“Great Wealth” and Mega Millions – A Kavannah Before Buying A Lottery Ticket: Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 30, 2012
A Kavannah Before Buying A Lottery Ticket:

I will be using the traditional Shabbat Hagadol drasha to speak on the topic of: Jews and Money.

I decided to speak on this topic long before the Mega Millions frenzy started.

I have long been fascinated with the idea that part and parcel of the promise of redemption is great wealth.

Here are the verses from Bereishit

יג) וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה

יד) וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל

13 And He said unto Abram: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance.

I can’t help but think of the coincidental relationship between the lottery drawing this week and the “great wealth” that the Jews took with them from Egypt.

Maybe this shabbat is called Shabbat Hagdol the Great Shabbat in anticipation of the “Great Wealth” – “ִּ”רְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל”that the Jewish people would amass.

The promise of wealth even makes its way into the text of the Haggadah suggesting that in order to properly fulfill the MItzvah of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim (retelling the Exodus story) one must discuss this aspect of the events.

בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמַה שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹע תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel, blessed be He!For the Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the end [of the bondage], in order to do as He had said to our father Abraham at the “Covenant between the Portions,” as it is said: “And He said to Abraham, `You shall know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and make them suffer, for four hundred years. But I shall also judge the nation whom they shall serve, and after that they will come out with great wealth.'”

This is an interesting point to discuss at your seder table – why must we talk about the great wealth gained by the Jewish people as part of retelling the story?

A related issue is the use and misuse of wealth.

That same wealth that the Jewish people took with them from Egypt was then used to build the Golden Calf. This represents the profanation of money. (more on this at the Drasha)

The Golden Calf represents the danger of wealth itself being worshipped and viewed as an end in itself. (It can actually get worse. For example, when wealth becomes the determining factor of value in a society – more on this in the Drasha (from Rav Nachman of Breslov) as well)
On the other hand Rabbi Soloveitchik talks about of “Redeeming The Economy”. (See Festivals of Freedom pg. 168 – 172)
In a similar vain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines tzedek as social or distributive justice.

Here are some of his words: “The Judaic vision aims at a society in which there is equal access to dignity and hope. Unlike socialism it believes in the free market, private property and minimal government intervention. Unlike capitalism it believes that the free market, without periodic re-distributions, creates inequalities that are ultimately unsustainable because they deprive some individuals of independence and hope.”

Before buying that ticket ask yourself: How can I make sure that this wealth (hopefully you will win) will be redeemed?

BTW – It’s actually a good question to ask even if you do not buy a ticket.

Frum Bridalplasty? On Shidduch Dating and Bean Counting – by Rabbi Zev Farber

March 30, 2012

There has been much talk about Yitta Halberstam’s Jewish Press article about the crisis of shidduch dating. That such a crisis exists is nothing new, as psychologist Michael J. Salamon makes eminently clear. What is new about Halberstam’s article is the suggestion that women would get more dates if they made themselves more attractive through make-up or even surgery.

There has been an outpouring of indignation towards Halberstam’s suggestion; most recently, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a strong reply (more aptly, a rebuke), arguing that we need to teach men to look below the surface rather than teach women to redo theirs. Although I am in overall agreement with Boteach about the importance of combating the objectification of women plaguing our society (both frum and secular), as I wrote about in an earlier post, I am afraid that he misses a core problem with Halberstam’s piece – and the world of shidduch dating that it represents. Speaking as an outsider who has never shidduch dated, I will offer my tentative thoughts.

I believe that the problem lies not in frum-women’s looks or in frum-men’s shallowness, but in the system of shidduch dating itself and the yeshivish world’s approach to interaction between the sexes. To explain: The core idea behind shidduch dating is that since men and women in the yeshivish world do not meet or socialize in any informal way, they require some assistance in meeting potential partners when they decide that they want to get married. In some cases people are set up by friends or family who know of a suitable member of the opposite sex, but the number of possibilities offered in this pool of potential mates is rather slim. Hence, many people use a shadchan or shadchanit (matchmaker) to get dates.

Here is the rub: How does one explain to one’s shadchan what it is one is looking for? When a shadchan (or anyone else for that matter) asks a man what it is he is looking for in a potential mate, the man will inevitably begin to make a check-list. Let’s assume that the list does not, in fact, begin with looks but with the intangibles: the man may say he wants a woman who is kind, intelligent and with a good sense of humor. This is not much of a help for narrowing down options; my guess is that there are not a lot of self-described “mean, dense and humorless” women for the shadchanit to cross off her list. These personality traits are too intangible.

Looks, on the other hand, can be quantified. A man can say that he wants a woman who is young, thin, blond and busty. Now we have the potential for a checklist: age can be specified, bodies have weight, hair and eyes have color, dresses have sizes. Since the man has never met any of these women and cannot possibly meet all of them, he does the shadchan a favor by being specific and designing his dream girl on paper.

This check-listing has been perfected over the years. Now many men automatically fill in requests for 19-year-old women, even if the men themselves are 30, and size 2 for preferred dress size, even if the men themselves are less than “fit.” Most men, of course, have no idea about women’s dress sizes; nevertheless, most young men do have mothers and said mothers can help their sons weed out the undesirables. Some checklists have even become “sophisticated” enough to include the potential bride’s mother’s dress size – a sort of insurance policy for the future.

This commoditization is very disturbing and the practical question of what to do about it inspired Halberstam’s controversial piece. Halberstam believes that there is nothing to do about this commoditization; it is just the way men are. Hence, for a woman to succeed in the shidduch dating world, Halberstam claims, she needs to be as physically attractive as possible. This means make-up and nice clothing in the best of cases, and Botox®, tummy tucks and plastic surgery in the more difficult ones. To this, Boteach responds that the men can be changed. What is needed, Boteach claims, is to teach the frum men to stop commoditizing the women. “Tell the Yeshiva students that the Torah they are learning is supposed to actually change their hearts,” he writes.

Let me offer an alternative analysis. Of course, Halberstam is right that dating is primarily about attraction. And, of course, Boteach is right that the commoditization of women in the frum world reflects the basest form of disrespect towards women. But here is where I disagree: unlike Halberstam, I don’t think that this bizarre check-listing phenomenon is the natural way men – frum or secular – relate to women. And unlike Boteach, I don’t think this commoditization is the fault of frum men simply giving in to misogynistic impulses. Put another way: I do not think that frum men are more looks-focused than men in general; this check-list mentality is unnatural, even for them. In my opinion, the checklist mentality is actually the (virtually) inevitable consequence of the shidduch-dating system and results from a fundamental misunderstanding of attraction.

It is true that attraction is extraordinarily tied to looks, perhaps even more so for men than women. What is not true is that a person’s looks can be objectively quantified with some sort of “attractiveness quotient.” What attracts people to each other is often hard to discern; even for the couple themselves it may be mostly subconscious. There are physical characteristics; there is body language; there is rapport; there are personality traits.

Each person is an amalgamation of traits and each person is attracted to a certain overall blend of traits in a potential mate. I would venture to guess that most people could not actually articulate what it is about a person that attracts them such that this person would be distinguishable from hundreds of others that seem to fit that description, but don’t actually attract them. A person’s conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg and a person’s subconscious is little understood – even by him- or herself.

By attempting to select dates for a man based on a checklist of criteria provided by him, the shidduch system forces the man to quantify the unquantifiable. Inevitably, the process of quantifying commoditizes that which one is quantifying, in this case women. It is my belief that if these same men had get-togethers with women from their community, and the two groups were able to meet each other and get to know each other, the men and women who were attracted to one another would begin to gravitate towards each other and nature would take its course.

To take Halberstam’s vignette as an illustration: She speaks about a get-together she attended with single young women and the mothers of single young men. Halberstam was shocked that these girls were not dressed-to-kill to impress the mothers. Didn’t they know that looks mattered? My guess is that of course they knew, and if the get-together had included the young men they would have dressed differently. What they did not know was how to be attractive to said young men’s mothers. I assume the young women intuited, as most of us do, that attracting a mate requires the mate to be there. Since inevitably the mother will not find the girl “attractive,” the most she can do is to compare her feature by feature with her son’s checklist. It is an unfair test and an irrelevant one, since the checklist is most probably wrong and artificial.

Sadly, this checklist culture feeds on itself. The lists get more and more specific and the women become only the sum of their parts. As Boteach says correctly – and this cannot be emphasized enough – such a culture leads to women developing depression and eating disorders, with a significant percentage dying, literally, from anorexia or bulimia.

To be fair, Halberstam is not only speaking from the place of a concerned elder. In the article, Halberstam describes her own memories of feeling dissatisfied with her looks when she was younger to such an extent that she took “some cosmetic steps that changed [her] life: a diet, hair-straightening, and most significant of all: a ‘nose job’.”  She writes that doing so gave her “newfound confidence.” I am sorry she had confidence issues when she was younger and I believe that she had every right to diet, change her hair and even her nose if she felt a yearning to do so. These are personal decisions and they may very well have been the right ones for her, considering the emotional issues she describes that were eroding her self-esteem.

However, if a woman is not suffering confidence issues, it would seem to me to be more than a little ethically problematic to cause her to suffer them by telling her that she will never get married without an hourglass figure and a button nose. To quote Boteach: “I have never even heard it suggested by the most superficial relationship expert that we should take young women for plastic surgery in order to attract a husband.” The reason Boteach has never heard this suggested is because it is false. It is the commoditizing tendency of shidduch dating that creates the twisted impression of its truth.  Even the horrifically commoditizing reality TV show Bridalplasty begins with the premise that all twelve women competing for the plastic surgery are already getting married regardless. Can it really be that the world of yeshivish men has dropped to even below the standards of the basest of reality TV shows? I cannot believe that. It is not the men; it is the shidduch system.

In short, I agree that there is a crisis in the shidduch-dating world and that the commoditization of women has reached such an extreme that one kind-hearted frum plastic surgeon is now offering pro bono plastic surgery for Orthodox Jewish singles. For my part, I do not believe the crisis can be solved either by surgically creating a race of frum Barbie-dolls or by telling men that only inner beauty counts and not attraction. The crisis is caused by shidduch dating itself and the culture of check-listing endemic to it. Men and women will be attracted to each other for a mix of physical, emotional and intellectual reasons. What they need most is the opportunity to meet and sort it out on their own. Perhaps a new model of frum dating is in order.

Zev Farber, Atlanta

Is Religion Just About Sex and Guns? posted by Yosef Kanefsky

March 20, 2012

When a candidate runs as a devoutly religious person, what kinds of public positions does he or she take? In the political contest playing out in presently, the foreign policy positions of the devoutly religious are hawkish, and their social policy positions are conservative. The devoutly religious politician is anti-abortion, anti-contraception, and anti-feminism. The same general pattern (with shades of difference) holds true among devoutly religious politicians in many other countries, regardless of which one of the world’s major religions is being practiced there.

 Is this the only voice that the devoutly religious can bring to the political sphere? We know that it isn’t. When Isaiah brought his voice to the political sphere for example, he spoke neither of God’s demand that we utilize military force to uproot idolaters, nor of the need to insure that our womenfolk are properly chaste. He spoke instead about how the widows and orphans can’t get justice, how small landowners are being forced off their land by the larger, more powerful owners, and how the elite political class is too self-absorbed in material pleasure to care or even know. He spoke of the urgent need to fill the world with knowledge of God so that warfare would become obsolete. He cautioned against reflexively seeking military solutions to all threats, emphasizing that the nation’s security will ultimately be determined by its pursuit of social righteousness and its consciousness of God. 

