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As Bris Policy Nears, Mayor Seen In Bind

With new infant herpes cases emerging, clash of politics, religious freedom and public health.

Staff Writer
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Mayor de Blasio: Vowed during campaign to regulate metzitzah b’peh ritual. Getty Images
Mayor de Blasio: Vowed during campaign to regulate metzitzah b’peh ritual. Getty Images

As the de Blasio administration grapples with the church-state implications of its push for full-day, government-funded prekindergarten, another such thorny issue — this one with potential life-and-death consequences — looms: How, and whether, to regulate the controversial ritual circumcision practice known as “metzitzah b’peh.”

The technique, in which a mohel performs oral suction on an infant boy’s penis to stanch the flow of blood after a bris, is favored by more than 100,000 charedi Jews in Brooklyn; for them, a circumcision is not considered kosher under Jewish law unless metzitzah b’peh is performed.

However, the practice, known as MBP, has led to the deaths of two infants, and brain damage in two others, after they contracted neonatal herpes from a mohel who performed the procedure, according to city health officials. While charedi leaders say the procedure is basically safe, the Centers for Disease Control has declared the practice out-and-out dangerous.

As a candidate for mayor, Bill de Blasio called the parental informed consent forms drawn up under the Bloomberg administration to regulate the practice “a stop-gap measure” that didn’t go far enough in protecting children’s health. In an interview with The Jewish Week in the run-up to the election — where all the candidates were trying to court the important charedi vote — de Blasio said would he would try to “reach consensus with community leaders on the proper procedure.”

To date, seven months into de Blasio’s term, no conversations have taken place, according to Rabbi David Zwiebel of the charedi umbrella group Agudath Israel.

Now, with three more cases of neo-natal herpes reported since the mayor took office in January (with two in July alone), the city appears poised to have a revised policy on MBP in place soon, officials confirmed to The Jewish Week. How that policy comes down seems to be anyone’s guess, with electoral politics playing a potentially big role in a debate that pits religious freedom against public health.

“This is a real right-wing, left-wing issue,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “There’s no middle in this. So the question for [de Blasio] is: Who is more important to him, the charedi or the non-charedi?” 

From a political calculus, said political commentator William Helmreich, it’s a no-brainer.

“All these guys court the charedi vote because it’s a bloc vote and there aren’t many of those left,” said Helmreich, who teaches sociology at City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and its Graduate Center. “I don’t know that there’s any pressure from the opposite side because they don’t have that much of a stake in it. It doesn’t make sense for him to go to mat on this, why should he?”

Since 2000, there have been 16 reported cases of infants who have contracted herpes following metzitzah b’peh in New York City, according to the CDC report. In addition, in 2009 there were two cases reported in Rockland County confirmed by The Jewish Week and two 2012 cases in New Jersey reported by the Forward.

In 2007, Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, a mohel who health officials have determined infected four of the infants, including one who died and one who suffered brain damage, was ordered by the state to stop practicing MBP, however in recordings obtained by the Jewish Week in 2012, Rabbi Fischer is heard scheduling a bris that will include MBP.

In the two most recent cases, the babies were brought to the hospital about a week after undergoing metzitzah b’peh with “pustular lesions on the penis and genital area.” Both babies were hospitalized for several days and treated with anti-viral drugs. One needed to return to the hospital for intravenous treatment after a culture showed the HSV virus still in his system.

The health department has banned both mohels from practicing MBP, a health department spokeswoman said via email. The department has not released the names of the mohels, and since Rabbi Fischer has already been banned from the state, it is unlikely that he was involved in these cases.

In the emailed statement, the health department also noted that since the informed consent went into law in 2012, there have been five cases of neonatal herpes from MBP. “In all of the cases, we have asked whether there were forms and, in the two cases where we were able to identify the mohel, we have requested them from him. One of the mohels had a form which he provided. The other one did not,” the statement reads.

Ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who at the time was not facing re-election to a fourth term, carved out a strongly pro-public health position on the issue when he argued that a person’s right to religious freedom does not extend to harming infants. But his health department stopped short of a ban on the practice, opting instead for requiring mohels to have parents sign an informed consent form advising them of the risks. (Agudath Israel and other charedi groups promptly filed a lawsuit in United State District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2012, to get the consent form requirement ruled unconstitutional. The court sided with the city, and the coalition is currently appealing the case.)

When facing the church-state issues inherent in using public dollars to pay for pre-K programs held in religious schools, there is compromise to be had: schools are allowed to teach about the cultural components of a religious holiday, but not the religious aspects. But with metzitzah b’peh there seems to be little middle ground.

Simply broaching the topic with the charedi community is tricky. 

With the practice of circumcision as a whole coming under fire in Europe, and a movement to ban the practice in San Francisco back in 2011, the charedi community is particularly sensitive right now to any government intervention concerning circumcision, said Agudath’s Rabbi Zweibel. 

And while charedi leaders would be willing to sit down with de Blasio, their agenda would be to discuss “more comprehensive testing” for other caregivers of infants who contract herpes, and perhaps discuss establishing protocols to could make the procedure safer.

But, according to the CDC, there is no way to make metzitzah b’peh safe, and safety protocols established in the past, such as requiring mohels to sanitize their hands and rinse with mouthwash, have been deemed ineffective by medical experts. Even requiring all mohels to be tested for the virus would be ineffective, since, according to the CDC, 73 percent of adults are infected (with many never showing symptoms).

City officials say they hope to have a revised policy in place soon, but it’s hard to imagine what they could do that would make a difference.

