Rav Hayim Leiter
A Mohel Reflects: Blood on All Our Hands
Last week, a baby almost died as a result of his brit mila. As one news report described, just after the brit ended in Kfar Yona, the parents noticed some bleeding and sent a picture to the mohel. He insisted that everything was all right and that he’d return momentarily to re-bandage the child, which he did. The bleeding continued for another half an hour, but the mohel continued to insist that there was nothing to worry about. At 1:30 a.m. the parents opened the baby’s diaper to find it saturated with blood. When they sent the mohel a picture this time, he did not answer. When the family arrived at the emergency room, they learned that their baby had lost two-thirdsof his blood and doctors said if they had waited any longer the boy would surely have died.
I think we can all agree that there was negligence here, but two questions remain: to what level is the mohel culpable and to what level are others responsible for his actions?
From the way this news article was written, there’s no way that the reader wouldn’t be stirred to, at the very least, point a finger at the mohel. But I’d like us to take a step back for a second, just for the purposes of not assigning guilt without trial – itself a challenging exercise. Bleeding is the most crucial part of performing a brit mila. It’s very hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen. I say this from both personal experience and things I’ve witnessed in the field.
I once observed a colleague performing a brit for friends of mine. Hours after the brit was over, the father of the baby was in contact with me and began to ask questions about how I thought the mohel had done. I answered honestly that I thought he acted exactly as I would have. The father was relieved but bewildered. You see, he and his wife had had to rush their newborn son to the hospital due to bleeding that could have easily reached the levels of the Kfar Yona case.
Luckily for my friends, the mohel they used acted responsibly in telling them to head to the hospital right away, and kept in close contact with them while they were there. Also, unlike the Kfar Yona case, the doctors found the cause of the bleeding to be completely unrelated to the quality of the cut or to bandaging issues. In some ways, this is the reality we mohalim face. You can’t be 100% certain what the outcome of a brit mila may be.
Now I know what you’re going to say: these are not the same cases at all. The family in Kfar Yona was dealing with a mohel who didn’t send the baby to the hospital when he had ample warning to do so. And there’s definitely something to be said for that. But I can see where the mohel in Kfar Yona may have misstepped. It’s very challenging to be seen as the authority figure in your field and then having to admit a fault or inability, though of course it goes without saying that these inabilities must be admitted, for it’s the life of the child that’s at stake.
Not that long ago, I had a brit where the child had a very unusual physical reaction in the hours immediately following the event. When the family turned to me to see what it might be and what they should do I was unfamiliar with the issue they described but, at the same time, felt I needed to give them an answer. Thankfully, I erred on the side of caution and contacted my mentor to see if he had any insight. I’m blessed because both of my mentors are doctors and have made themselves readily available for questions.
He was very clear about what to do and what not to do in this instance: “Send them to the hospital and don’t give them any medical advice. You’re not trained for that.” And he was right. The problem in last week’s case might be that the mohel was not so lucky, and had no one to turn to for answers. It’s easy to feel that you need to have all the answers; if you don’t, you will be discredited in the eyes of your clients. But it shouldn’t be that way.
This news story brought up another question: what role should the rabbinate have in all of this? Perhaps the scariest part of the entire Kfar Yona story is that parents can’t take action against this mohel. He is still listed as a rabbinate-certified mohel. Since it’s apparent that the rabbinate can’t control its mohalim, then perhaps it’s time to re-envision the role of the institution.
As I’ve written before, this is the first time in our history that anyone has discussed a need for regulations for mohalim. Prior to the State of Israel, the only option for mohalim was to be ordained by their teachers as competent for the job. I do believe that that’s still the best way for mohalim to be regulated. Be that as it may, we still must ask: how competent are the teachers and how competent are the students working today?
This is where the rabbinate should come in. It should be an institution committed to professional development and support for mohalim. They should work tirelessly to make sure that both the teachers and the students are knowledgeable and ready to deal with any and all situations that may arise in the field. They should organize conferences, such as the one held about six months ago, and provide mentors that can be contacted if they’re stuck on how to proceed with challenging cases. If something like this had been in place, the outcome of the Kfar Yona story might have been more like what happened with my friends. If the rabbinate doesn’t take on this responsibility, then I fear the blood of these children will truly be on all our hands.
This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post