Southern Brooklyn

Op-Ed: A Slice Of Life That’s Become Divisive

Stained glass at the Cloisters shows baby Jesus’ bris, in which some accounts say he received metzitzah b’peh. (Source: pboothe/Flickr)

BETWEEN THE LINESAs soon as the New York City Department of Health (DOH) established a regulation recently to require written parental consent before a circumcision, several rabbis and Jewish groups asked a federal court to prevent its enforcement, claiming it is safe and called the ruling an unconstitutional breach of freedom of religion.

The focus of the dispute is a specific act performed during the procedure. After the mohel, who conducts the circumcision or bris, removes the foreskin from the penis of an eight-day-old Jewish baby boy, he carries out the ultra-Orthodox tradition of metzitzah b’peh — cleansing the wound by sucking blood from the cut.

In most modern circumcisions, the mohel uses gauze or a tiny sterile pipe to remove blood during the bris.

Not being well informed about Orthodox rituals, I never heard of that explicit act and was somewhat shocked to read about it. When I get a paper cut, I often suck the wound, but I’d never ask someone else to do it.

Three Jewish groups, including the International Bris Association (now I’m sure there’s a lobby for anything and everything!) argued that the ancient ritual has been performed successfully for thousands of years. (Clearly, it is impossible to determine the number of post-operative circumcision problems before accurate medical records were kept, there’s no way to even guesstimate the success rate.)

The first circumcision, according to the Bible, was when G-d told Abraham to circumcise himself. Years later, G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise Isaac, his son, as described in Genesis 21:4.

A spokesman for the plaintiffs said that he believed the courts will put a stop to “this overzealous government overreach and keep the out of our religion.”

Incidentally, Jewish law doesn’t require or recognize an official degree or certification for a mohel and the federal government doesn’t have the authority to qualify them. However, New York and some other states license mohels, so they can practice in hospitals.

According to an August 2012 New York Times article, the president of a group of conservative rabbis supports the Health Department’s ruling and noted that not only was “direct suction” not part of Jewish law, but that it “was inconsistent with the tradition of pre-eminent concern with human life and health.”

According to public health officials, the city decided to regulate circumcisions because, from 2000 to 2011, there were 11 incidents, including two that died, where babies became infected with herpes following the oral procedure. Last spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concurred and opposed it, noting that oral contact is unsafe and increases the risk of spreading deadly germs to the newborn’s penis, especially since saliva is known to spread oral herpes.

Mind you, though post-bris infections are uncommon, the city viewed them seriously enough to restrict circumcisions. Nevertheless, following deliberations and consultations with medical experts and Jewish leaders, it settled on the parental consent option in lieu of a complete prohibition, which, undoubtedly, would have resulted in a chorus of disapproval from more than just the Orthodox Jewish community.

While the regulation seems insensitive to the Orthodox, there are those who perceive it as another Michael Bloomberg regulation that interferes with personal choice. But is it really? After all, the mayor is not rewriting an ancient custom or dictating how the operation should be practiced.

Department of Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said in a recent statement, “The city’s highest obligation is to protect its children. The written consent is lawful, appropriate and necessary.”

In any case, signing a consent form doesn’t trample on anyone’s religious freedom.

By the way, circumcision has been the subject of debate in Europe, as well as cross-country in San Francisco, where opponents published stereotypical, anti-Semitic materials to advocate their view.

Opponents insist circumcision is an unnecessary operation to remove a healthy body part and often refer to it as “genital mutilation.” That reference is excessive and more commonly associated with female circumcision, a much more serious matter that is principally performed, by some cultures worldwide, for non-medical reasons, mainly to curb a female’s sexual arousal. (But that’s another topic, perhaps for another column.)

Circumcision became an issue in Cologne, Germany, last summer when a court outlawed it, citing the procedure caused irreparable damage to a child’s body. That ruling was the result of the procedure performed on a Muslim boy. As direct Biblical descendants of Abraham, like Jews, circumcision is also a religious ritual for Muslims.

I find it ironic that Jews and Muslims, perpetual foes in the Middle East long before Israel became a nation, have common ground in this biblical custom that is banned in a country, regardless of its current status, that spawned Adolph Hitler and that Jews will always associate with the Holocaust and as a breeding ground of antisemitism.

I hope the courts uphold the city’s regulation and responsible parents understand it does not violate tradition or ban the bris. Circumcisions may still take place; the consent form merely acknowledges that parents, despite their fundamental commitment, understand that their newborn’s health should have greater consequence than adhering to a religious custom.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  1. Neil, I couldn’t disagree more. Asking a religious leader to tell a follower that a custom may be a practice of his or her religion, but then making them sign a form that they have been advised that is hazardous is an unnecessary intrusion and will have a chilling effect. While my brand of Judaism does not practice this ritual, I respect the rights of those that do. If you were Kosher, would you think it appropriate to make your Rabbi get a signed consent from you because it might not be a balanced diet? Should your doctor make you sign a consent form before you buy a container of ice cream? Freedom of religion is one of our most sacrosanct freedoms. Since the evidence here is shaky at best, this move is totally unjustified. Folks shouldn’t let the graphic nature of the practice affect their judment, tolerance and fairness. I have offered to join a lawsuit over this impingement of religious freedom. Hopefully, the Courts will see it as I do and protect the rights of others to practice religion in a matter that they see fit.
    Lew from Brooklyn

  2. Families are free to circumcise their sons but the department of health wants the parents to know that if oral suction is performed on their baby boy there is a chance he will contract herpes. Parents should be made aware of that risk so they can make their own decision.

