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The city health department began requiring in 2012 that parents sign a consent form acknowledging the risks, and that mohels keep those forms for up to a year. Ultra-Orthodox leaders have decried the new rules, filed legal challenges, sanctioned a kind of civil disobedience and continue to deny the scientific facts, implying that the city isn’t doing enough to investigate other causes of herpes in these infants.
But how can such investigations take place when parents are told not to cooperate? When the names of mohels are kept secret? When the father of an injured baby would rather implicate his wife than disclose the name of the person who circumcised his son?
Yated Ne’eman, a newspaper in the Haredi enclave of Monsey, N.Y., brought us that last story, via an interview with the father of an infant whose herpes infection led to irreversible brain damage. The father insisted that his wife inadvertently transmitted the virus through her own infected saliva when she was cleaning the baby’s wound.
It’s a convoluted, unlikely story, but one easily investigated. Test the mother, test the mohel and see if either has the herpes virus. But the father refused to identify the mohel. His rabbi also refused.
What religious principle is at stake here? None, it seems to us, that can override the more fundamental Jewish, and civic, imperative to protect children from harm.
The city’s requirement for the consent forms was crafted as a compromise that stopped far short of banning metzitzah b’peh. Widely flouted and unenforced, the regulation is simply not working. City health officials acknowledged last year that an infant was infected with herpes after his brit milah; his parents hadn’t signed the form, nor would they reveal the name of the mohel. Case, apparently, closed.
In a statement to the Forward, a health department spokeswoman said the city is investigating the January case, but she would say no more. As for the new mayor, he is keeping the regulations in place — whatever that means — but he believes that “we can do a better job of coming up with an approach that I think is much more effective at protecting the lives of our children.”
Hard to imagine what the city could do that would be less effective than what’s (not) happening now.
The growth in numbers and political clout of New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jews makes the metzitzah b’peh controversy a potent issue for a new city administration. But we hope that the mayor will see beyond the bald political calculus to be able to firmly place himself on the side of science and public safety.
There are issues at stake here for the larger Jewish community, as well. The move to stigmatize circumcision in some European communities could migrate to America. Ultra-Orthodox leaders say they oppose regulating metzitzah b’peh because they worry that it could herald broader attempts to limit or ban brit milah.
They have it backwards. Championing a circumcision practice that is demonstrably dangerous could taint the entire enterprise. It is politically unwise and, frankly, difficult for the rest of us to justify.
Besides that, and most importantly, it puts very young lives at risk. Shouldn’t that be everyone’s primary concern?