There is no shortage, tragically, of evils in today’s world.  Every devoutly religious person is undoubtedly moved by and concerned about the fact that 15 million American children live in poverty, that 40 % of minority students nationally aren’t graduating high school. Every devoutly religious person can’t help but be horrified at the rape and killing of women and children in the Congo or in Southern Sudan, or by the carnage created by the drug wars just south of our border – drug wars funded by drug consumption here at home. Wouldn’t it be inspiring if these issues were the ones most that were central to the platforms of our devoutly religious politicians? Which is not at all to say that the defense of our homeland, the thwarting of terrorism and the promotion of a sexual ethic that honors sacred relationships, are not vitally important issues as well. But they occupy just a portion of what the religious person sees when he looks out at the world and the people who live inhabit it.

I am a devoutly religious person.  And I believe that our deepest religious values should inform our political views. And I am befuddled and disturbed by the fact that our leaders who wear their religion on their sleeves, exhaust their passions on our military challenges abroad and birth-control pills at home. The world awaits the expression of America’s deep historical religious passions for justice, compassion, and peace for all humankind.

The Holy Society by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 9, 2012

“Hyim we will need your help tonight with a tahara,” said my father.

“But I have never done one,” I replied.

“There are only two of us available, and I hear the man was heavy, bloated, so we will need you.”

A tahara (literally “purification”) is the Jewish process of washing, dressing and preparing a dead body for burial. It is performed by a quiet dedicated group in every Jewish community called the, chevrah kadisha, literally, “the Holy Society.”  Since Jews do not delay burial, the process invariably occurs late at night, on short notice, in preparation for burial the next day.

The groups’ name comes from the modest, profoundly giving work it does without any recompense. It is a Jewish holy act to bury the dead, a chesed shel emet, a “true kindness.” An act with no expectation of repayment, for its recipient cannot. Even the deceased’s family usually has no idea who washed and dressed their loved one, who like a baby can do nothing for themselves and is treated with care by the holy group.

At 11pm that night my father, my cousin, and myself, rendezvoused in the funeral home’s deserted parking lot. We slipped into the building through its back door, entering the section of the building blocked off from the public. Like being behind stage, the area is unseen, I imagine, in an effort to shield the public from the reality of death and the hands-on concreteness of body they would rather not know.

Sinks, tables, sponges, buckets, mops, crazy glue and a prayer book and box of tachrichim, white linen shrouds with no pockets (since you can’t take it with you), that we had brought along. Tucked in the box was a small sack of dirt from the ground of Israel to place under the dead man’s head; a little piece of the ancestral holy land in which Jewish people since Abraham have made fervent efforts to be interred.

The man lay before us, covered from head to toe by a plain sheet on an operating room like table. Long after the doctors of the living have left, we have come to carefully cleanse and meticulously dress, to cut nails and glue cuts, to recite psalms, and ultimately to return the final product of our intense work to the dirt from whence it came.

It is eerily quiet since we do not converse in the presence of the dead. He cannot join in, and we are entirely focused on him, the one lying before us. There is much ritual and respect, but no place for emotion. In its stead we have work, lifting dead weight, washing him, drying him; his private parts covered with a towel, as the body is holy and deserves modesty and respect.

“Do not pass anything over him,” cautions my cousin, “it is the law, out of respect for the dead.” Indeed, the body is not an object to be moved like a sack of potatoes, and yet we must grapple with this weighty corpse.  We treat him with more quiet deference than we might a living being. In the stark face of death, we are all equal, all there to serve each other. Something unsaid intimately links him and us: as we do the burdensome, precarious work, of clothing him by hand, in the back of our minds we know one day someone will do this to us, for us.

I was quietly grateful that there was no talking, my mind racing anxiously faced with the first dead body I had seen up close. I recited the traditional psalms, taking comfort in an act that only the living can do, reading, praying, reciting.

“Lift…carefully,” says my father, “he is heavy. Hold his legs while I turn him to get the water under him. If you want gloves I think there are some.”

For generations my family has been the chevrah kadisha in our home town, a small Jewish community on the east coast. In the late 19th century my great grandfather, the head of the Holy Society, did taharahs in houses and in the linoleum tiled front parlor of his home.

Though I never had the guts for the real work of the taharah when I was young, I remember, as a youth filling graves with my father after a funeral of adults whom I did not know. When everyone had left but the grave was not completely filled my father told me to stay with him and complete the duty with shovels by hand. “The burial of the dead should be complete,” he would say.

The dead man oozes a bit of blood from a sore. “Use the crazy glue there,” says my cousin.

We mop the blood with a paper towel and place it in the coffin, as the human body must be respected and entirely buried, not thrown away. “You are dirt and to dirt you shall return,” fulfilling the words of God as stated in the Bible at the very beginning of Genesis.

When he is cleaned and dried we pour the water. Nine kabim, an ancient Talmudic measure of water, as specified in Jewish law. Three large buckets worth, uninterrupted, for the waters that purify must be poured without lapses in between. We recite Hebrew words of prayer as we tie his plain rope belt, put on his linen booties, lifting him, turning him, getting his shirt on straight; the loose, clean, white clothing of a newborn. When I was young and would ask my mother what death is like, she would tell me, “it is like before you were born.”

The experience, my first of the kind, was shocking but also a bit exhilarating. I felt initiated into the clandestine Holy Society. In the middle of the night, fueled by humility, ritual and profound respect for others; an other I did not know, an other who could never repay us.

To look death in the face without belittling it, with out denying it, to see in it the deep respect and caring owed to one made in the image of God, this is the work of the chevrah kadisha.

Metzitzah be-Peh and Protecting Jewish Infants – by Rabbi Zev Farber

March 7, 2012

It is difficult to believe I am writing about meẓiẓah be-peh, that there is a necessity to address this topic once again. Apparently, yet another Jewish infant has succumbed to an infection and died due to the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh. The Brooklyn DA is even now looking into the case. Even if this case of infant death turns out to be unrelated to the meẓiẓah be-peh, the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh among mohalim (Jewish ritual circumcisers) is on the rise, and inevitably, the death-toll will rise with it.

