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Sucking the Life out of Judaism

As you might expect, contrary to “new-found scientific research,” Jewish ritual circumcison–brit milah–is not and will not be going by the wayside anytime soon. The truth of the matter is that Jews have been circumcising their children long before science ever said it was negative or positive.

By the way, just to give some context, on this issue science has been about as wishy-washy as it stance on salmon (one day it’s kosher, the next day treif.) So don’t get me wrong when I say that I just don’t think the scientific argument for or against Judaism’s oldest and most sacred ritual is all that compelling.

Ultimatly, Jewish people will continue to practice this time-honored ritual for no other reason than they believe in it and that for most the scientific data are unconvincing. As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in a recent book review for Beliefnet, circumcision “is a commitment that supersedes statistics and transcends the shifting medical fads of the moment.”


Now on the other hand, the recent brouhaha surrounding one of brit milah‘s most controversial customs, metzizah be-peh, is a whole other story.

For the record, metzizah b’peh is a custom that requires the mohel, the person performing the circumcision, to suck the blood with his lips from the wound of the baby’s penis. I know–it’s the kind of thing that brings new meaning to the word “cringe.”

While the vast majority of Orthodox Jews employ a more medically safe procedure using either a sterilized tube or a gauze pad to remove the blood, some in the ultra-Orthodox world still hold fast to this so-called “traditional” method. In recent months, the issue has gained national attention with the realization that some performing this act may be infecting newborns with the herpes virus.


The ritual is discussed in the Talmud Shabbat 133a . The rabbis explain that they instituted the practice in order to expedite the healing process. Actually, they required metzizah because they believed that medically it was beneficial to remove all the blood caused by the circumcision. The great irony, of course, is that today metzizah has become just the opposite. As the recent case of Rabbi Yitzhok Fisher, a mohel who transmitted neonatal herpes to three infants, demonstrates, metzizah b’peh is anything but beneficial; it’s a danger to any infant’s life.


What is missed, however, is that in some sense those who continue to practice metzizah b’peh might actually be breaking halakha (Jewish law). Yes, they have perfomed the required act, but have they fullfiled its purpose? No.

The question these communities need to ask themselves is does halakha have any meaning beyond turning us into God’s robots? Is it just a formal system that discounts any notion of purpose or telos (even when the text explicitly says the law has a specific end and purpose as it does in the case of metzizah)? Or is halakha something greater, something that is fundamentally attached to our lives, something that seeks to cultivate a certain type of human being?


Don’t get me wrong: I believe wholeheartedly that a certain degree of legal formalism is critical for the upkeep of day-to-day Jewish life. Formalism creates security and continuity. But too much formalism leads to fetish–a privileging of means over ends, a denial of basic human dignity, and the ignoring of human emotion and ethical intuition. Ultimately, halakhic formalism can destroy the very moral and ethical fabric of Halakha. Simply put, it sucks the life out of Judaism.

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posted March 2, 2006 at 8:37 pm

I am appalled by this ritual – how can this be considered anything but perverse by our people? As a fairly recent convert, I had actually never even heard of this, I am amazed that their are those who view this as anything but sexual abuse. My son is not circumsised – to me it is ritual scarification, ironic because of the taboo on most other forms of body modification, which are usually, at least, made with the consent of the individual. I have, however, always respected the fact that the parents who circumsise are really just wanting to do what is best for their sons. But this metzizah thing is just plain gross. Thanks for the info, but not for the nightmares.

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posted March 2, 2006 at 9:42 pm

There have actually been rabbis of significant stature who have prohibited this practice. One of them was R. Yitzhak Herzog, the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel. See my post at

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posted March 3, 2006 at 12:42 am

At my gradson’r recent bris this was talked about. It was a Conservative bris and it never came up, but if the subject had my son-in-law would have said no to That being said, I want to talk about the Halakha idea. Among other things this is one of the ways a Jew can feel attached to the faith. No matter what type of Jew s/he feels s/he is emotionally it is very important to us as a human whop needs to belong. Not to be funny, but I was with a non-traditional Jew who ate a ham sandwich and was appalled at the idea of mixing meat and dairy when asked if he wanted a glass of milk or coffee! I think Jews would not be Jews if we did not have it. Laura

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posted March 3, 2006 at 1:21 am

When I heard about metzizah b’peh, I was shocked, too. I completely agree that performing this act is breaking halakha by endangering a human life. How terrible that people practice halakha in a vacuum, and shoot themselves in the foot by appearing as anything but humane and compassionate.

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posted March 7, 2006 at 1:23 am

Much ado about nothing! If you are jewish, or a practicing Christian – brit milah is something you do – simply because your God has commanded you to do it, end of story. If you don’t like it – then just reject Him, walk away, don’t confuse the issue. But please, please do not frown on someone else’s convictions. It is their right to follow their God as they are led. As for me – if I had a son he would go through the ritual; also I would never be with any man that has not. My choice! Shalom

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posted March 10, 2006 at 6:01 pm

Rabbi Stern makes a very reasonable presentation.

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posted March 12, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Makes me happy when I see the connection between “modern” spiritual beliefs and the shamanic roots of current practice and faith. No disrespect meant here. This practice reminds me of some shamanic healing, when “intrusions” are extracted by means of sucking or other well intentioned removal techniques. The shamanic practitioner might perform the healing in ordinary reality, or more likely s/he would enter an altered state of consciousness (like dreaming) and do this work in non ordinary reality. Sometimes they are called “sucking doctors.” An important point is that the shaman is not the one doing the healing work. It is well known that healing is accomplished only by spirit helpers, working through the practitioner. Why do they help? Because they are drawn in by their compassion and wisdom to serve us — and we in turn can help them in this work, here. Thanks for your articles and web site, much appreciated.

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posted November 7, 2006 at 2:02 pm

Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, Rav Chaim’s son, would not allow mohelim to do metzitzah b’peh.This is a great post. The Orthodox world is becoming a cult. I don’t see that as the Torah’s fault, rather it is the fault of the rabbis. They have turned so many people off and ruined many who stay in the fold. It is a shame. I am so happy to see an Orthodox rabbi complaining about the robotic behaivor so prevalent today.

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