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Opposing NYC Circumcision Rule Does More Harm Than Good
Thu, 03/28/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week

The challenge to New York City’s informed consent rule for Metziza B’Pe (MBP) should never have been brought. The rule it challenges, requiring informed consent by the parents before a mohel orally suctions blood directly from the circumcision incision, imposes, at most, the lightest of burdens on religious liberty. It does not forbid MBP or even bar mohelim from announcing their disagreement with the Department of Health’s risk assessment.

Predictably, given the minimal burden the rule imposes and the current weak state of religious liberty protection, a trial judge refused to block enforcement of the informed consent rule while litigation continued. Those challenging the rule have appealed—an appeal they are certain to lose, given the substantial, if not ironclad, evidence that the practice of MBP creates a risk of illness or death—a small risk, but a real one.

But the very act of bringing the appeal poses a larger danger. In the course of challenging a trivial regulation of religious practice, defenders of MBP are handing opponents of circumcision around the world a gift. Instead of confusing substance with shadow, a far-sighted Haredi leadership would have avoided this fight. It would have taken into account the negative impact of highlighting MBP at a time when circumcision was under attack in Germany and elsewhere, with opponents seeking to implement a total ban on the practice.

The entire Jewish community was united in opposition to attempts in San Francisco and Germany to ban circumcision altogether. New York’s informed consent rule, in contrast, drew opposition only from the Haredi sector. Other Jews (including many Orthodox Jews) either did not know of the practice, or had long ago substituted the use of a glass tube that allowed oral suction without physical contact.

Though the Department of Health had pointedly refused suggestions that it ban MBP altogether, much of the Haredi community treated the proposed rule as banning MBP, or even circumcision itself. A rabbinic friend tells of being in a Haredi elementary school during Hanukkah when children were told that the Health Department had banned circumcision, just as the Syrian Greeks had in the second century BCE. There is no excuse for such distortions. Even if one believes direct MBP is an indispensable element of circumcision, the city did not ban it.. The Haredi overreaction shows both a leadership pandering to the fears of its constituency and 150 years of continued rejection of any change in religious practice, no matter how innocuous or peripheral, treating any challenge as if it were a wholesale assault on all of Judaism.

Not so long ago there were highly respected Orthodox rabbis who considered MBP with direct physical contact unnecessary, some even banning the practice as unsafe. But now, with the rush to protest a by-and-large innocuous informed-consent requirement, a permissive halakhic tradition has been pushed to the side not for halakhic reasons, but for what can only be labeled as political considerations. Ironically, those claiming to fight for halakha distort halakha.

Also, to its shame, some segments of the Haredi community disregard any scientific findings that cast doubt on traditional practice. As filed, the complaint challenges the conclusion that MBP creates any health risk. The dispute now centers on how one “proves” a medical fact. To oversimplify a bit, opponents of the City’s informed-consent requirement argue that there is no DNA testing tying a particular mohel to a specific infection, and that there has been no testing to eliminate all other possible sources of infection.

The city, for its part, relies primarily on the modern, statistical-based approach commonly accepted in medicine today, which does not require DNA proof to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

Yet although the challenge to MBP is misguided, the dispute has exposed a series of worrisome actions by government or the courts. By not only warning about the risks of MBP but also noting the views of other Orthodox authorities who permit suction via a tube, the Health Department appears to be intervening in an internal halakhic dispute. Furthermore, even as calculated by the Department, MBP’s risk of infection is not large in absolute terms, something like 1 in 4,000 cases, though this probably is at least twice the normal occurrence for new born babies. This raises the questions of at what level of risk the government should interfere with parental decision making, and why other risks to children engaging in hazardous activities not connected to religion—like skiing or football—go unregulated.

This is, in fact, a regulation targeting religion, despite the City’s cleverness in dressing it up as a neutral regulation. In this particular case that shouldn’t matter, since the rule is justified in any case. But it will matter in future cases, and all who care about religious liberty should worry about this part of the trial court’s decision.

Marc Stern is general counsel of the American Jewish Committee.


motzeitza b'peh

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It's about time we all stand up to calling these stupid religions what they are... Superstition and mass hysteria at their worst. I can't fault anyone for believing in God because I can't prove he doesn't exist any more than they can prove he does. But religion is a complete sham made up by sick (mostly) old men-with-beards and the idiots who follow them deserve everything bad that happens. Unfortunately the babies and children who have no choice in the matter pay the ultimate price.

It's time we made our laws come first and quit promoting religion. In fact maybe that's the argument against God. If he did exist and actually cared, he wouldn't let evil old men do these things to children and other innocent people.

I find it disturbing reading all these comments on a jewish web site deploring circumcision. Circumcision is one of the fundamental laws of Judaism. Being Jewish is not a choice, if you are born jewish, you remain so. If jews believe in the torah, there is no possible way your can remove a fundamental aspect in Judaism. Soon they'll say to stop observing the sabbath. Oh right, they already did that. Maybe these same people will tell jews to stop sending there kids to private day school. Let the kid grow up and decide for themselves. These secular jews are fighting a losing battle. In fact, why don't we just become Christian and give up already.
Jews will never give up circumcision or any other laws that they might find "archaic". I have never met a single jew that was upset at the fact that he was circumcised as a baby.

You have met one now - I am happy to broaden your experience. Yes, I was born to a Jewish mother - and father - and raised as a Jew. I am both upset by my own circumcision and vehemently opposed to its practice upon infants and minors. And though I happily support some parts of Jewish culture and belief, most importantly "Love thy neighbor as thyself", don't you or anyone else dare tell me that because I was born into a particular community that I am therefore obligated to drink the Kool Aid of its various irrational dogmas and received superstitions. Furthermore, I would be delighted to become a righteous gentile compared to the kind of Jew who selfishly and recklessly endangers children or demands that women go to the back of the bus because his personal rights are somehow more important.

