What is the most effective form of advocacy for the Torah community to adopt vis-à-vis governmental authorities? Is it behind the scenes advocacy or public confrontation? The answer, as Rabbi Elazar Menachem Schach once said, in a different context, is: There is no rule. It all depends on the situation.
As a historical matter, the Torah community in galus more frequently adopted behind-the-scenes shtadlanus for the simple reason that it usually lacked the power for direct confrontation.
The question posed at the outset constitutes the theme of an extraordinary article in the April Jewish Observer by Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America for Government and Public Affairs. “Between Public Health and Mesoras Avos” is remarkable both for the sophistication of its analysis and in its willingness to openly address a split over tactics in the Torah community and come down respectfully, but firmly, on one side.
Zwiebel makes a powerful case for the traditional shtadlanus model, in the context of discussing various communal responses to an injunctive order obtained by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That order barred one of the world’s most respected mohelim from performing metzitzah b’peh by direct oral suction of the circumcision wound. It followed a Health Department investigation of three cases of infants (one of whom died) who developed herpes simplex virus-type 1 after their brissen.
One of the keys to successful shtadlanus is developing the ability to see an issue from the point of the view of the other side. Effective persuasion requires imaginatively inhabiting the mindset of the person one hopes to convince.
In a series of meetings between Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden and leaders of the Orthodox community, Agudath Israel brought highly credentialed physicians, with decades of practice in areas with large Chassidic populations, to minimize the city’s concerns about the danger involved, and leading rabbonim to stress the centrality of bris milah in Judaism, and the halachic importance of metzitzah b’peh, via direct oral suction, to very large segments of the Torah observant world. Mr. Zwiebel, a national expert in legal issues of state and religion, addressed the religious liberty issue.
Those meetings resulted in a commitment from both Dr. Frieden and Mayor Bloomberg that New York City would not seek a ban on metzitzah b’peh — a commitment from which they never waivered.
At no point, however, did Agudath Israel argue that the City Health Department had no legitimate concern with health issues raised by the performance of a religious ritual. To do so would have required telling public health officials to ignore their statutory duty to protect the public health.
Other groups in the chareidi community, however, chose a more confrontational tack. After the City Health Department issued informational material to hospitals describing purported health dangers associated with metzitzah b’peh and instituted reporting requirements for doctors in suspected cases of herpes after bris milah, leaders of these groups effectively told Dr. Frieden that the entire issue of the safety of a religious ritual was none of his business – a position that both he and Mayor Bloomberg, predictably, rejected.
Appreciating the perspective of the other side will of necessity affect one’s evaluation of the situation. Agudath Israel forcefully argued that the City Health Department’s “educational campaign” was unwarranted, in light of the minimal danger posed, and that the physician reporting requirements were far too onerous. It succeeded in having the reporting requirements modified and convinced the Health Department to drop its original proposal to require parents to sign an informed consent form prior to every bris involving metzitzah b’peh.
At no time, however, did Agudath Israel representatives engage in any of the heated public rhetoric adopted by some other groups – indeed it studiously avoided all public confrontation. Other groups, however, called for a mass protest in the Catskills last Tisha B’Av and festooned chareidi neighborhoods with bright red signs that equated the city’s injunctive action against a single mohel equal to the disasters of Tisha B’Av and proclaimed that Jews would soon have to return to caves to perform bris milah, as in the days of the Greeks. After the City Health Department announced its informational campaign, at least one over zealous opponent likened its actions to Nazi persecution.
Such hyperbolic rhetoric succeeded in attracting public notice, but hardly in a manner helpful to the cause. A New York Times op-ed argued that analogies to Nazi persecutions only proved that there was nothing to be gained by Mayor Bloomberg negotiating with the Orthodox community. Another New York columnist described the demands that the city withdraw from the issue entirely as typical of religious fanatics, who ”rail against scrutiny, inquiry, even rational thought itself.”
The inability to take into account the perspective of other actors in the dispute went hand-in-hand with a failure to consider the long term interests of the Torah community or the broader Jewish community. Public rhetoric that invites comparisons between Torah Jews and Moslems who tell Western governmental authorities that “honor” killings in Moslem communities are none of their business lowers the status of Torah in the world.
Some Torah Jews living in large, relatively self-enclosed communities may have stopped thinking beyond the most immediate interests of the community. But the rest of us have neither the right nor the luxury to do so. We must be concerned with public portrayals of Torah Jews that diminish our ability to attract non-religious Jews to Torah or that make it less likely secular Jews will have a bris milah for their sons.
Even on its own terms, the narrow perspective proved counterproductive. A strategy adopted to head off what was portrayed as a prelude to full-scale government regulation of bris milah has resulted in more voices being raised in favor of government regulation of bris milah than ever before.
From the beginning, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah recognized that it would be impossible to fight a winning public relations battle over oral suction of the circumcision wound. By entering the mental universe of the secular public, the gedolim were able to correctly assess the relative balance of forces, and to counsel avoidance of a public confrontation in favor of behind-the-scenes suasion.
That ability to weigh all the various factors is the indispensable quality required whenever the Torah community must choose between two possible courses of action.
Originally appeared May 17 in Mishpacha.