Savage Ignorance

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It’s difficult to know whether shock-jock Michael Savage is in fact the actual person whose Bronx-accented ranting emanates daily from radios across the country, or whether that voice belongs to an adopted persona, a cantankerous, rude and hilariously self-aggrandizing misfit who seeks to capitalize on an assortment of angers lurking in the dark corners of listeners’ souls.

Certainly the fact that the former Michael Weiner adopted the name “Savage,” of all things, and that the portly 70-ish fellow introduces his program with abrasive headbanger music more suitable to a pierced punk rocker than a political pontificator would seem to argue for the alter ego case.  So would optimism about the human condition: It would be disturbing to know that such an abrasive person was in fact real.

Already disturbing is the fact that the fellow (or his affected persona) has Jewish admirers.  Those fans apparently figure that someone who voices fury for terrorists, bashes Israel-bashers and claims to stand up for traditional morals not only can’t be all bad but must be all good.  No logic there, of course, but no one ever claimed that fandom is fettered by reason.

And so some Orthodox Jewish admirers of Mr. Savage (or DR. Savage, as he prefers to be called – he earned a Berkeley Ph.D. in “nutritional ethnomedicine”) were pained to hear the talk show host spend most of two programs last week spitting outrage at a Jewish ritual and its “bearded guys” practitioners.

The ritual, metzitza bipeh, or oral suctioning of a circumcision cut – a practice widely observed in Chassidic and yeshiva-centric communities – is hardly a good poster child for religious freedom.  That it appears strange and even dangerous to uninformed people unfamiliar with the rite is entirely understandable.

But ignorance – something Mr. Savage champions himself as helping lesser people overcome – remains ignorance; and its promotion, heavily larded with ill will, is offensive.  It might not be surprising in a radio personality who famously once asserted that in “ninety-nine percent” of autism cases the child is just “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out” and on another occasion told a listener who dared take issue with him to “Go eat a sausage, and choke on it.”  But the offensiveness remains.

Yes, New York Mayor (a.k.a. “Nanny-in-Chief”) Michael Bloomberg, with the assistance of the New York Board of Health, has waged war on metzitza bipeh, claiming that it has been the cause of infections of Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (the cold sore virus, carried by most of the population but which can be dangerous in babies).  That fact was the extent of Mr. Savage’s research of the issue.  But it has been compellingly asserted by objective scientists that the mayor and health board’s claims are without basis in fact.

New York Westchester Hospital Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Daniel S. Berman, Beth Israel Hospital director of epidemiologic research Dr. Brenda Breuer and Columbia University Professor Awi Federgruen, an expert in quantitative methodology, have all publicly called into serious question the claim that metzitza bipeh represents any quantifiable danger to babies.

(There is, of course, a slightly increased danger of any infection at the site of any open wound – including a circumcision, even when metzitza bipeh was not performed.  But such increased risk of harm doesn’t approach that of the increased risk to life and limb attendant to, say skiing, bicycling or crossing a Manhattan street – even when the “walk” sign is on.)

Affidavits by each of those intrepid professionals (none of whom carries any brief for metzitza bipeh; their only goal is to defend the integrity of science and its objective application to life and law) can be read at http://protectmilah.org/ (on the click-through to the second page of the site).

Had Mr. Savage taken the time and care to actually research the issue of the Jewish ritual’s alleged dangerousness before launching his crude tirade, he might have been less inclined to render a judgment so quickly, absolutely and rudely.  But that would have required fairness and objectivity, not to mention good will toward people with whom he has little in common.

And such things, admirable though they are, don’t do much for ratings.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran