By Yochanan Gordon
In their keen understanding of the human condition, our sages already foretold, “He who has one portion desires two.” On its simplest level, this is referring to money, where we are never content with what we have, always yearning to build upon our past successes and raise the bar. But watching the pattern of New York’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, it seems like once someone reaches a certain level of wealth and power, he or she tries to extend their influence to seemingly endless areas—in this case, areas that Mayor Bloomberg probably knows little to nothing about.
New Yorkers were first amused by the news that Mayor Bloomberg was pursuing a legal ban on the size of sugary drinks in an attempt to stem obesity amongst New Yorkers by limiting the maximum size to a 16-ounce soft drink per consumer. It was one of those instances where people laughed it off at first, considering it inconceivable. Then, as the mayor’s deadline drew closer, storeowners actually took steps to stop orders on cups and drinks over the 16-ounce limit to avoid incurring any summonses in the event that this law passed. In the end, it was deemed unconstitutional and sugar lovers breathed a sigh of relief and then probably went to their nearest corner store to order a vat or cauldron filled with the most sugary contents followed by a toast to their very own Mayor Bloomberg.
It was unpredictable where the mayor would go from there. If he really cared about the obesity epidemic in New York, he might have filed an appeal or pulled other strings and tried other legal avenues to impose his influence on his constituency, telling them—as Obama has repeatedly assured his “greatest ally” Israel—“I know what is really good for you.” But since that day, there has been a hush with regards to sugar intake.
Instead, Mayor Bloomberg has set his sights on a minority and their age-old traditions with regards to metzitzah b’peh. The difference in this instance is that it seems unfortunate that there are Jews who know nothing about the supposed medical risks of metzitzah b’peh who comply with the mayor, giving momentum to his case to overturn this practice or mandate that parents of the child sign a consent form to go ahead with it.
While metzitzah b’peh has been challenged close to home, bris milah in its entirety has been challenged on many fronts on an international level—causing a firestorm through many communities to have these attempted edicts overturned. It appears to me that more threatening than talk of banning metzitzah b’peh is the cavalier attitude many Jews have to this tradition—with the wave of the hand, saying we could do without it anyway.
In a certain sense, an attack on metzitzah b’peh is an attack on bris milah. In a similar vein, the Gemara, in describing the tactics of the yetzer ha’ra cites, “The evil inclination never appears to a person compelling him or her to transgress a severe law in the Torah. Rather, today he coerces one to do a minor infraction and the next day or week he returns, convincing us to do a little more until he has us transgressing on all Ten Commandments,” without us stopping for a moment to see where we are headed. If we allow this edict to pass without fighting it, as we would a ban against bris milah, before long you will see they will be back for more. Like his ban on sugary drinks, Michael Bloomberg is not interested so much in the health of his constituency, or for that matter the little eight-day-old babies, as he is interested in bolstering his sway and self-image.
There has been enough well-researched, professional analysis on this subject for one to be confident in continuing the age-old tradition in the manner in which it has been performed for hundreds of years. Every day studies are being conducted that confirm the danger from many chemicals that exist in large quantities in the food that we consume daily, without causing as much of a flinch and certainly not causing people to stay away from these hazardous chemicals. But when it comes to engaging in religious rites, in the face of some very sad and unfortunate incidents where babies have contracted herpes without solid evidence that it has been linked to this tradition, the world is up in arms in an attempt to do away with it altogether.
Just last week, one of the Chabad news sites posted a letter that the Rebbe wrote regarding the performance of metzitzah b’peh. “One should be careful to perform metzitzah specifically done orally and should not be concerned about any illnesses that would come as a result since for thousands of years this practice has been performed without any illnesses associated with it. Furthermore, ‘One who guards a mitzvah will not know any harm’ is a guarantee that Chazal have written regarding those who approach mitzvos with alacrity and excitement.” The Rebbe concludes that if there is no other recourse and legal consequences will result in the performance of this through oral means, one could use a glass tube. However, he urges to study the Kuntres Hametzitzah written by the Sdei Chemed.
Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon, zt’l, my great-uncle, was for many years a shliach of the Rebbe in Newark, NJ. One year, prior to the High Holy Days, the committee had decided that they wanted to install a microphone to be used by the cantor during prayer services and perhaps the rabbi’s sermon. (This was before the advent of Tzomet, the Israeli company dedicated to inventing Shabbos-permitted elevators, microphones, and other electronic devices that work through a process in halacha known as grama.) When my uncle brought this request to the rabbi, he immediately and authoritatively ruled it prohibited. Despite numerous clarifications in this matter, the congregation would not take no as an answer. Rabbi Gordon explained to the committee that his rabbi in Brooklyn was not only a rabbi but an expert in engineering, science, and technology and he would accompany them to present this question before him. They agreed to make the trip and to do whatever this rabbi ruled.
Upon entering the Rebbe’s office, the Rebbe patiently sat and listened to the cases presented by the heads of the committee before issuing his opinion on the matter. The Rebbe said, “Among those who are causing the stir about this problem, there are some who are familiar with the laws of Shabbos and yom tov but they don’t have a grasp of the technical aspects of the issue. There are others who are familiar with the technical aspects of the question but they don’t have a good grasp of the laws of Shabbos and yom tov.
“Unfortunately there are some,” the Rebbe added, “who don’t have a good grasp of the laws of Shabbos and yom tov or of how a microphone operates, yet they too voice their views on this matter.”
In a calm, soft voice the Rebbe explained to them that he is familiar with both aspects of the issue, and he assured them that using a microphone on Shabbos and yom tov is forbidden.
While you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that too much soda or the consumption of sugar is potentially hazardous to us, in this case to ban this “freedom” was deemed unconstitutional by a court of law. Regarding medical issues and what is and is not hazardous, I don’t see the mayor as having credentials to express his opinions. For as the Rebbe said quite clearly regarding the case with the microphone, “Unfortunately there are some who don’t have a good grasp of the laws of Shabbos and yom tov or of how a microphone operates, yet they too voice their views on this matter.” Like a microphone, Mayor Bloomberg is just using his position of power to be heard. v
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