U. Penn Researchers: Orthodox Groups Distorted Our Report on Circumcision Rite

Authors Reject Efforts To Debunk Risk of Metzitzah B'Peh


By Seth Berkman

Published April 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The authors of a research report on metzitzah b’peh say their study is being distorted by defenders of the controversial ritual circumcision practice who claim that the procedure poses no risk of neonatal herpes to infants.

In an April 9 press release headlined “Ivy League Study Casts Doubt on Claims that Jewish Tradition Leads to Herpes in Infants,” a public relations agency representing Agudath Israel of America and several other ultra-Orthodox groups sought to debunk the public health consensus on metzitzah b’peh, or MBP. The press announcement claimed that a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania “found little evidence to support the claim that circumcision ritual is infecting infants” with herpes simplex virus.

The announcement noted that the UPenn study was submitted as evidence in an appeal filed by the ultra-Orthodox groups, who are plaintiffs in a suit opposing regulation of the practice by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“We have been saying for years that the evidence attacking this religious practice is highly dubious, and now we have world class doctors agreeing with us.” Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, chairman emeritus of the Aguda’s board of trustees, said in the press release.

But in a statement released Monday, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Evidence-based Practice termed it “regrettable that our evidence review was manipulated for purposes other than advising physicians of important clinical risk factors for newborns.”

“The unpublished report was used without our knowledge or consent and importantly, without proper context,” the center’s statement said. “Further, a subsequent press release mischaracterized our review by implying that there is no causal relationship between circumcision performed with oral suction and the transmission of neonatal herpes simplex virus (HSV) when the full report on the existing evidence concluded this link does exist.”

MBP, a procedure practiced by some ultra-Orthodox mohels, involves a mohel orally sucking away the blood from the infant’s genital area after cutting off his foreskin during the bris, or ritual circumcision. The practice can infect newborns with herpes simplex virus type 1, according to medical authorities. While not serious for adults, neonatal herpes can be fatal for infants, or cause permanent cognitive or physical damage. A study published in a journal sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control found that infants definitely or likely to have been exposed to MBP during circumcision faced a risk of neonatal herpes 3.4 times greater than that of newborns outside this group.

Most mohels in this country use a sterile pipette for suctioning the blood. But many ultra-Orthodox mohels consider direct suction of the genital area by mouth to be mandated by the Talmud as part of the religious rite.

The UPenn study was submitted by the Aguda, the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, and the International Bris Association in their most recent court brief filed in the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals on April 8. Their suit challenges a New York City regulation requiring a mohel to obtain a signed consent form from the parents of a newborn before performing direct MBP on the infant as part of a ritual circumcision.

In an April 10 email to the Forward, Joel Betesh, the project director of the study cited by the plaintiffs, wrote, “I do not agree with the way they are portraying our report.” Betesh requested to speak with a Forward reporter the following day. But all future communication involved a UPenn press spokesperson. Betesh and Brian Leas, the lead analyst of the study, have not returned further requests for an interview.

It is not clear how the plaintiffs got hold of the center’s study, which was unpublished, for use in their court suit, or how and why the center chose to review the evidence linking metzitazh b’peh to neonatal herpes in the first place.

The plaintiffs’ public relations agency, Sheinkopf Ltd — headed by the prominent Democratic Party political consultant Hank Scheinkopf — provided the Forward with a full copy of the study on request on April 9, despite the fact that it had not appeared elsewhere. But in a separate statement, first published April 12 on the website Failed Messiah, a representative from UPenn said that the study was not peer reviewed and ““was an internal literature review.” The spokesperson reiterated this in an interview with the Forward April 15. “The request was internal only with no connection to any outside group,” said Susan Phillips, senior vice president for public affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Earlier this month, the DOHMH announced that a second child this year had been diagnosed with herpes after circumcision involving MBP. The department did not respond to requests for comment on the UPenn study.


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!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • 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.