A prominent Orthodox rabbi and medical ethicist says he is the target of a harassment campaign following his calls to abandon a circumcision-related ritual that may have resulted in an infant’s death.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a bioethics expert and Talmud instructor at Yeshiva University, was criticized by ultra-Orthodox leaders and newspapers after he was quoted in the press as saying that the practice of metzitzah b’peh, or oral suction of the circumcision wound, should be conducted with a sterile tube. In many ultra-Orthodox circles, especially within certain Hasidic sects, the ritual is performed by having the mohel suck blood from the wound with his lips directly on the baby’s penis.
Tendler spoke out against the practice following reports last month that a Jewish infant had died of herpes and that several other babies had contracted the virus after being circumcised by mohel Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, who practiced direct oral suction. Tendler co-authored an article in the August 2004 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, which asserted that the risks of herpes infection should outweigh any ritual benefits of using direct oral suction.
In recent weeks, ultra-Orthodox newspapers have condemned Tendler and accused him of reporting Fisher to health officials — a claim that Tendler vehemently denies.
The baby’s death is reportedly being investigated by the New York City Health Department.
According to Tendler, prank callers have inundated his home phone and vandals have struck at the synagogue in Monsey, N.Y., where he serves as religious leader.
Tendler cited the alleged harassment when he explained why he skipped the March 1 ceremony at New York City’s Madison Square Garden that celebrated the completion of the cycle of daily Talmud study. “Because of the harassment, I realized that it could very well be that there would be a few crazies there,” Tendler said. He avoided the event, which was organized by the ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, “not out of physical fear, but because I felt it would detract from the really majestic event, and that the newspapers like yours would pick on that element.”
Tendler painted the controversy as a wider theological conflict, extending beyond the issue of metzitzah b’peh. The real target, Tendler said, is what he represents as a rabbi and scientist working at Y.U., the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy.
To prove his point, Tendler said that vandals covered the floor of his synagogue with posters containing various anti-Tendler messages, including the term dokter-rabiner. Literally meaning “doctor-rabbi,” the term was employed by right-wing Orthodox activists a century ago in Germany to attack rabbis with ordination from liberal Orthodox seminaries and with academic degrees from secular universities.
Tendler noted that in addition to his Orthodox rabbinic credentials, he has a “reputation as a trained scientist.”
“That’s a no-no in [the ultra-Orthodox] community,” Tendler said.
In another sign of the controversy evolving into an intra-Orthodox battle, the main union of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, issued a statement two weeks ago urging that the direct suction practice be abandoned.
Officials at Agudath Israel, which is headed by a council of Hasidic and non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox rabbis, have defended direct oral suction. The organization’s longtime, late religious leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was Tendler’s father-in-law.
Tendler said that Feinstein, who was the most respected arbiter of Jewish law in non-Hasidic Orthodox circles, had endured harassment after issuing a then-controversial statement approving artificial insemination. According to Tendler, Feinstein’s critics “would knock on his door, [at] 2 [or] 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Tendler denied that he was asked by Agudath Israel officials not to attend the Madison Square Garden event, saying that he actually had been invited. After he decided not to attend, Tendler said, the organization sent him a letter “thanking me for my sensitivity.”
“Jewish law does recognize that there is a danger, and therefore compels them to use the tube,” Tendler told the Forward. He noted that herpes is not a danger in adults, 90% of whom carry antibodies that indicate they’ve been exposed to the virus, but that it is dangerous to infants, who have undeveloped immune systems.
His public comments on the issue have drawn harsh condemnations from at least two major New York-based ultra-Orthodox media outlets, Yated Ne’eman, a non-Hasidic newspaper, and Der Yid, the Satmar Hasidic sect’s newspaper. Both publications have attacked Tendler and vowed that members of their communities will continue to practice the controversial ritual, even if doing so lands them in prison.
Yated Ne’eman published a three-page editorial condemning Tendler, claiming that he had reported Fischer to health authorities. The editorial accused Tendler of mesirah, or handing over a Jew to an antisemitic state government that could do harm to the Jew in question. The newspaper subsequently ran a letter from Tendler in which he strongly denied the claims and stated that he had “the highest regard for Rav Fischer.”
Fischer could not be reached for comment.
Tendler told the Forward that he was receiving prank phone calls at the rate of one “every three minutes.”
The callers will “giggle, laugh shout; ‘Tendler is an antisemite’ is the usual line, or ‘Tendler wants to abolish circumcision,’” he said.
A renowned expert on medical ethics and Judaism, Tendler said that he normally receives 10 to 20 calls a day dealing with serious health-related questions. But as a result of the prank calls, he’s had to disconnect his phone.
“People know my number; rabbis give it to them,” Tendler said, referring to those in urgent need of rabbinic guidance on fertility issues and life-and-death medical matters. “That’s been cut off.”
In addition to the calls, Tendler said that his synagogue has been struck by vandals, who “broke off the American and Israeli flags” from the facade of the building.
Tendler said he has notified the police about the vandalism and harassment. The Ramapo police said they would not answer questions from the media, except in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Rabbi Hillel Weinberger, chief rabbi of the kashrus division of the Satmer-run Monsey-based Central Rabbinical Council, told the Forward that Tendler “went against [Fischer], and went to the authorities against him.”
Weinberger said that Tendler “didn’t handle [the situation] like a rabbi is supposed to do.” The Satmar leader also said that he has seen test results, which indicate Fischer is free of herpes.
The revelation of Tendler’s Pediatrics article has people convinced that Tendler has conducted a long-running effort against direct oral suction, Weinberger said.
In response to Tendler’s allegations of harassment and vandalism, Weinberger said: “I don’t know if it’s true… we never encourage vandalism.”
“This is a fight that he will not win, because the community will not give up,” Weinberger said. “This is a tradition that we’re practicing from thousands of years… and we’re going to stick to this.”
Steven I. Weiss is editor & publisher of CampusJ.com.