Following Baby’s Death, Orthodox Group Urges Followers To Drop Disputed Ritual

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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In response to the death of a New York baby boy from herpes, the top union of Modern Orthodox rabbis is urging Jews to abandon the ancient ritual practice of suctioning the blood by mouth directly from the baby’s penis during circumcision.

The Rabbinical Council of America, representing more than 1,000 rabbis, issued a policy statement this week arguing that instead of direct oral suction the tradition known as metzitzah be-peh could be fulfilled with the use of a tube. The statement came following the death of a New York baby from herpes, which officials suspect might have been transmitted from the mouth of a Hasidic mohel during the circumcision process.

The RCA stated that a traditional Jewish circumcision, or brith milah, involves extracting blood from the wound or the surrounding tissue, using the mouth as the source of suction. But RCA declared that this requirement could be fulfilled through the use of a sterilized tube, eliminating the transmission of infectious diseases to the newly circumcised infant.

“It is the position of the RCA that the requirement of metzitzah is fulfilled completely and unambiguously by the use of oral suctioning through a tube, as practiced by many mohelim in our communities,” the organization declared, adding, “The RCA urges its member rabbis, their congregants, synagogues and institutions, as well as the larger Jewish community, to encourage, and where possible necessitate, that metzitzah be-peh be fulfilled via a tube.”

Experts said most Modern Orthodox ritual circumcisers already use latex gloves and a sterilized glass tube for suction, taking precautions not to come into contact with the baby’s blood. But the practice of direct oral suction continues to be standard in many ultra-Orthodox communities.

RCA’s statement is expected to upset Hasidic sects and other ultra-Orthodox communities. Leaders of these Orthodox camps have been vigorously defending the practice of direct oral suction since it came under attack last month, after New York City health officials announced that Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, a prominent Hasidic mohel from Monsey, N.Y., was suspected of transmitting the herpes virus to three infants he had circumcised. One of the infants died this past October.

Fischer is suspected of passing the oral herpes virus, which generally produces cold sores but can be passed to another person’s genital area.

Government or religious attempts to ban the direct oral practice were denounced in a pointed February 18 editorial, by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, editor and publisher of Yated Neeman, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper.

“Will we become like our Russian brethren in the past century who were forced under the Communists to conduct sacred bris [circumcision] in underground bunkers with sentries standing guard,” Lipschutz wrote. “Are we about to revisit those days in our own country?”

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox rabbis signed a full-page Hebrew advertisement that ran in the February 25 issue of Yated Neeman, defending the practice.

A prominent Orthodox medical ethicist, Rabbi Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University, already has come under fire from ultra-Orthodox critics, for an article in the August 2004 issue of the medical journal Pediatrics that he co-wrote, arguing against the practice. Tendler has been outspoken in recent weeks, as well.

The RCA’s executive vice president, Basil Herring, said that while Tendler was not directly involved in formulating the policy statement, he was consulted and gave his approval.

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