by Ezer Smith
There has been some outrage recently over an Orthodox custom known as metzitzah b’peh, and justifiably so: The custom, during which the mohel sucks blood out of the circumcision wound with his mouth, has caused 11 cases of genital herpes in newborn boys since 2005. Two have died, and according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, some “became seriously ill” and others “developed brain damage.” This has prompted reactions from all areas of the journalistic and intellectual spectrum: Publications such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast have carried articles; Cantor Philip L. Sherman (a mohel) has included a short F.A.Q. about it on his website; Christopher Hitchens condemned it with his usual brand of anti-religion vitriol; and Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Brooklyn has defended it, staunchly and vigorously.
What has been left out of the discussion is the effect this sort of thing has on the Jewish community, particularly in New York City, but elsewhere as well. And by “this sort of thing,” I mean, in addition to this most recent episode of bad press, the now well-publicized tendency of Haredim in New York City to underreport (if at all) accounts of child molestation and sexual assault within their community. I mean the anti-Internet protests held by this same group of Haredim that filled a baseball stadium.
I realize that there are two sides to every debate: the Internet really can be corrosive and disgusting; metzitzah b’peh is a 5,000-year-old tradition; and the molestation issue can be satisfied with Jewish law and custom. These arguments, particularly the latter two, may sound hollow and even morally repugnant, but they are arguments nonetheless. They are a necessary part of any conversation about the issue; self-righteousness and ethical bombast, from either side, won’t solve anything. But many Haredim don’t seem to be concerned with ‘debate,’ much less respecting anyone else’s opinion. They believe that they are a sacred community, bound together by God’s sacred word, and that this entitles them to whatever societal system they want to use. I think the logic goes: “American society and the American political system cannot exist forever, but God, and God’s commandments, will.”
My usual response to opinions like these is to throw my hands up and walk away. If people hold to their views that relentlessly, there can be no hope for reconciliation. This case is an exception, however. The ultra-Orthodox are no isolated group: they are Jews, and Jews come in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities and ideologies. Whether they like it or not, at some level, these Haredim are lumped together with all the Reform, Conservative, Recontructionist, Sephardic, Humanistic and secular Jews the world over. This is what worries me: anything the Haredim do is tossed into the general category of ‘Jewish.’
At first blush, this may seem a bit selfish, and it is true that this problem does hold personal implications for me. At some level, as someone who defines “Jew” as “anyone who defines themselves as a Jew,” I really care for the Haredim. They are, for better or for worse, my brethren, my family. More than that, I think that they provide a unique perspective on Judaism and on life in general, one that must be considered. To marginalize or dismiss Haredi Jews is to do the same to their outlook, outdated and irrelevant as it may seem. I am for a Jewish tradition that welcomes all opinions, so as to let its members decide, after careful consideration, which one(s) suit them best.
This brings me to the problem of image as it relates to the broader Jewish community. Serious Orthodox Jews have never attempted to market themselves, and why should they? They have no dearth of new members: the birth rate per woman for Haredi Jews is around 6.5, comparable to that of Afghanistan. (The U.S. national rate, meanwhile, is about 2.1.) But a new report from the UJA-New York shows an interesting and perhaps troubling trend: Like the American political system, the Jewish population is expanding at its ideological edges. Secular and highly Orthodox Jews were the only groups that grew in population; all others declined.
The risk in these new numbers is clear: an increase in population in the two groups most at odds with each other means a growing split within the larger Jewish community. I have watched with growing consternation as the New York City Haredi community has blundered its way through these most recent incidents, and I’m sure many of my Jewish friends feel the same way. Most of the Jews I know would say they identify more with the principles of liberalism and fairness than those of Talmudic law; in fact, the two are not so different. It’s time for both groups, the secular Jews and the Haredim, to open lines of dialogue with each other about contemporary Jewish issues, because if they do not, we, as a Jewish community, risk a complete split. That would not be good for the Haredim, and that would not be good for the Jews.