Basic Information

1) What is meẓiẓah be-peh?

It is the act of sucking the blood from the circumcised penis of the infant child by direct oral contact.

2) How do children get ill and die from this?

Since the penis has just been cut, the wound can be infected with any germs present in the mouth of the mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser). Nowadays, the main culprit is herpes, as documented by the New York City health commissioner. In the 19th century it was syphilis and in the 20th century there were cases of tuberculosis and diphtheria; there have certainly been other illnesses as well.[1]

3) What is the purpose of the ritual?

The ritual was originally invented for what were believed to be health benefits. In pre-modern times, before circulation was discovered, it was believed that if too much blood congregated in one spot it could rot and turn to pus, thereby causing illness. The sucking out of the “dangerous” blood shares the same logic as the sucking out of poison from a snake-bite victim.

4) Why is the ritual still done now?

Some believe – mistakenly I will argue – that this ritual is part of the mitzvah (commandment) of milah (circumcision). Others believe that if the rabbis of old thought this practice was healthy, then so it must be, and that anything that has been a part of Jewish practice for centuries cannot possibly be dangerous.

Meẓiẓah in Halakha

Meẓiẓah is mentioned in the Mishna (m. Shabbat 9:2) when listing all the parts of the circumcision ritual that are permitted on the Sabbath.

One does all the necessities for circumcision on Shabbat, the milah (circumcision), the priyah (uncovering of the corona), and the meẓiẓah (sucking of the wound). One places a poultice and cumin upon [the wound]. If one did not grind [the cumin] before Shabbat one can crush it with one’s teeth and apply it. If one has not mixed wine and oil before Shabbat, one can put each on separately. One cannot make a bandage for it ab initio, but one can wrap a rag around it. If one did not have [a rag] available before Shabbat, one may wrap one around one’s finger and carry it [to the infant], even through someone else’s courtyard.

Clearly, the point of the Mishna is that not only the circumcision itself, but even all the health measures taken to protect the infant afterwards are permitted on Shabbat. Additionally, it is clear that the poultice, the cumin, the bandage, and the wine and oil mixture are all meant as health measures. Where does the meẓiẓah fit in? Does it go with milah and priyah as essential parts of the circumcision ritual or does it go with the poultice and the cumin as part of the medicinal requirements?

The answer to this question is made clear in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Shabbat 133b).

Rav Papa said: “Any professional [mohel] that does not suck out [the blood] – this is dangerous and he should be removed from his position.”

Rav Papa states plainly that meẓiẓah is a medical practice. Furthermore, it is such a vital one, in his opinion, that any mohel who is willing to forgo it and risk an infant’s life must be removed from his position. In case this was not sufficiently clear, the Talmud comments further on Rav Papa’s words:

Obviously! From the fact that Shabbat is violated to do this, clearly it is a matter of danger. What might you have thought? That the blood was already pooled [and removing it would not be a Sabbath violation] – we learn that [the blood being sucked out] is still in the skin [and sucking it out would violate Shabbat if it weren’t for the medical necessity.] It is parallel to the poultice and the cumin: just like the poultice and cumin, if one were not to do this it would be dangerous, so too, if one were not to [suck out the blood] it would be dangerous.

In the Talmud’s analysis, the fact that meẓiẓah is a part of the post-circumcision medical intervention is a given: meẓiẓah is a medical intervention parallel to bandaging the wound and applying healing ointments; it is not part of the circumcision itself. To me, this is clearly the intent of the Talmudic passage, although I am aware that this point has been vigorously debated among the halakhic authorities of the past few centuries.

Some, who have found it hard to argue on halakhic grounds, have defended the practice on qabbalistic grounds, claiming that the practice has mystical significance. This may be so – I am not expert in such matters. Nevertheless, qabbalah and its requisite minhagim, in my opinion, do not have the same binding normative force that halakha does. Qabbalistic reasoning cannot be used to define the parameters of mitzvot against the simple meaning of the Talmud; it certainly cannot be used to override health concerns.

Meẓiẓah and Modern Medicine

Modern medicine denies any substantial health benefit to post-circumcision meẓiẓah. Nonetheless, if that were the only critique, the practice could be safely continued as harmless. The problem lies in the fact that, with the discovery of germs and contagion, modern medicine actually demonstrates the dangerous nature of the practice. Sadly, this is the exact opposite of what the practice was invented to do.

In truth, many practices once thought to be helpful have turned out to be harmful, blood-letting being the most obvious example. Once evidence began to accumulate that meẓiẓah was dangerous and that Jewish infants were, in fact, dying because of this practice, the question became, “what to do about it?” The answer has been debated for upwards of two centuries.

Some authorities, such as Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Herzog and R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (followed by his son, R. Moshe Soloveitchik and his grandson, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik), advocated stopping the practice. Others held on tenaciously to a requirement to do meẓiẓah be-peh. Historically, this bewildering allegiance to the practice can be traced to the Orthodox battle against the early reformers in 19th century Europe. At a time when many early reformers were questioning the need for circumcision altogether a ban was passed among the reformers against meẓiẓah be-peh. In response to this ban, many traditionalists, such as R. Moshe Shik (1807-1879) and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), dug in their heels and defended the practice.

Despite the difficulty in endorsing the stance taken by these rabbis, it is important to note that in this period of time there was a widespread feeling that traditional religion was under attack and that it was important to defend every last inch of Jewish law and custom, lest one small change lead to an avalanche of irreligiosity. Furthermore, modern medicine as a scientific discipline was still in its early phases.