If the health department is instructed to make sure the consent forms are universally distributed — which, according to Rabbi Zwiebel, is not likely happening now, in a community that believes metzitzah b’peh is a religious requirement — it’s unlikely they change many minds.

If the city instituted an outright ban on the practice, which American Jewish Committee attorney Marc Stern said the city “could probably get away with,” how would the city enforce it?

Dr. Jay Varma, the health department’s deputy commissioner for disease control, told The Jewish Week shortly after the informed consent forms were proposed, that because the city doesn’t have the manpower to monitor every circumcision, a policy of informed consent would be more effective than an outright ban. 

“We also don’t feel that if we went and passed some type of ban we would likely be able to influence the mohelim in this community to change their practices,” he said. “We just simply don’t believe that, given the political and religious circumstances in which this is occurring, [a ban] would really make any impact on the procedure.”

With all the obstacles in place, it’s not surprising that so far, de Blasio hasn’t proposed any changes to the status quo.

“Politicians,” said Helmreich, “don’t like to take stands on lose-lose situations.”

Last Update:

09/17/2014 - 07:16
bris, circumcision, Mayor Bill de Blasio
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the real issue to be raised - not just here but in many other areas - is why the City of New York needs to be on its own health crusade. These are matters which should be handled at the state level to insure uniformity - not at the city level to show how "politically correct" City Hall can be. It's no more worthy of city regulation than the size of a drink of soda › Baby Health
“About one-fifth of all people aged 12 and up in the U.S. are infected with the HSV-2 virus that causes genital herpes, but as many as 90% don't know it. (By comparison, experts estimate 50% to 80% of adults have oral herpes.)”

There is also a case where the baby caught herpes from a young sibling, and it was wrongly attributed to the mohel.

Therefore, it is clearly seen that there are many complicating features.

To blame a mohel, a Jewish circumcisor, for this is not correct.

Please cease to regulate Jewish people because of our traditions.

No-one would be popular if kissing and other more intimate aspects of human contact were banned.

Also from the same website and the same article- “ Remember, too, that neonatal herpes can occur even where both parents have never knowingly had a herpes sore of any kind.”

Please cite a reference to that case you mentioned. If it's true and the mohelim are indeed blameless I'm not sure what all of them have not ended this long ago by coming forward for testing.

The fact that one person was not hit by a drunk driver, does not mean that it is safe to drink and drive.
It's said that the devil is the author of confusion. (and I use that metaphorically here) One could complicate the drunk driving issue with all kinds of wasn't the drunk who caused it but a bad road, another didn't signal, etc. That confuses the issue in a deliberate or foolish attempt to justify the stance that it's ok to drive drunk. So citing an unusual case of fact does not establish or rule out the usual fact of most cases.
I have no idea of what being "popular" has to do with this. The health and safety of children has nothing to do with being popular.
Giving your child a kiss on the mouth even if you have herpes will likely result in the lesion appear there and then disseminating not on their genital area as have been all the cases that have been public.
You're trying to again say that there are unlikely sources of the infection, and that's true. However, statistically, if you add up all the unlikely non mohel transmitted cases and put them beside the ones that are mohel transmitted by this ritual. You'll find the same truth...that any human being placing their mouth on the fresh wound of an infant is not safe and may not only transmit herpes but many other things.

The idea of sterility and aseptic techniques in wound care is science, not opinion.
No one is attempting to regulate "Jewish people" who should be held to the same standards as any other American when it comes to children's health and safety. Not regulating this "tradition" has led to the unnecessary death of several infants.
Some have said well it doesn't happen that often so it's no big deal.
If a car seat because of a fault that only appeared and killed one child out of million but indeed killed one because of something unique in it's design. Oral suction has an inherent design fault. Whether or not it does pass HSV, the fact is compared to simply cleaning the wound otherwise, or pipette to satisfy the sucking requirement of the tradition, it can. Why would someone use a method that is bound to transmit something that didn't need to be. Comparing numbers that die compared to anything else is demeaning to the value of life. If you can save one life by not doing something, and you do, in my mind you've simply chosen to eventually kill someone.
Even the rabbis who perform this say that circumcision without oral suction is valid. So if it's ok why risk your child's health to be uber kosher.
I guess that was the reasoning that the health department was going on. But it failed to protect the children who died.

You can find on google the case where the mother gave evidence that another child in the family was infected with herpes.
In other words, there are multiple pandemic causes of herpes-just kissing alone can transfer the virus- it is almost as common as the "common cold".

I know the mayor hopes to "reach consensus with community leaders on the proper procedure" but there's no right way to do a wrong thing. Unless informed adults are allowed to decide fom themselves about what happens to their own healthy normal bodies none of us are free.

Why don't they draw up a law to stop people kissing first-what a joke- leave it to Hashem.

Can y'all spell D E N T A L D A M ?

It may well be that the practice is not even a halachic mandate, but rather a custom with as much religious foundation as shlugging kapporos

The solution is simple. Charge every parent who allows the Mohel to perform MBP on their kid with child endangerment, arrest them and remove other at risk kids from home. MBP is not mandated by Halacha, it's a meshugas, Freedom of religion does not include allowing parents to endanger their kids in the name of a meshugas.

This is such a difficult issue. On the one hand, the State can't meddle in religious issues. On the other hand, an analysis of halachic sources does not show that MBP by mohalim (that's the correct plural, BTW) is mandated. It came about because once upon a time it was thought that it was beneficial for the babies. Well, clearly it is not, but people are stuck in their ways, & sometimes the truth doesn't matter. People forget that pikkuach nefesh (protecting life/health) trumps everything.

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