Jews gave up animal sacrifice and slavery - why can't they give up circumcision as well? Don’t we have better things to do that to fetishize ritual and to worship tradition for its own sake? Don’t we have better things to teach our children? FYI - The issue today is not that Jews will convert to Christianity; the issue is that many Jews and Christians have already decided that apart from weddings, funerals, and end-of-year holidays, religion itself is a toxic relic. I truly believe that if Judaism or any other aspect of human culture cannot adapt, then eventually it will not survive. I am proud of those aspects of Judaism which embrace the principles of the 18th Century Enlightenment, which gave us men and women such as Albert Einstein, Isaiah Berlin, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt, and I am repulsed by the Haredim who seek to send Jews, and everyone else back into some dystopic fantasy of historic reenactment.

And though I do not usually place bets, I am willing to wager that unless Jews lead the way in eliminating Metzitzah B'peh, they will only guarantee that others will eliminate Metzitzah B'peh, Brit Milah, and many other things as well for them. You might ask some Catholic officials how systematic protection of child abuse over the years has worked out for them. Immutable tradition plus 21st Century weapons plus Global Warming is a recipe for nothing kosher, halal, or good.

The rights of parents should not be infringed upon. Just about everything a parent does for their child can potentially cause harm. For example, does this mean that parents shouldn't teach their child how to ride a bike because they could get hurt? Maybe the government should mandate them to sign an informed consent form before teaching their child to ride a bike?

One is left wondering in what other context could an adult place a child's penis in his mouth and escape prosecution.

It is irrelevant what the “secular” law on MBP is because MBP will still be done by Jewish people.

The case where it was suspected that a child had been tragically harmed by a virus allegedly transmitted during MBP was more likely to have been the virus transmitted to the baby by his two infected siblings.

For the “secular” brains out there, imagine the apparent “co-incidence” that the circumcision appears to have many health benefits associated with it. There are no co –incidences. It was and is as intended.

Let's get one thing straight, Religion is OPTIONAL, it is like cake, you might like cake, but that gives you no right to force me to eat cake. You have all the rights in the world for YOU, yourself to eat that cake. But you do not have any right, even if it's your own child to force them to eat your cake. If they want your cake as they get older by their own choice, great! If not, respect their decision, in the mean time... Keep your cake to yourself.

This starts talking about the danger to children but then segues to mention an even larger danger - the danger of talking about Metziza B’Pe (MBP). Children's pain and rights are sucked into oblivion by this society. Here's to keeping up appearances...

Rabbi Lapin- purpose of a boy's circumcision is a sign "upon his penis to remind him that what he does with it is of communal concern."

MPB is just the noisy tip of the problem The growing anti circumcision noise is not against Jews and not against Judaism. It is against a passé mutilative practice that is seen as a violation of human individual rights; a sacrificial relic of an ancient time and one that Jews should now abandon without reservation. Just as modern society has given up such practices as slavery, stoning to death adulterers, and those who did not observe the sabbath, the sexual mutilation of infants, male or female, will not be tolerated in a modern world. It is time to drop it and move on. It might be instructive for Jews to look back into their history and see how they dropped slavery and still survived. Then Jews should lead - lead this movement away from sexual mutilation of infants. The MPB informed consent law is a wake-up call; times are changing and we all must change or become extinct.

A court has ruled that a risk of one in 14,000 (of loss of sight in an eye operation) is enough to require patients to be warned. A Brazilian study suggests that the risk of death from circumcision is one in 7700 (presumably somewhat less in the USA, but scandalously, there are no better figures).

Risk is not the only issue. There is also the issue of permanent, lifelong body modification without the informed consent of the person most directly affected, in fact the only person directly affected. And newborn babies are not sent skiing or playing football without their consent ....

Your religious rights stop where another individuals' genitals start. You can't mutilate female genitals under religious freedom, you can't tattoo a pentagram on a baby's forehead for religious reasons. Just because you think your religion gives you permission to mutilate an infant's genitals, doesn't mean you should. Hopefully someday the practice will be illegal and the child's rights to bodily integrity will be respected.

I wonder if there is a way to welcome baby boys and baby girls into the covenant equally.

When I reflect on halacha, I have faith that the intention is more important than the rule. I sense the intention of circumcision is to devote ourselves and our families to God. I am hopeful that we can fulfill this intention by doing as Moses instructed by circumcising the foreskins of our hearts. It seems possible to me that Moses had whole sexual anatomy and never made the choice to have part of it cut off, and yet he chose to circumcise his heart and open it fully to God. I am inspired that the instructions given by Moses can be followed in choice by both men and women equally.

I want to be very clear that I am not against the mitzvah of circumcision. We can מוּל by cutting the foreskins of our hearts in spirit, so I wonder if we can מוּל by cutting the foreskin of a penis in spirit as well. The covenant does not specify how to circumcise.

I would like the circumcision of children to be performed in a way that keeps their sexual anatomy whole. I wonder if the covenant could be fulfilled by sliding a metal ring onto a child's penis to imprint a mark in the flesh of the foreskin for the ceremony. I also wonder if the covenant could be fulfilled by the mother touching blood to the child's genitals as Zipporah did to Moses's genitals on the way to Egypt. After that, the Lord let him alone. This circumcision would celebrate a mother's role as protector.

If an adult wants to have his or her own foreskin cut off, I support that freedom of choice. I ask that we please protect the freedom of children to make their own choice about their sexual anatomy when they are old enough to make such a complicated and personal decision.


Cutting off parts of children's sexual organs in the name of religion, culture, or parents personal preference is unjustifiable. This abuse is finally getting the scrutiny it so deserves. No excuse- none.