Nowadays, neither of these factors is operative. Orthodox Judaism has carved for itself a solid niche and cannot reasonably be described as threatened by the Reform movement. Modern medicine has more than established itself as the dominant paradigm, and every school-child knows that an open wound is susceptible to germs from anything with which it comes into contact. Any doctor that would touch an open wound without gloves and sterilized equipment would be opening him- or herself up for a lawsuit. And yet, there are still defenders of meẓiẓah be-peh, even in modern times.

Three Alternative Models

Three models have been suggested to deal with the modern challenges posed by meẓiẓah be-peh; I will call them the clean-bill-of-health model, the meẓiẓah-equivalent model and the ritual-meẓiẓah model. (I am only personally comfortable with the last two, but will explain all three.)

1)      The Clean Bill of Health Model

Proposed by R. Dr. Mordechai Halperin, M.D., first in Israel and then in an article in Jewish Action called: “Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: The View from Israel,” the suggestion is to devise a method to ensure that the mohalim who perform meẓiẓah be-peh do not have any illnesses, including sores in the mouth, that can transfer disease. (I have heard that this is the practice in England among mohalim that perform meẓiẓah be-peh.) The mohel would have to go through whatever testing deemed medically necessary to ensure the meẓiẓah is safe, and he would need to constantly renew this clean bill of health. Any mohel without this “license” would be barred from performing meẓiẓah be-peh, and any who did so anyway would be banned from practicing by the community.

Although Halperin’s suggestion is commendable, I am personally uncomfortable with it. Since meẓiẓah be-peh has no medical benefit and no halakhic basis nowadays, I see no reason to continue with a practice that reflects antiquated medicine in such a graphic manner. I feel that doing so, even if it weren’t dangerous, sends the wrong message (this, I hear, is R. Moshe Tendler’s argument as well). Furthermore, I can’t help worrying that even with safeguards, the practice may still pose some threat to the infant; one need only consider the amount of germs and bacteria found in a person’s mouth and the fact that illnesses often come about unexpectedly.

Nevertheless, since there are those that stridently disagree with me and believe meẓiẓah be-peh to be either a halakhic requirement or of paramount qabbalistic significance, I have included the clean-bill-of-health model in the hope that the opposition may at least adopt this, thereby protecting the lives of the infant boys who are otherwise in harm’s way.

2)      The Meẓiẓah-Equivalent Model

R. Shlomo Ha-Kohen of Vilna (1828-1905) wrote in a responsum (Binyan Shlomo 2, YD 19) that there is no mitzvah to perform meẓiẓah. Instead, he argued, meẓiẓah should be viewed as part of the general requirement to keep the infant healthy. Therefore, he claims, whatever modern medicine determines to be the best medical practice for keeping the child healthy should be considered the equivalent of meẓiẓah.

According to R. Ha-Kohen, the practice he witnessed in his time period, where the mohel would wrap the penis in rags (smartutin), was the equivalent of meẓiẓah, and that he could not venture to say what the practice would look like in the future. This is because the practice is purely medical and, as he reminds the questioner, he is not a doctor.

Applying Ha-Kohen’s analysis to our times, the modern mohel should sterilize his equipment and use whatever bandages and antibacterial creams are necessary to reduce the risk of infection. In this way he has fulfilled the requirement that is at the root of the – now defunct – requirement to suck out the blood from the wound.

3)      The Ritual-Meẓiẓah Model

Some authorities were less comfortable with cancelling the practice altogether, although they were certainly unwilling to risk the lives of Jewish infants to keep it. Hence the idea of a meẓiẓah performed without direct contact between the mohel’s mouth and the infant’s penis was suggested, and two basic forms of this practice were put forward. One idea, advocated by R. Moshe Schreiber (Sofer), known as the Ḥatam Sofer, was to use a sponge around the corona, with the mohel applying (slight) squeezing pressure to remove some blood.

Another method that is popular with a number of Modern Orthodox mohalim today was to use a glass pipet. The mohel would place the pipet upon the wound and suck from the other side, stopping when some blood would come out of the wound. This method was advocated (or at least permitted) by a number of halakhic authorities, such as R. Malkiel Tenenbaum, R. Elyakim Shapiro of Grodno and R. Avraham Kook. It also seems to be the preferred solution of R. Moshe Pirutinsky in his influential compendium, Sefer ha-Brit.

Ancient Rabbis, Ancient Science

One popular response to the critique of the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh has been that if the Sages of old defended the practice, it must be safe and even life-sustaining. It would be beyond the scope of this post to respond in full to this argument, but it is important to note that such an argument suffers from the fallacy of granting the Talmudic Sages superhuman intelligence, making them not only the expositors of traditional Torah laws, but also the repository of all scientific knowledge, past and future. It reflects the belief that the rabbis knew all of science and natural law.

When faced with contradictions between the statements of the rabbis and the reality as described by modern science, some more extreme apologists will even argue that the Talmud is correct and modern physicians are mistaken. This, of course, conflicts with all evidence and any semblance of reason. It reflects the fear that if one admits that the Sages were humans – albeit very wise ones – and that they erred in scientific knowledge, someone could suggest that their views on religion were also in error.

One can appreciate the fear of these ultra-conservatives based on what is at stake. Nevertheless, to me, the very idea that someone would defend a practice that by any reasonable modern standard is dangerous to infants – that has in fact killed a number of infant Jewish boys over the years – in order to support a misguided view of the Talmudic Sages’ infallibility is unfathomable. One cannot hide one’s head in the sand and protect an outdated and fictitious worldview at the expense of the lives of our sons. No matter how small the percentage of deaths may be – and it is admittedly rather small – it is an unacceptable cost for such a paltry return.

Additionally, it appears to me that claiming the performance of meẓiẓah is part of the mitzvah should be considered a distortion of the mitzvah itself. One who makes this claim, despite the obvious evidence from the Talmud to the contrary, is in serious danger of violating the prohibition of bal tosif – the prohibition of adding on to the mitzvot of the Torah. It is well known that one of the categories of this prohibition is changing the form of a mitzvah; the claim that meẓiẓah is a milah-requirement and not a safety-requirement does just that — it changes the form of the mitzvah.

