30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: The Dark Side

And here’s why I reject following halakhah (Jewish Law) simply for the sake of the law rather than for the sake of its intent:

I woke up at 4 am today, still reeling from an NPR story about the practice of metzitzah b’peh. I’ll ask you to refer to the article for yourself, along with this article from the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, a modern Orthodox organization, and this article from the Orthodox Union, a kind of governing organization for many Orthodox congregations in the United States. I hate to assign outside reading, but these articles will be far more reasonable than mine. Mine is a rant, so I beg you to educate yourselves before you wander too far into the workings of my impassioned ravings because this is a topic about which I cannot be reasonable.

And so it begins with something my father said after many a failed experiment with ketchup and tuna fish or the family car and a fish tank full of crickets or a bottle of root beer and a blender or . . . you get the picture  . . .

What in the world were youPeople thinking? Have lost your minds?

When I first heard the story on NPR, I thought for sure someone on staff had been hoodwinked at best. At worst, I thought those nutcases who keep bringing up The Elders of Zion were manipulating my beloved news source into spreading heinous lies that would launch pogroms and other violence against Jews. No exaggeration. A quick search on the Internet can transport you to a world of white supremacist hatred with one foot planted firmly on a soapbox labeled metzitzah b’peh. Heaven help us when Jon Stewart (my personal hero) gets his hands on this one: There will surely be a meeting at Camera Three – and I plan to be there.

Allow me to offer a quick understanding of metzitzah b’peh, in case it wasn’t clear from the articles I cited above. The B’rit Milah is a ritual circumcision that we perform in accordance with Abraham’s contract with God. We find this obligation in the Torah. Later commentaries, the Mishnah and the Gemara, add to this obligation, requiring us to perform the circumcision in a way that causes no risk to the baby. In keeping with this obligation, we postpone B’rit Milah rituals for infants who are sick or in situations that could spread illness. We also perform the necessary procedures to keep instruments sterile and the wound clean. The Torah knows bupkis about modern antiseptics and sterile fields, yet we use them in accordance with the Torah’s concern for our well-being. Maimonides explains that suctioning the circumcision site was part of the procedure because it allowed the blood to flow through the wound and clean the area.

Makes sense so far, right? However, somewhere between Maimonides and Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Aruch, an authoritative codification of Jewish law, we find a reference to spitting the suctioned blood on to the ground. I, myself, cannot find the source; I can only find the text from Shulchan Aruch, which infers from the text that the suction was – and, seems to further infers, should be – suctioned with the mouth.

I’m just saying right here, right up front, there is so much that I can’t abide in this ruling that I am not the best person to comment on it reasonably, but I did warn you.

First of all, the practice has the appearance of child molestation; and even if it’s not child molestation, it provides a terrific cover for child molesters. I can’t get past this.

Okay, that’s out of the way, now lets be more rational.

The obligation is to protect the child’s well-being. If there’s another way, to protect the child’s well-being, it should permissible. And, if there’s a better way to protect the child’s well-being, the better way should replace the inferior way. If there is the chance for disease to be transmitted via metzitzah b’peh, the practice should be ceased and, since there are more effective ways to prevent infection, we ought to employ other means of disinfecting the wound.

And, by the way, the world is round-ish, you can go swimming minutes after eating and live to burp about it, and that transaction with that wealthy guy in Nigeria is not 100 percent safe for anyone but the out of work valet in Reno, Nevada, who sent you the email. On the other hand, if I can conjure up an urban myth to keep youPeople off the Internet, just say the word because I’m happy to oblige you.

The idea that the City of New York has to intervene – The City of New York – is not indicative of government tyranny or anti-semitism – The City of New York, for crying out loud. It demonstrates that the fundamentalist branches of my community – youPeople, as my Jewish father would say – have, it appears, lost your minds. You are stubbornly clinging to a practice that doesn’t accomplish your goals, and now that the city of New York is getting involved, you’re stomping your feet and crying you’re not the boss of me.

You’re right. The city of New York is not the boss of you, but you’re being irresponsible for the sake of some ancient, extrapolated practice that doesn’t meet Maimonides’ standard of care. Should your neighbors stand idly by while you stubbornly refuse to use more reliable practices?

The issue regarding metzitza b’peh is not about who gets to tell us what to do. It’s about the well-being of the baby. It is not the best way to protect the baby, anymore, even if it ever was before. So, no one should have to regulate the practice for us. We should be abandoning it for ourselves.

A good analog of this situation might be the period of the Black Death in Europe, mid 14th century. Jews were accused of poisoning public water sources in an effort to spread the Black Death and destroy Christendom on behalf of Satan. So, imagine how it looked when we participated in the ritual of tashlich during Rosh Hashanah, when we symbolically cast our sins into the water as part of our atonement. To avoid the appearance of poisoning municipal water sources, Jews practiced the ritual outside the city and at private wells. We didn’t stop the ritual because it caused no real harm. But what if the authorities could have demonstrated some real danger to the community? Wouldn’t we have found some other way to symbolize our atonement rather than endanger human life? Of course we would because saving a life is our highest Jewish value.

In the case of tashlich, it was correct to continue the practice because it did no real harm and it was an excellent spiritual exercise. In the case of metzitzah b’peh, it would be correct to discontinue the practice because it can do harm and there are better ways to accomplish our aim regarding the ritual of b’rit milah.

So, what does this have to do with the 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge? Everything. The 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge, for me, was about developing a sacred practice that reminds me of the highest Jewish values. It was also about standing up to Ultra-Orthodox leaders who oppose gender equality. However, a story like the one about the metzitzah v’peh practice, remind me not to rely too much on ritual when it comes to remembering what the Eternal doth require (See Micah 6:8).

I think I might change my tzitzit practice, starting today. I’m not sure how yet, but I’m thinking . . . I’m thinking . . . I’ll let you know.

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3 thoughts on “30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: The Dark Side

  1. Pingback: 30-Day Tzitzit Challenge: Frayed « But I Digress . . .

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