The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Talmud meets viruses, sank by same

Watch what you suck, fella. God may be watching--It would be harder to find a better topic to start off the autumn blogging with than circumcision. I knew you’d agree.

There is a minor brouhaha going on in New York City--and I say minor because it involves a small minority of one community and the issue is clear cut--over an ancient and totally discredited practice involving a mohel, the rabbi who performs circumcisions. The issue is not, I emphasize, circumcision--it involves how it is done. Circumcision binds a Jewish male to the covenant with God and is mandated in the Torah, the five books of Moses. It defines a jewish male. Except for a small group of disconnects, the practice is not controversial in the Jewish community, including among those of us who have had one. There also are clear medical benefits.

Mohels are rabbis trained in the practice. Most are Orthodox but that does not limit their practice. Virtually all Jewish families (perhaps as many as 90%) hire a mohel eight days after the birth of a son. The whole family shows up, the mother leaves the room in terror, the baby (usually anesthetized on wine-soaked cotton) cries, and the whole thing is over in a matter of seconds. The food is usually excellent.

Enter Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, 57, a mohel in New York City. Three boys, one in Staten Island and twins in Brooklyn, contracted Type-1 herpes after Fischer did the procedure. Using an ancient technique mentioned in the Talmud, Fischer used oral suction to stop the bleeding of the penis. I don’t have pictures. One of the boys involved died of the infection, which can be lethal to infants. It is possible Fischer had a cold sore when he performed the oral suction and the virus was transmitted through his saliva. The practice has been condemned as unsanitary since the 19th century, has been abandoned by most Orthodox mohels and is rejected by nearly every non-Orthodox authority. Using a tube for suction is now the norm and is endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinic association. Use of oral suction now resides exclusively in charedi (ultra-Orthodox) communities such as the Hassidim, where it is considered integral to the procedure. These communities say they have no intention of stopping the practice.

(Keep in mind that endangering the life of a child--or any other human for that matter--is the gravest of sins in Jewish law so these people are several entrees short of a kosher combo plate.)

Since February, Fischer has been under court order not to perform the ritual in the city while the health department investigates.

That would seem to be a slam-dunk, but this is New York City and this is an election year. The charedi community is in high dudgeon over the interference by the city and there are a lot of them in New York, particularly in Brooklyn. So, when they pressured Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is, of course, Jewish, and is running for reelection) for a meeting, he acceded to their request and afterwards issued a statement that sets new records for pandering:

“We’re going to do a study, and make sure that everybody is safe and at the same time, it is not the government’s business to tell people how to practice their religion.”

Yes, but:

• The study already has been done and was published in the journal Pediatrics. There have been eight neonatal infections all traced to oral suction.

• It most certainly is the business of the government to intervene in religious matters when lives are at stake. If a witch doctor in Queens started practicing unsaniary female circumcision and was endangering the lives of girls in the city, would the government say it couldn’t interfere? Alas, there are few witch doctors who vote in New York City.

• And keep in mind, no matter what the charedi rabbis say, the practice violates basic Jewish law. When they wrote the Talmud they didn't know about viruses.

Then again, it is an election year. He is a very wealthy man, and he got wealthy by character and intelligence. He seems to have parked it when he became a politician.

By the way, Christopher Hitchens, with whom I disagree often but also read often, has a column on this is Slate and he is absolutely correct this time.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Flying over Kansas

For those of you following the creationism and intelligent design stuff, here is another website worth bookmarking, along with Panda's Thumb. It's here, CSICOP's Creation and Intelligent Design Watch.

If you live in Kansas, you get a discount.