Finally, the ḥillul ha-shem (desecration of God’s name) factor cannot be ignored. Religion in our society is constantly under a microscope. Although Judaism and Torah observance often requires acts that have no objective basis in empirical observation, stemming instead from revelation or tradition, we want to make evident that our religion is not harmful. In the current climate circumcision is controversial enough; the helpful vs. harmful aspects of the practice are being debated in a number of societies across the world even now.

Since circumcision is a Torah commandment as well as a core identity marker for Jews, we have defended this practice – and will continue to do so – in every conceivable manner. However, why should we defend meẓiẓah be-peh, a practice which is not a mitzvah and contains no material benefit to the child, only harm? With medical journals publishing pieces like Benjamen Gesundheit et al.’s Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection after Jewish Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious TraditionPediatrics 114.2 (2004): 259-263 – the defense of circumcision becomes that much harder, and the idea of Jews being “a light unto the Nations” – well-nigh impossible.

What Would Rav Papa Say?

Perhaps the saddest irony is how the current practice of meẓiẓah be-peh utterly distorts the words of Rav Papa. Rav Papa’s great concern was the safety of Jewish infants, and it was for the sake of safety that he ruled that any mohel who does not perform meẓiẓah should be barred from practice. He believed that skipping this act would endanger the child. Nowadays we understand that the reverse is true: performing this act endangers the child.

If Rav Papa were around today, following his own logic, he would have said that any mohel who touches the open wound without gloves and sterilized instruments – including with his mouth to perform the outdated and discredited medical practice of sucking at an open wound – must be barred from practice. Every mohel who practices meẓiẓah be-peh nowadays is really accomplishing the opposite of what Rav Papa wanted. Moreover, any mohel who does so  without ensuring that he has a clean bill of health, thereby, risking the life an infant Jewish boy in the name of Rav Papa, is, in fact, driving a knife into the very heart of Rav Papa himself. A greater insult to a greater man is hardly imaginable.

Suggested Policy

Since this issue cannot be settled with blog-posts and articles, I would like to suggest some practical steps:

For those who cannot accept my interpretation of the halakha and believe that meẓiẓah be-peh is required, and that a pipet or a sponge would not be sufficient – I implore you: at least adopt the clean-bill-of-health model. Consult with physicians and design a healthiness licensing system for your mohalim.

For those that do accept my reading of the halakha – and I assume this is the overwhelming majority of the Modern Orthodox community – we should reject the practice altogether. Meẓiẓah be-peh – at least without the mohel having attained a “clean-bill-of-health” – should be declared a sakkanat nefashot (a life-threatening danger), as it already has been by the New York City Department of Health, and a gratuitous one.

The simple understanding of halakha is that meẓiẓah is not a mitzvah and there are other ways to accomplish it even if it were. Therefore, I suggest the following policies be established in our communities.

  1. Our members will not use mohalim that do meẓiẓah be-peh. Only mohalim that follow either the meẓiẓah-equivalent model (i.e. no meẓiẓah just bandages and sterilization) or ritual-meẓiẓah model (pipet or some other indirect method) will be used.
  2. Our rabbis will not officiate at any brit that has a mohel that does meẓiẓah be-peh.
  3. Our synagogues will not allow the use of our sanctuaries, social halls or any part of our buildings for a brit if there will be meẓiẓah be-peh, at least until such time as these mohalim have instituted an acceptable clean-bill-of-health model.

This is a matter of the safety of our children, and we are accountable for any child that is hurt or dies because we were not strict about this. It is my fervent hope that in taking a strong stance on this issue, all Jewish communities will eventually follow suit. In a matter of life or death, with so much to lose and so little to gain, can we really afford to do less?

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta

[1] For a thorough discussion of this, see Dr. Shlomo Sprecher, “Meiah be-Peh – Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?” akirah 3 (2006): 15-66. I make much use of this excellent article in this blog-post. Also see some of the response letters in akirah 4, especially those of Dr. Marc Shapiro, Dr. Debby Koren and, of course, Dr. Sprecher’s response. For an approach similar to the one I am taking in this article, see Cantor Philip Sherman’s Metzitzah B’Peh-Oral Law? that appeared in Conversations 6, as well as on the Jewishideas website.

Purim’s Gift, by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

March 6, 2012

I remember the Purim that fell during the year that I was mourning the loss of my father. Early on, I mentioned to my wife that I just wasn’t going to be in the mood to go to the Purim Seuda being held at shul, and she lovingly and generously offered to make a low-key Seudah at home with just family and maybe some close friends. But I turned this offer down as well, and wound up eating the Seuda by myself, in the kitchen. Which for me at least, felt about right.

 Halachikly – and more than just halachikly – Purim isn’t Yom Tov. The arrival of Purim does not terminate a shiva or a shloshim that is in progress, the way that the arrival of a Yom Tov does.  And the Halacha concerning the mourner and the Purim Seuda is actually rather unworked out, with opinions ranging the gamut. This is very different from Yom Tov meals, which even a mourner is to enjoy in the company of family and friends. There’s clearly a fundamental difference between the nature of the joy of Yom Tov, and the nature of the joy of Purim.

