Monday, May 27, 2024

Bris Milah And Mohalim Puncturing The Propaganda

Due to the severe backlogging of court cases caused by Hurricane Sandy, the hearing over the law requiring mohelim to obtain parents' “informed consent” before performing metzitzah b'peh has been rescheduled for December 12. In the meantime, the temporary stay on the “consent” rule has been extended, with the government agreeing not to enforce this regulation until oral arguments are heard. The delay has spurred activism in the Jewish community aimed at raising community awareness about the high stakes involved in the battle over mbp; and what lies behind the City's efforts to abolish it.

Fiery editorials in the frum media outlets have slammed the government’s unprecedented intrusion into the religious sphere. Jewish leaders have lashed out at Mayor Bloomberg for flaunting his disdain for “men in black hats,” as he referred to Orthodox Jews who have formed a coalition to protect mbp.  

 Experts in epidemiology, statistics and infectious disease have enlightened the public about the incompetence of the Morbidity and Mortality Report issued by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) that asserts that MBP is unsafe.


Their highlighting of the report’s deficiencies has undercut DOH arguments that “informed consent” is necessary to protect Jewish babies of religious parents from HSV-1.


The City’s selective concern over Jewish newborns to the point where officials are willing to trample religious freedom in the name of safeguarding their health continues to mystify. Why do only Jewish baby boys merit such heroics? Why have no comparable measures been executed to isolate risk factors imperiling the far greater population of uncircumcised babies? Are they not as important?




The warnings of rabbonim as well as legal experts that a government victory in abolishing mbp will set a dangerous precedent are gradually filtering down to the grassroots. People are beginning to understand that the “consent” rule [What’s the big deal? Just sign the consent form and forget it!] is far from harmless. 


History has shown that attacks on religious practices such as shechitah and bris milah invariably appear first in a humanitarian guise, aimed at disarming or softening up the public. These turn out to be stepping stones in a broader game plan, quickly followed by escalating encroachment.


Realization is taking root that embedded in the government assault on mbp, disguised as concern for the health of Jewish baby boys, are designs on bris milah itself. Consider the advice from the CDC, urging parents to choose hospital circumcisions as an alternative to bris milah, in view of the need to perform the procedure in a “sterile environment,” with “surgical gloves.” Sounds perfectly innocuous, right?  


But is it? If the DOH regulations against mbp are allowed to stand, critics say, they will open the floodgates to more far-reaching restrictions on bris milah, fueled by pernicious slander against mohelim and mbp. Today’s advice to choose hospital circumcision over bris milah will very likely not remain mere advice. It will morph into tomorrow’s laws mandatinghospital circumcisions only. All in the name of protecting Jewish baby boys, of course.




The “drip-drip effect” of the slander against mbp and mohelim has already eroded respect for bris milah outside the religious community, says Rabbi Levi Heber, director of the IBA (International Bris Association).


The Brooklyn-based organization, which together with Agudath Israel and Satmar, represents the organizational plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the City, is dedicated to providing Jewish children with a proper bris. Its hundreds of trained mohelim service Jewish communities and individual families across the United States, as well as overseas.


At last month’s press conference of frum media outlets, Rabbi Heber spoke of the “chilling effect” of the City’s anti-metzitzah campaign on the wider public’s perception of bris milah.


“This is not a local issue just here in New York,” he said. “It has international implications–which is what inspired the coalition behind the lawsuit.”


He said the libel about metzitzah has been devastating to the image of mohelim, casting them as religious fanatics who willingly put babies at risk by performing mbp. “When mohelim are maligned, all of Klal Yisroel suffers,” he said.


“Jews outside of religious circles lose respect for one of the most fundamental of all the Torah’s mitzvos. Whereas once these people might have chosen bris milah for their baby, they may now opt for hospital circumcision, buying the notion that it’s safer.


“They don’t realize that the hospital procedure has nothing to do with the mitzvah of bris milah and that it’s not only not safer, but is a painful and harrowing ordeal for the baby,” Rabbi Heber elaborated in an interview with Yated.


“Hospitals use a painful clamp that crushes the foreskin to enable a ‘bloodless circumcision,’” he explained. “The baby is strapped down to a board, feet and hands under restraints. He’s stuck under glaring lights, clamped and pulled and poked. This is a drawn-out process taking up to 15 minutes or more. Bris milah by a competent mohel, on the other hand, is lighting swift. The baby is cushioned on a soft pillow in the loving arms of a sandek, surrounded by people who cherish him.


“If all I knew about circumcision was what goes on in a hospital circumcision,” Rabbi Heber said, “I too would be out there with the protesters, demonstrating against it.”




Addressing the negative image of mohelim parlayed by the DOH and a compliant media, he said, “it’s utterly absurd that these outstanding individuals who do so much good are demonized. So many mohelim willingly travel great distances at their own expense and often at considerable inconvenience to perform a bris. Often they receive no compensation. At times it means leaving their families for Shabbos. They do this out of love for the mitzvah and love for fellow Jews.”


The IBA director’s work as a mohel brings him into frequent contact with Jews from all backgrounds, many of whom are not observant or only minimally so, but who desire a traditional bris for their baby. He and his colleagues have traveled to Peru, China, Costa Rica, Panama and New Zealand to perform brissen.


In the United States they have crisscrossed the country to respond to calls for a mohel. They’ve journeyed to places like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Mason, Ohio; Canton, Mass; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Mequon, Wisconsin and many other far-flung locations, where often the only recognizably Jewish presence is a Chabad shaliach and his family.


“Where the City’s smear campaign against mohelim has not infected people, a mohel is respected as a religious, principled person, a spiritual role model. He’s viewed as knowledgeable and skilled, someone you can trust,” said Rabbi Heber.