  3. The German case arose because a four-year old spent ten days in hospital with surgery under general anaesthetic to repair damage that caused life-threatening bleeding after a “properly performed” circumcision by a Muslim doctor. The Cologne court ruled that this breaks the Basic Law (~Constitutional) right to bodily integrity. (The Basic Law, like the International Declaration of Human Rights, was put in place in 1949 to ensure that the horrors of 1933-45 could never happen again.) The Basic Law also guarantees equality of the sexes, so it will be hard to formulate a law that allows any male genital cutting and forbids any female genital cutting. (Many Muslims believe FGC – which may be quite minimal – is required by Islam because Mohammed is said to have recommended not cutting off too much.)

    Male genital cutting has also been done to “curb men’s sexual arousal” according to advocates from Philo of Alexandria to Maimonides to J H Kellogg. (It doesn’t curb arousal, but it certainly reduces pleasure.)

    In San Francisco only one advocate of an age-restriction published one issue of an obscure comic book containing stereotypes, as comic books do.

    “… signing a consent form doesn’t trample on anyone’s religious freedom.” No, what tramples on their religious freedom is cutting part of their genitals off before they can resist.

  4. Kosher has explicit rules and customs in the Torah. If Neil’s cited NY Times article is correct and oral suction does not exist in the Torah or subsequent Biblical commentary then the analogy fails. If the absence of the practice does not affect the sanctity of the the tradition then there is no intrusion into religious freedom to enlighten the parents of a new born child, who may not be ultra-conservative, that their mohel practices oral suction.

  5. Circumcision is in fact genital mutilation, whether performed on a boy, girl, or intersex child. An adult is free to have his or her own genitals mutilated, but to force it on a baby is extreme violent sexual abuse.

  6. Unfortunately it is / has been circumcision that has MADE for no end of anti-semitic sentiments. Freud found that it was the chief reason for unconscious anti-Semitism. And the myths surrounding it are at the core of the “blood libel.” Thus, It’s time to eliminate the Brit Milah because if that is the chief reason
    for being anti-Semitic or anti-Abrahamic [Islam too practices the rite] then why hang on to this left-over of human sacrifice? that traumatizesthe child, cutting off 5,000 nerves, that is the equivalent of female circumcision in the sense that it eliminates everything but the clitoris,and only serves the UltraOrthodox to maintain their power? After all, reform Judaism sought to eliminate the rite in the 19th century, and Jewish identity depends on being born by a Jewish mother, or converting. Here a link to an archive of the entire German
    and then some debate, note especially Michael Wolffsohn’s two pieces . Circumcision has been controversial also within Jewry forever.

    Making it a taboo to compare male with female sexual mutilation is the great scandal of this debate. In both instances, the most sensitive and most erogenous zone are amputated or severely damaged. In both instances, the main
    emphasis is on the cutting of human sexuality and of control. Ma


    Tabuisierung jeglichen Vergleichs von männlicher mit
    weiblicher Genitalverstümmelung ist der große Skandal der
    Debatte. In beiden Fällen wird der empfindsamste und
    erogenste Teil des menschlichen Körpers amputiert oder
    schwer beschädigt. In beiden Fällen geht es in erster
    Linie um die Beschneidung menschlicher Sexualität. AND

    Eine Diskussion ueber das Thema, mit drei Deutschen +
    einem Amerikanischen Psychologen.

    Member Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute and Society

  7. If Neil’s cited NY Times article is correct…

    I referenced a quote from a conservative rabbi. Whether its correct or not I cannot assert, since I didn’t have time to research the actual Jewish law. However, since the Times has yet to that fact or anyone refute it, I felt comfortable using Rabbi Gerald Skolnik’s statement.

  8. Thanks for reading, LEW from Brooklyn. No one is restricting or changing the bris custom. Parents who may choose not to sign the consent form will surely have it done in private–or they can risk their child’s health and “pay the two dollars.” I respect their Orthodox values, but when it involves the health of a helpless child with no say in the matter I don’t see this as an intrusion, but a health advisory. Ultimately, I can’t see the courts intervening in what boils down to a public health, not a freedom of religion issue. Your rational comments are always welcome

  9. Exactly. I’m no scholar of Hebrew law and make no claims of being frum. My Judiasm is my personal cultural identity and I defer to those such as Skolnik and my conclusions are only valid on the contingency of their correctness.

    Btw, you and I sat next to each other at Taste of Sheepshead Bay after I joined your table later in the night. I knew you looked familiar but couldn’t place the face to the name. I bet there would have been a fun conversation had I known but I guess next time.

  10. im sorry and i really do not mean to offend anyone but… i dont care what religion you practice, having your newborn baby boys penis being sucked after he is circumcised is just serious unheathly and to me the same as a grown man raping your child. not trying to put down anyones religion just stating my thoughts…. i am catholic and none of my boys are circumcised, and their father is not circumcised either…. the way you came out when you were born is exactly how god wanted you to be. .. alot of people say god is against tattos and peircings,,,,,, so why would he demand tearing a peice of your skin off when he doesnt even want you putting ink on it or putting any holes in it???



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