By REBECCA WALD — Sometimes Jewish practice finds itself on a collision course with modern science. How is this handled? Can long-standing Jewish practices evolve? The answer can be found in the life and work of Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler who passed away last week at the age of 95.
Tendler’s life and legacy have been widely profiled in recent days across Jewish publications worldwide. Tendler was a man of science and a highly respected Orthodox rabbi who led the Community Synagogue of Monsey, New York, for more than 50 years. He was also an expert on Jewish medical ethics and Jewish law (halacha), serving as a leading scholar for the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. He was ordained at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from Columbia University.
During his career, Tendler weighed in on many topics at the nexus of Jewish law and modern medicine, including the permissibility of modern practices such as organ donation, euthanasia, and fertility treatments. This made him a controversial figure among many in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world who often disagreed with his positions.
Among his most controversial stances was Tendler’s open advocacy for use of a sterile pipette for Jewish ritual circumcision instead of direct oral-genital contact by the mohel (ritual circumciser). When he learned in 2005 that Jewish babies were contracting genital herpes from their ritual circumcisions, Rav Tendler took the bold position of speaking out for what he felt was both ethical and consistent with modern scientific understanding.
But there is more to consider vis-a-vis Jewish circumcision than whether the procedure can be conducted in ways that minimize the risk of infection. A plethora of current scientific evidence suggests that traumatic experiences early in life can have a profound and lasting negative impact. It was previously thought that if an experience from infancy or early childhood cannot be remembered into adulthood, it cannot have ill effects. There is now mounting evidence that infancy is a period of increased vulnerability to stress due to the rapid development of the brain and high plasticity.
Many thousands of adult men are sharing their view on social media and on websites that infant circumcision has done them irreparable harm. The October 11, 2021 issue of the New Yorker contains a personal account of such harm by renowned novelist Gary Shteyngart. While some might dismiss these reports as mere anecdotal evidence, the growing volume demands a much more serious look.
What’s more, the rate of procedure-related complications during and after circumcision in the newborn is approximately 2 to 6 per 1000. This is not an insignificant number, especially considering that doctors perform more than a million circumcisions on newborn boys in U.S. hospitals every year.
All of this begs the question, if we can re-interpret Jewish law with regard to circumcision, as Tendler advocated during his lifetime, by replacing the mouth with a sterile pipette, might we also do the same by replacing foreskin removal with some other, less harmful, act? This is exactly what some of in the Jewish world are now advocating.