“Many of the Jews that reach out to us in places like these are estranged from their roots, but they often experience a spiritual stirring with the birth of their first child,” he said. “When we go down there to do a bris, we try to take advantage of this stirring of the neshoma to bring the family closer to Torah. The occasion becomes a gateway to connecting them with their Jewish identity.”


A mohel on his way to Mequon, Wisconsin, or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, makes sure to pack along a mezuzah, tallis and tefillin, Shabbos candles and other ritual objects.


“When the heart is open, there is a willingness to learn and to embrace the spiritual,” said Rabbi Heber. “We lay tefillin on the father and sandek, if they are willing, and explain how this mitzvah binds a person to His Creator. We explain to the parents that with the bris milah, their baby now carries the mark of G-d’s eternal covenant, and this connects him to the chain of Jewish generations. We suggest putting up a mezuzah as it will provide their child and the entire home with spiritual protection. We help them mount it and say the brochos.”


The mohel offers the mother candles and explains that lighting the candles before sundown every Friday is an opportunity to bring holiness into the home; an opportunity to bless her child with the sanctity of the Shabbos.


“We try to follow up to the best of our ability,” said Rabbi Heber. “If there is a shaliach in town, we give him the family’s name and trust that he’ll stay in touch with them and try to bring them closer.”




In one memorable case, Rabbi Heber recalled, he was asked to perform a bris for the baby of a young mother who had grown up without any Jewish background and married a non-Jew. Shortly after her marriage, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.


“Motherhood awakened in her a desire to explore her Jewish roots,” Rabbi Heber recalled. “She began to study on her own, and as she drew a little closer to Yiddishkeit, it ate away at her that her son was uncircumcised. As her baby turned a year old, she longed to give him a bris milah but anticipating her husband’s fierce opposition, was too afraid to have it done.


Someone put her in touch with the IBA and Rabbi Heber learned of her story. After checking the legal angles with a lawyer, he discussed with the mother various ways the bris could be done without her husband’s knowledge. She decided to have it done secretly in a shul close to her city, and that if any questions arose, she would explain that the baby had needed a minor procedure and it was performed successfully without hospitalization.  


“I traveled there and on erev Rosh Hashana, we did the bris in the shul, with a minyan of Jews whom we were able to pull together. They all understood the need to keep it quiet,” Rabbi Heber recalled.


“The baby was old enough to sit up, to cry at being separated from his mother and to call for her. I could sense the mother’s tension. Her willingness to entrust me with her baby, to swallow her anxiety over him because of longing to do this mitzvah, was a special kind of mesiras nefesh I’ll never forget.”




In a similar vein, Rabbi Heber shared with this writer an email from a colleague who had traveled a great distance from his home to perform a bris in Orlando, Fla. In the writer’s description of the episode below, one is again struck by the presence of unsung heroes –a mother who is a virtual stranger to Yiddishkeit who insists on having her baby circumcised by “a rabbi who will do it right” —and the mohel who considers it an honor to respond to that call.


Dear Levi;


I was very pleased to get the phone call from you on Sunday to ask me to do the bris for your organization. Thank you for putting in the hours of research to find out if the baby is Jewish or not, and thank you for getting in touch with the shaliachand letting him know I was coming.


I just wanted to give you an overview of what happened during the two days of dealing with the bris. First of all, I found out the mother was the one fighting for a rabbi to come there to do the bris, as opposed to having it done by a doctor in the hospital. But she was nervous not knowing which rabbi it would be, and if it would be someone they could feel confidence in. On Sunday, I spoke to her three times over the phone, answered questions and went through the whole procedure until I felt I really gained her confidence.


When I got to Orlando and spoke to the shaliach,I asked him to bring kosher food, just some wine and hamotzi.With tremendous generosity, he brought a full seudaand stayed on for the whole ceremony. That helped make the occasion a really beautiful experience.


While I was waiting for the bleeding to stop and to replace the bandage, I spoke to the father who shared with me some of the difficulties he’s in. He told me he got laid off from his last job, and moved to Orlando only recently. He was opposed to bringing down a rabbi to do the bris. He told his wife they don’t have enough money to afford a rabbi, knowing it would cost hundreds of dollars. He would have had it done in a hospital. But she insisted on a rabbi “who would do it right.” It was just very important to her. And he’s glad he agreed.


He was so appreciative that we did the brisfor free; and how he was being treated by us, myself and the shaliach, like he’s a family member of ours. And he noticed how gently we handled the baby and our concern for him.


It was nice speaking to the parents and grandparents and finding out about their Jewish history. We saw their Jewish pride come to life. They told us that meeting us was like meeting a member of a long last family–there are so few Jews in their family circle! The mother texted me that night just to thank me, and tell me in what good hands she felt she as in, and how much she appreciated my concern for her and the baby.


Levi, I wanted to let you know what an amazing experience it was to travel there for the opportunity to do such a big mitzvah, and I appreciate your giving me this zechus. I hope to be able to help you out in the future again. It did cost me an extra $300 to go all the way down there… If the fund is not empty and you can help me with that, great. If not, it’s okay. It was worth it. Thanks again. LW




Through the prism of the above vignettes, one has a glimpse of countless Jews across heartland America who, despite their lack of Jewish education, continue to harbor a spiritual pull toward bris milah that defies logic. This mitzvah often galvanizes the family to learn about their heritage and to strengthen their ties to their people.


If the City’s “informed consent” rule prevails, the false assertions about mohelim and mbp will inevitably poison attitudes toward bris milah, blocking an estranged family’s access to Yiddishkeit through a vital “entry point.” How long will the stubborn loyalty to this sacred mitzvah in the hearts of unaffiliated Jews endure?



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