 This difference is expressed in another way as well. Purim features this very unusual encouragement toward drunkenness, raucous noisemaking, and the wearing of masks and costumes, none of which are associated with the joy of Yom Tov. Which leaves us asking, “What exactly IS Purim? And what exactly are we doing when we celebrate it? “

 I remember once hearing a theory, quoted in the name of Rabbi Soloveitchik, which explained the distinction between the joy of Yom Tov and the joy Purim. The joy of Yom Tov – ideally at least – is organic, naturally occurring. On the anniversary of our redemption from slavery, or on the anniversary of the Revelation, or as we sit beneath the schach, and celebrate the plenty with which we’ve been blessed, the joy wells up within us, organically, almost irrepressibly. “And you shall rejoice on your festivals” is as much a description of what will be, as it is a command.   And when this organic state of joy collides for someone with his or her personal state of mourning, the Halacha presumes that one of them must step aside for the other.  And by halachik tradition, it is the mourning that yields, and the joy that is given expression. This is also the reason that there’s no need to artificially manufacture joy on Yom Tov through wearing outlandish costumes or imbibing intoxicating amounts of drink. The joy is there; it’s in the glow on everyone’s faces as they recite Kiddush at the Seder, or sit down at the table that first night in the Sukkah

 But the nature of Purim, the joy of Purim, is entirely different. This was first expressed in the Talmud, which notes that we don’t recite Hallel on Purim. Why was Purim not a day of Hallel?  Because on the day after the great victory over our foes, we woke up to find ourselves still in Shushan, still ruled the “great fool”, as the Sages delicately refer to Achashverosh. We knew that the next Haman could already be waiting in the wings. We had dodged a bullet this time, but there was no guarantee that there wasn’t going to be a next time.

 As my friend Joelle Keene put in a 1997 column in the short-lived but much-beloved Jewish Voice of Greater Los Angeles,

 “On Purim we are giddy the way people are giddy after narrowly escaping a car crash, or following a biopsy that came back normal. Contained in that kind of relief is the freshly irrefutable evidence that we’re terribly, terribly vulnerable. In Shushan, a whole community came within a hair’s breadth of annihilation. Next time we may not be so lucky, and in other places and times, we haven’t been.”

 Purim does not generate organic, naturally-occurring joy. As such, there is no head-on emotional collision between Purim and mourning, There is no need for mourning to give way. The two will co-exist, awkwardly perhaps, but without pushing one another off the table. And this is why Purim is characterized by noisemaking, costume-wearing and even drinking. We need to consciously manufacture the joy, to work ourselves up into a state of celebration, to employ external stimulants to bring us into the Yom Tov proclaimed by Esther and Mordechai – the Yom Tov beneath whose surface vulnerability stubbornly lurks.

 But if this is so, what is the point of celebrating Purim at all? Why push ourselves to feel a state of joy? The answer, I think, is that Purim is a metaphor for life. And life must be celebrated.

 I won’t ever forget what seemed at the time to be an unremarkable visit to 7/11 a little over a decade ago. Our older boys (12 and 8 at the time) were negotiating loudly and insistently with my wife over what size Slurpees that were entitled to, all while she holding our infant, who was crying. I was standing at the cash register looking exasperated, doing all I could to contain myself as I said, “two medium Slurpees, please”. The man at the cash register looked up at me and without even a hint of sarcasm said, “You are a very lucky man”.   Six words out of the mouth of a stranger. The best “mussar shmooes” I have received in my life.

 Purim’s gift was not liberation from slavery, or the hearing of God’s voice from atop the mountain. Purim’s gift was not the recapturing of the Temple from the hands of Antiouchus and the Syrian-Greeks. Purim’s gift was simply giving people a new lease on their ordinary, everyday lives. The upshot of the Purim story was that the Jews of Persia were given the renewed opportunity to go to work and to derive the satisfaction that their work brought to them, to experience the warmth of friendship, and the intimacy of family. They were given the gift of more days of ordinary, everyday life. It’s true that when our alarm clock rings at 6:30 AM at the beginning of another ordinary day, we aren’t usually possessed of irrepressible, Yom Tov-like joy. But on the 14th of Adar many years ago we realized that we would do well to find a way to celebrate the blessing of ordinary days. And we understood that if we are unable to arouse ourselves to celebrate ordinary living, than we are probably not really living at all.

 This is the reason that we work so hard to rejoice on Purim. This is what we are doing when we celebrate the day.  And yes, the ways we celebrate Purim are over the top, an extreme effort at generating joy. But that’s because we need for Purim to echo through a whole year of ordinary, regular days, till Purim comes round to remind us again.

From Washington to Reality, with Rabbi Asher Lopatin

March 2, 2012

We have been hearing of snow in Hevron and Jerusalem, while in DC it was dreary and rainy the whole day of our meetings with the State Department, White House and Congress. We actually started at the Indonesian Embassy, where, as in Indonesia itself, everyone was smiling and welcoming. I really felt at home there, and they even had toothbrushes and toothpastes for us to use to clean up after the long flight from Tel Aviv and Newark.

Imam Yahya Hendi who was born in Nablus and apparently didn’t have the right documentation to enter Israel, lucked out in one way: he flew back via Amman on the non-stop United Airlines flight right to Washington DC. So he looked a bit fresher than we did. There were some miscommunications and some unclear signals that went on which caused Imam Hendi not being allowed into Israel over the Allenby bridge from Jordan. He was able to come into Ramallah where we saw him on Sunday, and the Israel Foreign Ministry said that they got him all the documents necessary by Sunday to get him into Israel. He claimed that he still couldn’t leave from Tel Aviv with the rest of us, and would have had to go back to Jordan to leave. Israel needs to be allowed to establish laws that protect her citizens, and this may very well be one of them. At the same time, holding Imam Hendi back was seen by many in our delegation as an act of insensitivity and randomness, and it was seen in the context of the security people in Tel Aviv still opening suitcases and giving people what they saw as a hard time, despite having letters and representatives from the Foreign Ministry right there in the airport.

It hurt me to see Israel criticized for just trying to keep suicide bombers out of Israel and off of airplanes. But it also hurt me to see Israel losing an opportunity for showing Indonesians, Muslims and Christians was a moral and accepting country Israel really is. And if the agents at Ben Gurion or at the border would have been more professional, less hard and cold, even smiled more, maybe it would have helped. One of the American Imams on the trip made a lot of sense when he talked about applying the sensitivity training to Israeli security that American TSA officers needed to be trained in. My guess is that while some actions Israeli border security agents use are important to the safety of Israel, there isn’t as much concern to make sure that people feel respected and comfortable. Of course I understand that saving a life is more important than not offending someone. But I think you can do both. Anyway, the reality is that people understood that Israel is a democracy, and they met many people in Israel that they felt were working on fixing things that were wrong. These border issues are just an extra drag in the wrong direction for Israel, but Israel itself will have to find the right balance – not a rabbi heading back to Chicago or an Imam in Washington DC. I just don’t like to see a weakness in Israel’s profile being taken advantage of.

