As soon as the New York City Department of Health (DOH) approved a regulation this week to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the potential dangers from part of an ultra-Orthodox circumcision, several rabbis and Jewish groups asked a Federal court to prevent its enforcement, claiming the ruling is 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 — by 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 learn 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 or successes before accurate medical records were kept.)
The first circumcision, according to the Bible, was when God told Abraham to circumcise himself. Years later, as it is written in Genesis 21:4, He commanded Abraham to circumcise his son Isaac.
A spokesman for the plaintiffs said that he believed the courts will put a stop to “this overzealous government overreach and keep them 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.
In an August 12 New York Times article, the president of a group of conservative rabbis supported 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 preeminent concern with human life and health.”
According to public health officials, the city decided to more or less regulate circumcisions because, from 2000 to 2011, there were 11 incidents, including two who 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 the saliva in oral contact increases the risk of spreading deadly germs to the newborn’s penis, especially oral herpes.
Mind you, though post-bris infections are uncommon, the city viewed the 11 serious enough to restrict circumcisions. Nevertheless, following deliberations and consultations with medical experts and Jewish leaders, in lieu of a complete prohibition, which would definitely have resulted in a chorus of disapproval other than in the Orthodox Jewish community, it settled on the parental consent option that warns them of the risks?
While the Orthodox regard the regulation as insensitive to their tradition, there are those who perceive it as another Michael Bloomberg directive that interferes with personal choice. In any case, the mayor is not altering an ancient custom or dictating how the operation should be practiced.
NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, defended the ruling, contending, “The city’s highest obligation is to protect its children. The written consent is lawful, appropriate and necessary.”
Regardless, signing a consent form does not trample anyone’s religious freedom.
By the way, circumcision has been the subject of recent debate in Europe, as well as cross country in San Francisco, where opponents reportedly published stereotypical, anti-Semitic materials to advocate their point of 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 at least one German city. Regardless of its current status, that nation spawned Adolph Hitler and Jews will always associate it with the Holocaust and a breeding ground of anti-Semitism.
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 deep-seated commitment to a religious custom, understand that their newborn’s health should have greater consequence than adhering to a 5,000-year-old ritual.