Controversial Circumcision Rite Becomes Issue in Mayoral Race

By Steven I. Weiss

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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The controversy over a disputed circumcision ritual could affect the mayor’s race in New York City, as some members of the Hasidic community are promising to protest any restrictions placed on the mohel in question.

Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer has been the subject of an investigation by the city’s health department since three infants tested positive for herpes simplex, one of whom later died. At issue is whether Fischer transmitted the virus to the infants via direct oral suction of the circumcision wound — a method known as metzitzah b’peh, a traditional ritual still prevalent in many Orthodox communities.

Since the investigation was first revealed in February, the department has obtained a court-issued temporary restraining order “consented to by the mohel” that “prevents him from performing the metzitzah b’peh,” according to a lawyer heading the city’s legal action on the case. The attorney added that the city has been unsuccessful in compelling Fischer to provide a blood sample as yet.

The health department and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have stated repeatedly at meetings with ultra-Orthodox leaders that a general ban on the practice is not in the cards. One such meeting, with 22 Hasidic rabbis, took place August 11 at City Hall.

Rabbi Hillel Weinberg of the Central Rabbinical Congress, a Satmar organization, attended the meeting and told the Forward that Bloomberg “says that he’s not considering” a ban on the practice. However, Weinberg added, the Satmar community would consider any restriction placed on Fischer to be a ban and would cause a reaction that could hurt Bloomberg at the polls in the upcoming election.

Weinberg said that his community has met with all four Democratic mayoral candidates to discuss the issue, but none have made any promises about what they would do about the issue if elected.

One Democratic candidate, Rep. Anthony Weiner, who represents ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn, told the Forward, “It is not the place of the department of health to be deciding on a religious practice.” Weiner added, “I am troubled, based on the facts of this case, about whether or not the city has overreached here.”

None of the other Democratic candidates contacted by the Forward would comment on the administration’s approach.

Rabbi David Zwiebel, government affairs representative for ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, said that his group has “stated that we think there is something not right about the city making this final determination without allowing Rabbi Fischer and his experts full access to the investigatory data.”

Zwiebel also said that the city is seeking to replace its temporary restraining order with a permanent one. A city official declined to comment on this claim, saying it “involves ongoing legal issues.”

While Zwiebel raised questions about the city’s action, it stopped short of the Satmar leaders’ demand that Fischer’s actions not be restricted in any way no matter what evidence the city has compiled against him.

The split reflectsa growing divide between Agudath Israel, the organization that is often seen as the primary representative of the ultra-Orthodox community, and some of the community’s Hasidic members, who deny that the organization adequately represents their interests. While the Agudath Israel officially represents several Hasidic sects, the largest (Satmar) and the most well known (Chabad-Lubavitch) are not a part of the organization.

Neither Zwiebel nor any other Agudath Israel representative was invited to the August 11 meeting between Bloomberg and Satmar rabbis. Agudath Israel-affiliated rabbis had their own meeting with the mayor several months ago.

In general, Zwiebel said that for decades, the strongly anti-Zionist Satmar community has been critical of Agudath Israel for its acceptance of Israel. He added that some segments of the ultra-Orthodox community that require metzitzah b’peh might feel that Agudath Israel “does not represent their interests” because the organization includes some groups that do not require the ritual.

Zwiebel described the Satmar community as “a growing force” that “sometimes pursues issues through their own advocates and their own method.”

“We don’t have a problem with that,” Zwiebel said.

The issue of regulating some or all ritual circumcisers as a means of preventing herpes is a complicated issue, since an estimated 90% of the American population carries the antibodies for the virus and it is hard — perhaps impossible — to predict which individuals are more likely than others to spread it. Some groups, including the Modern Orthodox-dominated Rabbinical Council of America, have recommended using a sterile tube and gloves to avoid direct oral contact — but that option has been rejected by Hasidic sects and by other ultra-Orthodox communities as religiously unacceptable.

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