Anyway, after arriving pretty ragged, everyone managed to clean up well and we arrived at the State Department looking just fine everyone dressed up as is the custom in Washington. People kvetched about the border crossing and access issues (there were some riots in Al-Aktza that freaked out some member of the group – having to hear gunshots, having to leave early) and being profiled at Ben Gurion. Wendy Sherman, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs came into our meeting for 15 minutes and did a great job of diffusing this issue by saying that her own son (or grandson?) was detained for two hours because his name was similar to one on the terrorist list. So it even happens in America, the land of liberty and freedom! The State Dept. also gave us coffee, tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies – and they let us take them into the session even though the sign said no food or drink in the conference room. Thank you State Dept. – shows impressive sensitivity and flexibility!

From State we went back to the Indonesian Embassy for lunch. In addition to the great Indonesian food, they brought in deli from Eli’s Kosher restaurant in DC – right nearby the embassy in Dupont Circle. This was very special: I felt so welcomed by this gesture. In Indonesia and Jordan I had to bring tuna fish and mayo from the States. It wasn’t difficult to bring deli from a few blocks away, but they did it with such enthusiasm and warmth that I really saw the Indonesians as they wanted to be seen: caring, open minded, tolerant and flexible. This lunch in the embassy was openness to diversity at its best.

The rest of the day consisted of meetings with the White House where basically the White House rep. to the Jewish community and to the Arab community just told us how important peace in the Middle East was and how concern President Obama was to help the parties achieve that peace. That was their job, and they did what they were supposed to do. At Congress, we were addressed by Congressman Keith Elisson – the first Muslim in Congress – and Rep. Jim McDermott – a very nice, non-Indonesian looking congressman who heads the Indonesian caucus. Go figure. And for this entire time, Ambassador Dr. Dino Djalal from Indonesia was with is – with his wonderful wife. We felt that this mission was important to him, and he took pride in it, and to have his wife there added to his honoring us. I am so grateful to him for his graciousness and courage in pushing this Indonesian and multi-faith mission forward. He acknowledged how much he hoped that one day Indonesia could have relations with Israel, and his wife sincerely said how much she hoped to make it to Jerusalem.

Two more things before flying back to Chicago armed with Kosher Krispy Kremes for Rachel and the Lopatin kids: First, the goodbye was so powerful for me. I kissed so many of my new Indonesian friends and teachers. These are thoughtful people, and I felt they opened up to me, so I felt connected to them. One of them, Dr. Richard, wants me to come back to Indonesia to teach in his seminary for a few weeks – religion, political science, and anything else I was interested in. He and his fellow Christians and Muslims from Indonesia spoke of making Judaism officially the seventh recognized religion of Indonesia! For that I would come back – but I haven’t spoken to Rachel about it yet…

Secondly, an interesting incident that occurred at lunch in the Embassy. We were talking about the Al-Aktza mosque and whether the Dome of the Rock was a mosque or not, and one of the moderate, open minded American imams declared that the entire elevated area – the area that is called the Temple Mount – is all considered the Al-Aktza mosque. This discussion connected with my declaration that any peace treaty should allow Jews to go up and pray Jewish prayers on the Temple Mount, and, long term, Jews should be allowed to build a synagogue up there, along side the mosques. Well, this really got the Imam angry, and he said that any talk like that was a non-started and it would kill any peace efforts – “not one Muslim would allow for that.” Sharing the “Haram ashSharif” – the Temple Mount, now considered by him in its entirety a great mosque – would be tantamount to tearing down the mosque itself. I argued that this is the holiest place on earth for Jews, and he argued that it was a mosque. Clearly there is a lot of work to do when the most open minded and tolerant Muslims declare Jews persona-non-grata at their holiest site. It was sobering, and a bit sad. Luckily, one of the other Imams – older and more experienced with interfaith work – said that this model, of sharing a mosque and a synagogue, was slowly and quietly being developed in America. One day, he said, it could be exported, and that it was a model that perhaps could be used on the Temple Mount. But on the other hand, could we get our Jewish brothers and sisters to agree that a mosque would legitimately remain on the Temple Mount? And what about Christian worship on the Temple Mount? Should we advocate for that?

Lots of questions on this trip. But also so much hope that we can share the holiest land on earth, God’s home, as it were. I really believe that religious leaders of all types can help lead the way in showing how much we need each other and how much we can come together even if we disagree in fundamental ways. Beyond that, the fact that a Zionist American Jew could bond with Christian and Muslim Indonesian leaders – well, Israelis and Palestinians may be able to do it as well. Israel can never let down its guard and its purpose in being the Homeland of the Jews and the safe haven for the Jewish people. But from this trip I hope that maybe one day Palestinians will be a help rather than a threat to this Jewish State, and the Jewish State, the Jewish Homeland will “davka” – precisely be the vehicle by which Palestinians realize their aspirations which have been denied by the Arab states around them for six decades.

As Shabbat comes in on a rainy Chicago, I pray for the peace of Jerusalem as my fellow Jews have prayed for 3000 years, and as other religions have prayed as well. I feel blessed to have been invited on this trip of discovery, and as a Jew living in an era of a proud, moral and thriving Jewish state, I feel blessed to be have been able to show my fellow religious leaders that God has comforted God’s People, and blessed them with a showcase to the world, with a land that will one day model peace and tranquility.

Shabbat shalom and Shalom al Yisrael.