Circumcision Rite Goes Unregulated Outside New York

Authorities Elsewhere Tight-Lipped About Metzitzah B'Peh

haaretz

By Seth Berkman

Published October 14, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

On September 13, the New York City Board of Health and Mental Hygiene passed the first known government regulation of metzitzah b’peh, a technique in which the mohel applies his mouth directly to the genitals of a male infant after the circumcision to suck the blood away from the site of the cut. The new regulation requires parents to sign an informed consent form before allowing a mohel to perform direct oral-genital cleansing.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, metzitzah b’peh carries a high risk of HSV-1 transmission. As a result, the Board of Health suggested the use of sterile glass tubes, known as pipettes, as an alternative.

But efforts by the board to promote this method in the ultra-Orthodox community have been criticized by community leaders, who accused the city of infringing on religious freedoms.

Dr. Aaron Jesin, an Orthodox mohel who lives outside of Toronto, has practiced brit milah, — the Jewish circumcision ritual — for 34 years, including for Hasidic and other ultra-Orthodox families. He wrote in an email to the Forward that residents were “not as acutely aware of the problem of metzitzah b’peh and the [local] Board of Health has not been involved.”

Jesin said he used metzitzah b’peh in his circumcisions for approximately five years before an encounter with Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a Yeshiva University rabbinic school leader with a doctorate in microbiology. Tendler advocated the use of gloves and a sterile glass tube, and Jesin said he has since performed circumcisions with those accessories. Jesin said that in the rare case that a family insists on metzitzah b’peh today, he asks the father to perform that part of the ritual.

The increase in the use of sterile pipettes coincided with the rise in AIDS awareness during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rabbi Mendel Altein, who has been a mohel since 1992, began performing circumcisions in Montreal in 1994. One year earlier, Altein, a Lubavitch rabbi, sought the advice of Lubavitch’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, about performing circumcisions with a pipette, due to his concern about transmitting diseases. Altein said Schneerson told him that according to kabala, it was preferable to perform it “directly by mouth for spiritual reasons” and that Hasidim should do it “the most preferable way.”

Altein said, however, that today the majority of mohels in Montreal perform the technique with a tube, although the very religious parents still want the ritual executed through direct oral contact.

“We don’t need a consent form. I think that’s a bit much,” Altein said. “But every mohel, as a responsible mohel, should make sure parents are aware of it.” Altein said he notifies parents of the risks and, despite his own rebbe’s directive, uses a tube unless specifically asked not to. “For people who clearly want a b’peh [direct oral contact], the yeshivah and really religious, we still still do a b’peh,” he said. “If it’s Lubavitcher families, it’s understood I will do it with a tube.”

In Los Angeles, Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics, who has been a mohel for more than 30 years, related that he has performed circumcisions using a sterile pipette for many Hasidic families with no complaints from them. For his clients, “it hasn’t really been an issue,” he said. Lebovics said that the local health department had done “absolutely zero” to regulate metzitzah b’peh, but since it is not a common practice, there was little call for officials to do so.

Lebovics said that at one time he regularly performed metzitzah b’peh, but stopped after the rise of the AIDS epidemic, which was heavily publicized in southern California. He advocated the use of sterile pipettes to suction blood.

In an email to the Forward, Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America, the organization that has threatened legal action against the city, wrote that New York, having more ultra-Orthodox Jews than any other region in the United States, was a likely place for the issue to “come to a head,” and that “any mohel is entirely free to use whatever suction method he chooses, based on whatever authorities he looks to for guidance.”

But Shafran said that mohels who believe metzitzah b’peh is a “matter of religious conviction” should not be compelled to “‘re-examine’ their religious beliefs.”

New York City’s regulation goes into effect on October 21. Since 2004, there have been only 11 suspected cases of herpes transmission after circumcision; two of the infants died. Earlier this year, two New Jersey infants from the Orthodox community were infected after having had metzitzah b’peh, but they both survived. Dr. Margaret Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Monmouth Medical Center, told the Forward in March that the incidence of infection was “certainly a minuscule number, however, you could make that number be zero by not using your mouth to suction the blood.”

The city’s ruling did have an effect in nearby Rockland County, home to a large ultra-Orthodox population in and around Monsey. Commissioner of health Dr. Joan Facelle said her department was not implementing any method of informed consent, but was working with two local hospitals to share an informational brochure adapted from data gathered by the New York City Board of Health. From 2003 to 2004, three infants contracted herpes after circumcisions were performed by Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer from Monsey. In an August 2005 New York Times article, Fischer said through his lawyer that two of the infants had “herpes-like rashes before they were circumcised and were seen by a pediatrician who approved their circumcision.”

Samuel C. Heilman, an author and sociology professor at the City University of New York, said that metzitzah b’peh had become, “a cause célèbre” amongst some ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, as they are sometimes known. As a result, he said, “If someone wants to demonstrate they’re truly Haredi, they will have their child circumcised through metzitzah b’peh.” In a follow-up email, Heilman wrote that he wasn’t surprised the practice was not as widespread in other communities, but believed, “the more politicized it gets the more it has the potential to spread.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.