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 LINES: As 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.

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