any notion of rabbinic Judaism.

I know that many rabbis who are a fan of the "mouth directly on baby" form of metzitzah would not disqualify me or any bris done with the "tube on baby" method. I have no problem if a father wants to do the "mouth on baby" method by himself on his own son. That is his choice (assuming his wife agrees).

I would prefer to "agree to disagree" with him – but since he has made our disagreement personal and has decided that I am unfit despite our (what I consider hashkafic) difference of opinion, and has caused me to lose the opportunity to do a bris (he claims once, though who knows if he's spoken to others?) I am calling him on it and letting others know, so you can read and decide.


  1. Avi:

    I read your post on the "debate" with the Chabadnik zealot. I tried leave a comment on the post itself but it seemed to fail, so I am emailing.

    I just wanted to voice my support for your approach. We do not share hashkafa but we do agree on some salient points. First, the "pious" Jew who only cares about "God" and His rulebook is clearly off the derech. I know that's not the normal usage for OTD but it is completely accurate. I place God in quotes because from your recounting, whatever he is worshipping it is not God. He's invented a God to worship and created an imaginary rule book with clear bright lines and bold type to replace the much more challenging reality.

    God's demands on us are always a challenge. The derech is not a 6-lane halachic superhighway, it's a windy path with sometimes bad lighting, blind curves and some very rough spots. It curves around, and even back on itself sometimes. A Jew has to negotiate this path with vigilance and agility.

    I think the comment he repeated by the cantor is fascinating. To me, it shows that he shares the confusion of many Jews who believe that if it's not magical, if it doesn't look "old", if it isn't what they did in the desert, it can't be holy or divine. This is shallow and life-denying. It also denies the world which God provides for us. We are not here to ignore it, or abhor it, we are here to use it for people.

    Medical science is one of the greatest gifts of modernity. To ignore it, and the benefits of hygiene, based on the tenuous idea that MbP is halacha Moshe miSinai, derived from the Zohar of all places, is ignorance turned into a dangerous thing.

    Sorry for going on so long, but I am specially upset with this sort of nonsense.

    Hatzlacha v'bracha to you and your loved ones, keep up the good work and don't surrender your sanity.


    1. How is it that the mohed sucks blod, isn't that not kosher?

    2. Those who do this practice draw out blood and then spit it out. The argument is that it is for the baby's health and safety, which falls into the realm of what is called "pikuach nefesh" (to save a life), which gives allowances for things which might otherwise be forbidden. As long as saving a life is the end-goal.
      My point is that we have a hard time arguing that metzitzah is life-saving today, as we view the body and blood very differently from once upon a time.


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