Virtual Talmud

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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