It is important to take a step back and clarify terms. As people with a fanatical devotion to any religious position will ensure happens, terms of reference often get muddied up, the better to accuse opponents of crimes they have no intention of committing and thereby avoiding serious debate on the subject.
Therefore let me be up front with my definitions. I have no interest in abolishing MBP. I am not stating that it is a halachically recommended part of the bris milah process. Clear?
I also would like to point out there are four options when it comes to MBP. First, there is the option of not doing it. This is not as outrageous as some would like to portray it. First of all, the Gemara makes it clear that it holds metzitzah to not be an essential part of the circumcision process which it ends with p'riah, the retraction of the membrane over the glans. The purpose of metzitzah is one of hygeine and health safety following the procedure. The Gemara also recommends, for example, putting cumin powder on the incision which is not something we do anymore and no one suggests it is an inviolable part of the bris milah. Throughout history there have been poskim who have suggested not doing metzizah for various reasons. They are not in the majority but their authority does carry some weight.
A second option is to do it through pressure, for example placing a sponge on the incision and using that to suction blood. This follows the letter of the requirement precisely. According to the Gemara it is the removal of blood from the incision that creates the health benefit and the sponge does it.
The third option is do to the time-honoured act of direct MBP which involves lip-to-penis contact and the use of inhalatory suction to pull the blood out. The final one is to do the same thing but with an intervening sterile device like a syringe barrel or pipette.
The problem is that the importance of metzitzah and how it's performed does not end with the Gemara. In the Zohar and other Kabbalistic literature metzitzah takes on a whole new importance and becomes an essential part of the bris milah procedure. And not just any old way but direct MBP and nothing else aligns the sefiros and brings forth the heavenly shefa that the baby needs.
As a result nowadays we are often presented with the position that direct MBP is not only the oldest form of metzitzah but that it's an unqualified fact that it's the only way to properly do it.
This is not true. When one investigates the halachic literature one finds multiple poskim, many of whom post-date the "appearance" of the Zohar, that hold like the Gemara and do not see it as essential. Others hold it is necessary but that it can be done with the sponge or pipette techniques and still be valid. Again, these authorities are more than balanced by those demanding direct MBP but they are still impressive in number and count among themselves many important Torah leaders. In other words it is not heretical to hold that indirect MBP is permissible.
Enter the herpes virus.
Herpes simplex is a nasty little virus. It comes in two basic flavours. Traditionally type 1 was associated with cold sores and type 2 with genital lesions. However, due to people putting their lips in places they don't belong over the last couple of centuries there is now plenty of overlap between the two. Most importantly, herpes is transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact and can shed from one person to another in the absence of a visible cold sore or blistering rash. In other words, a mohel who, on Thursday will develop a cold sore on his lower lip will be contagious at the bris he performs on Monday. After a suitable incubation period the infant will develop a herpes lesion at the site of contact and it will be 100% the mohel's fault.
So now the halachic debate begins. If the purpose of MBP is to prevent health complications but it itself has to potential to harm the infant then how can it be performed? If MBP is an essential part of the bris milah for mystical reasons then is the risk of herpes transmission acceptable in order to do the circumcision correctly?
There is ample support in our legal literature for the direct MBP position. What is truly a shame and what shows the weakness of direct MBP's supporters is their refusal to deal with the problem of herpes. Like historical revisionists who repaint history to support a pre-determined "We were all Chareidi until those blasted Reformers showed up" version the supporters of MBP resort to scientific revisionism in order to avoid the nasty implications their position implies. Hence we have Rav Avi Shafran's latest piece in which we find the following statement.
Yes, New York Mayor (a.k.a. “Nanny-in-Chief”) Michael Bloomberg, with the assistance of the New York Board of Health, has waged war on metzitza bipeh, claiming that it has been the cause of infections of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (the cold sore virus, carried by most of the population but which can be dangerous in babies). That fact was the extent of Mr. Savage’s research of the issue. But it has been compellingly asserted by objective scientists that the mayor and health board’s claims are without basis in factNow I generally try not to be (too) insulting when I disagree with someone on my blog. In this case I do not think it disrespectful to say this: Avi Shafran is a bold-faced liar. Period.
First of all, Mayor Bloomberg's "war" on MBP has consisted of asking mohels to get a signed consent from the parents of the infant before direct MBP has been performed. Secondly, the claims he dismisses as being without basis in fact are actually true. Shafran is lying, pure and simple. There is no question as to how herpes simplex is transmitted. There is no question about its contagiousness in the absence of a visible skin lesion. To say otherwise is to either be willfully informed or a liar.
Nor is Shafran's bolstering claim of any worth:
New York Westchester Hospital Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Daniel S. Berman, Beth Israel Hospital director of epidemiologic research Dr. Brenda Breuer and Columbia University Professor Awi Federgruen, an expert in quantitative methodology, have all publicly called into serious question the claim that metzitza bipeh represents any quantifiable danger to babiesWhen challenged by folks about their belief that the Earth is the centre of the universe and that the sun revolves around it instead of the other way around, contrary to the understanding of modern science, Chabadniks often mention a scientist named Velvel Greene. According to Chabad mythology Greene started off by dismissing the claims of the Rebbe, z"l, about a geocentric universe and other misconceptions based on 2000 year old scientific understandings and ended up believing as the Rebbe did. Therefore, they conclude, not all scientists believe in a heliocentric universe. There is authentic support for the Rebbe's position.
Yes, one scientist who, by the way, is not an astronomer.
If Stephen Hawking were to claim tomorrow that he has come to realize that gravity is a fiction or that it's not oxygen that keeps us alive but rather nitrogen his achievements and recognition would not matter. He would be dismissed for denying scientific fact. Shafran can find any number of Agudah toadies with medical degrees who are willing to lie or misrepresent scientific facts but that does just change those facts no more than Peter Duesberg was wrong when he claimed that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.
The proponents of direct MBP are probably not comfortable being told that insistence on their position in this day and age exposes defenseless infants to a virus that can cause life-threatening infections. Unable to refute this opposition rationally they become irrational and deny science. It does their side no favours to be exposed as liars and revisionists since it also draws into question the process they used in analyzing the halachici literature to come to their staunch direct-MBP-only position.
The saddest part is that the compromise position, indirect MBP, fulfills everything that metzitzah is supposed to accomplish. There is oral suction, there is drawing of blood from the wound and if the mohel really wants, he can then smear that blood on his lips without ever exposing the baby to any danger. But what kind of people refuse such an obvious accommodation while threatening harm to an infant and lying about that very danger?