Rabbis and Statistics

Metzitzah b’peh, which is the oral to genital suction done by charedim during the circumcision ritual in which a mohel places his mouth on the place where the foreskin was severed to, according to tradition, cleanse it by sucking out a drop of blood, has made the New York Times and not in a positive way. Just a few days ago the New York Daily News reported that an infant died of herpes at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn after he contracted the disease from the mohel who did his bris. The New York City Medical Examiner confirmed that this is how the child died and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office has initiated an investigation. The Times and others are reporting that the infant’s family is stonewalling the investigation and refusing to cooperate. There are also rumors, none publicly confirmed by any investigation that has been officially reported that this is not the only recent case where a newly circumcised infant died from the Herpes virus as a result of Metzitzah b’peh.

There have been other such cases which occurred about six to seven years ago when the New York State Health Department attempted to outlaw this direct oral to genital procedure. The attempt was shot down by two powerful groups. These groups were Satmar Chasidim in Williamsburg and Agudas Yisroel, the umbrella organization for charedi groups. Rabbi David Zweibel, Executive Director of Agudas Yisroel, was quoted in several Israeli papers and in the New York Times as remaining highly supportive of metzitzah b’peh which he referred to by implication as the truest form of a bris despite the other tradition to use a cannula or very fine straw to draw out a small drop of the infants blood thereby avoiding direct contact and maintaining a significantly more sterile and safe approach.

In his quotes Rabbi Zweibel stated that legislating against direct oral to genital contact at a bris “will only serve to drive it underground.” He went on further to state that fully “two thirds of those who have a bris (had it done via) metzitzah b’peh.” He went on to further state that this two thirds amount was based on a calculation of all the boys who attend yeshiva.

I know that today is Purim and when I first heard this quote I thought that perhaps this is some sort of Purim Torah, a humorous misinterpretation of real Torah. But, no that is not what he was doing. His comments were apparently in earnest. So in all earnestness I wish to ask Rabbi Zweibel, who is in fact a well educated individual with a law degree, – Huh???? When he speaks of two thirds and yeshivas is his talking about Willaimsburg, Boro Park, a combination of those two relatively small locales, all of Brooklyn? He could not possibly be speaking of all of New York City, the chareidi community in Israel or, could he? Did he survey the children at their bris, their parents or the mohels that performed them to determine if his number is correct? Did he even survey a small representative sample? Would Agudas Yisroel even allow the possibility of such a survey?

The answers to my questions are clearly “no.” There have never been and will likely ever be such a survey that is sanctioned by the leadership which is highly vested in maintaining a status quo despite scientific advances that may help their communities. So I did a very brief survey of my Orthodox community. I contacted some mohels that perform bris most frequently. Not a single one of them does metzitzah b’peh. I was also told that there is one mohel who does metzitzah b’peh but he resides out of the community and he performs a bris only on very rare occasions as most parents are loathe to risk the procedure.

In late 2007 into 2008 another official of Agudas Yisroel contacted me after I had reported on abuse cases in the Orthodox world. He vehemently attacked me in a derogatory fashion and insisted that my statement that “there is every reason to believe that abuse occurs in the orthodox world as frequently as it does in other communities” was a fabrication. His statistical evidence was predicated on the fact that “a Torah true Jew would never act in this manner.”  An attempt to show him how I arrived at my findings and the vast approach using surveys that were available along with a collection of clinical data fell not on deaf ears but on increasingly vigorous attacks against me. I broke off contact with him.

 Recently my latest book Abuse in the Jewish Community was published. Following a radio show that I was invited on to discuss the book this Rabbi again contacted me. He wanted to know why I stated that abuse is worse in the Orthodox community on the show. I asked him if he had listened to the show. He said that he did not. “So how can you possibly accuse? I asked him.” He responded that based on our conversations a few years ago he assumed that I was still advocating this position. I responded by sending him a copy of an E mail which stated my findings that I sent him in 2008 and told him that my position that the rates are likely the same in most communities has not changed. His response to me was that he “just wanted to seek the truth and (I) wanted to fume.”

Seekers of truth do not misrepresent data nor do they attack those who report information that may cause a reevaluation of long held beliefs. Statistics can be massaged but denying their existence or creating them from whole cloth is fabrication. One is part of the scientific method the other is a lie.


About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."