After cutting off the infant’s foreskin, Rabbi Avrohom Cohn leaned down toward the baby boy who was cradled on a white pillow atop his grandfather’s knee.
Standing fully over the child, with his back to the dozens of immaculately dressed guests at the Syrian Jewish gathering in Brooklyn, it was impossible to see what Cohn did next.
Asked after the ceremony whether he performed the controversial rite metzitzah b’peh, also known as MBP, in which a ritual circumciser places his mouth on the baby’s genitals to suction blood from the circumcision wound, Cohn smiled and said, “I did what I had to do.”
If Cohn performed MBP without getting written consent from the infant’s parents, he broke the law.
It’s something he has done many times before.
For more than a year, ritual circumcisers, known as mohels, have been required to obtain written consent from parents before performing MBP.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene instituted the regulation in the fall of 2012 after a number of babies contracted herpes following MBP.
The department says that 14 infants have been infected in New York City since 2000. Two of those babies died, and at least two others suffered brain damage.
But Cohn, who performs MBP regularly, says he has never obtained consent from a parent, and he never will. “I don’t believe in it,” Cohn said of the consent form.
Cohn, 85, is no ordinary mohel — he is chairman of the American Board of Ritual Circumcision, and widely considered one of the top mohels in a very Jewish city.
In an earlier telephone conversation, Cohn told the Forward that MBP must be performed to fulfill the commandment of circumcision. He said that the only exception is if the rite puts an infant’s health at risk.
By this, Cohn did not mean the health of the infant in front of him at a bris. Cohn said the risk he feared was that the infant of a couple who are “not strictly observant” might transmit a disease to him via MBP — and that he could then transmit that disease to another infant.
“They could be drug users, they could be going to prostitutes and who knows what, and are infected with all kinds of diseases,” Cohn said, referring to nonobservant parents.