With a little more than two weeks left until the New York City Board of Health votes on a proposal requiring parents to give their informed consent for any bris involving metzitzah b’peh (direct oral suction), the leadership of the fervently Orthodox community is mounting an aggressive campaign against the proposed rule.
And some local politicians who represent parts of Orthodox Brooklyn are now throwing their weight behind the community’s leaders.
The moves appear to be reviving an old line of argument that such a regulation will ultimately lead not only to an all-out ban on the metzitzah b’peh practice itself, but on circumcision as well.
The proposed law would require written consent from a parent or legal guardian that would include notice that “direct oral suction exposes the infant to the risk of transmission of herpes simplex virus infection and other infectious diseases.”
According to health department data, between November 2000 and December 2011 in New York City, at least 11 babies were infected with herpes as a result of the procedure (neonatal herpes was not a reportable disease in New York State until 2006). Two of these infants died, 10 were hospitalized and two suffered brain damage (these data do not include infections that occurred elsewhere in the state, or in other states, like New Jersey, where neonatal herpes is not reportable.)
The health department has issued a statement saying that there “is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn.”
Nowhere in the proposed rule is there any mention of outlawing direct oral suction, let alone circumcision. Despite this, elements of the haredi leadership have been warning their constituents about the prospects of a wider ban ever since the issue of metzitzah b’peh first garnered media attention in 2005; the scrutiny came after reports emerged that one infant had died and another had suffered brain damage as a result of the procedure.
At the time, the city touched off a firestorm by attempting to launch a public education campaign aimed at curbing the use of the ritual. But the city never enacted any laws regulating it (save for restricting the practice of one infected mohel) until now, on the heels of the death of yet another infant last September.
In response to the proposed rule, the haredi umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America accused the department in a July 23 letter of fostering “the perception in the community that [it] is heavy-handed, set on direct confrontation, and potentially interested in perhaps banning metzitzah b’peh and regulating other aspects of bris milah as well.”
The letter goes on to promise “litigation and more confrontation” should “the Department choose to continue in this direction” and notes that even if such litigation fails, “the resulting perception in the Orthodox Jewish community will be an extremely negative one.”
The issue seems to have caught on with local politicians as well, and several have made public statements indicating their opposition to any government regulation of metzitzah b’peh.
Last week, Republican State Sen. David Storobin, whose district includes Brooklyn’s Orthodox neighborhoods of Borough Park, Flatbush, Midwood and Kensington, issued a press release calling for Mayor Michael Bloomberg “to end his attempts to regulate the Orthodox Jewish tradition of metzitzah b’peh” and noting that it is “insulting that he would suggest Jewish parents don’t care about their own kids.
“The Mayor should stop worrying about other people’s children,” the release continued, “and let us raise our families in the manner we choose.”
Storobin’s comments appear to be in response to statements made by Assemblyman Dov Hikind accusing the mayor of “speaking condescendingly about our cultural traditions” and implying that Orthodox Judaism is “barbaric.” What Bloomberg was actually quoted as saying, however, was that “You don’t have a right to put any child’s life in danger, and this clearly does.”
When asked whether he opposes the current proposal to require informed consent, Storobin told The Jewish Week, “Obviously, if there is any risk of disease for any kind of a reason, then giving parents informed consent is something that could potentially be advisable.”
Pressed on whether he believed that the practice does in fact pose any health risk to infants, Storobin conceded that he issued his press release “not because someone was necessarily studying the issue, but precisely because we heard talk of a ban, that this was the beginning and not the end.”
Storobin did add that “in general, the rabbis have very, very strict rules for health … that are oftentimes much more strict than government rules and to suggest that rabbonim, as well as anyone else in the Jewish community, certainly the parents, certainly the mohels, would not care about a child, is wrong.”
(The parents of the baby who died in September have resisted cooperating with the health department to identify the mohel who performed their son’s bris, and the mother is quoted on a tape obtained by The Jewish Week saying that if she has another son, she will use the same mohel for his bris.)
Mayoral hopeful and State Sen. Malcolm Smith, who represents Southeast Queens, has also weighed in on the issue, telling radio host Zev Brenner last week that he has “always believed in respecting one’s customs and traditions, especially a 3,000-year-old tradition.” In response to a question from Brenner about the possibility of outlawing the practice, Smith replied that he didn’t think such a proposal “should come to the floor.” Smith added, “It’s not our position to tell people how to handle what is important to them as a custom and a tradition.”
Questioned by Brenner on the safety issue, Smith said, “I would leave that in [the Orthodox community’s] hands,” adding that parents should be allowed to do the practice under what Brenner characterized as the “freedom of religion that this country is for.”
Several calls to Smith’s office seeking clarification of his views on the proposal for informed consent — which does not appear to be inconsistent with his advocacy of allowing parents to decide whether to do metzitzah b’peh — were not returned.
City Councilman David Greenfield, whose district comprises Midwood, Borough Park and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, has also been speaking out on the issue. In a recent speech uploaded to YouTube, he recounts how, in a conversation with a deputy mayor, he “tried to explain to him [that] bris milah … is an issue that we’ve been dealing with for three and a half thousand years” and that “people in our community have literally given their lives, over the years, for bris milah.”
When asked about his position on the informed consent proposal, Greenfield told The Jewish Week, “The administration’s attempt to regulate the 3,800-year-old practice of bris milah is a shocking affront on the constitutionally protected religious freedom of New York’s Jewish community.
“What’s next?” Greenfield asked. “Will the administration bar the Christian practice of sharing wine at communion? Every New Yorker who is concerned about religious freedom should be appalled by the administration’s attempt to regulate a religious practice.”
Meanwhile, newspaper articles and public statements continue to emerge from the haredi world proclaiming the safety of metzitzah b’peh and criticizing and questioning the motives of the mayor and the health department.
Writing in the Agudath-aligned newspaper Yated Ne’eman, author Debbie Maimon has claimed that the health department’s assessment of the risk from metzitzah b’peh lacks “credible evidence” and has accused it of “[h]yping up a myth about metzitzah b’peh being dangerous to newborns, and dressing this up as a public health issue while shutting its eyes to evidence that explodes this myth.”
The health department vigorously denies Maimon’s allegations, calling one of her earlier stories “inaccurate, misleading, and inflammatory” in an e-mail to The Jewish Week.
Similar claims are made in a letter issued this week by the Beis Din of Crown Heights and signed by Rabbis Aharon Yaakov Schwei and Yosef Yeshaya Braun. The letter, the original and a translation of which are posted online, accuses “wicked people” of going to the government and “trying to get the Health Department to try and control the Jews.” The letter also emphasizes that in the United States, “which was founded on the … complete separation between the government and the religious bodies … every person has the right to do as he wishes according to his religion, without any outside interference.”
It then goes on to instruct followers to publicize that “there is nothing to worry from Metzitzah B’peh … it is very beneficial even according to the doctors” and orders mohels to “continue the tradition of the Bris as it was until now, without changing anything at all.”
To read the proposed health department informed consent law, visit www.nyc.gov/html/downloads/pdf/notice/2012/amend-non-medical-circumcision.pdf