Circumcision Controversy Endangers Fight To Keep Rite Legal in Germany
The practice of metzitzah b’peh, a controversial part of some Jewish circumcisions, is reigniting concern about religious circumcision in Germany, where the government only recently fended off an effort to outlaw the ritual altogether.
The chief representative of Chabad in Berlin, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, has been accused of making MBP, as metzitzah b’peh is often called, part of the religious circumcision of his own infant son during a ceremony in front of 400 guests, including journalists. The ensuing uproar over the practice, which health authorities say endangers infants, has split Germany’s Jewish leadership.
The dispute has also led Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to rush to Teichtal’s defense with a letter that critics say backtracks on its own recent directive to Israeli mohels upholding a safe and sterile alternative to MBP.
The German controversy comes on top of an ongoing conflict between New York City public health authorities and ultra-Orthodox groups over the use of MBP in that city. In Europe, where religious circumcision itself stands on shakier ground in public opinion, some fear that the MBP controversy could imperil the broader right to practice brit milah, as the circumcision rite is known in Hebrew.
Christian Bahls, a 34-year-old mathematician, has filed a criminal lawsuit against Teichtal for allegedly employing MBP during his son’s March 3 brit milah at the Chabad synagogue in Berlin. Bahls, who was joined by several others in his complaint, claims that a video of the
event on the website of the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel shows MBP being performed. In fact, the video, which briefly shows the mohel taking a sip of wine and bending down toward the 8-day-old infant, leaves the viewer unclear as to whether the procedure took place. Bahls told the Forward that after seeing the video, he contacted the Tagesspiegel journalist, who confirmed to him that MBP had occurred.
In an interview with the Forward, Teichtal, who heads Berlin’s Chabad Jewish Education Center, would neither confirm nor deny that MBP was used.
The Hebrew term metzitzah b’peh refers to a procedure in which a mohel orally sucks away the blood from an infant’s genital area after cutting away the infant’s foreskin. The practice can infect newborns with herpes simplex virus type 1, according to medical authorities. While not serious for adults, the virus can be fatal for infants, or cause permanent cognitive or physical harm.
Since 2004, the New York City Department of Health has reported 13 cases that it attributes to MBP, with two deaths.
While rare, the incidence of this virus among New York City male newborns with confirmed or probable exposure to MBP — one in 4,098 — is 3.4 times greater than among newborns outside this group, according to a study published in June 2012 in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Most mohels in the United States 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. In January, New York City’s health department began requiring mohels who use MBP to obtain a signed consent form from the parents of the infant. But it remains unclear to what extent mohels using MBP are complying with the new rule.
In Germany last September, the country’s Ministry of Justice drafted a law to protect religious circumcision for Jews and Muslims after a Cologne district court ruled that this ritual deprives a child of his right to self-determination and inflicts “bodily harm” and “assault.” The proposal passed Germany’s Bundestag by an overwhelming majority in December after heated public debate, and was seen as a victory for Germany as a tolerant multiethnic society. The new law affirms the legality of religious circumcision but requires that circumcision be carried out with the highest medical standards.
Bahls, who heads an organization for victims of sexual abuse, says he filed his criminal complaint against Teichtal precisely because these standards had been violated.
In Germany, citizens may file public suits against individuals whom they believe committed crimes. The Berlin state prosecutor is still evaluating Bahls’s criminal suit.
Meanwhile, Bahls has posted an explanation of his suit on his website, in English, German, French, Hebrew and Russian.
“I’d like to make one thing very clear right up front: This lawsuit is not driven by any anti-Jewish resentments, but by the strong belief that all children bear the same inalienable rights,” Bahls’s website announces.
The anti-abuse activist also stresses that his complaint is not aimed at religious circumcision in general. “That is an issue for an internal debate among the Jewish people,” he writes. “I also disapprove of any misuse of my efforts… by people that use the issue of circumcision to fuel their discriminating thoughts against minorities.”
Instead, Bahls writes: “My aim is to shed some light on the circumstances of this particular circumcision. It clearly shows that some people are unwilling to abide [by] at least the minimum standards set forth by law, for example just obeying the rules for proper medical treatment.”
Teichtal counters that his son’s brit milah “was done according to the top medical level.”
“The mohel has over 30 years of experience and is a supervisor of mohels in Israel,” Teichtal told the Forward. While avoiding a direct answer to the question of whether MBP was performed, Teichtal said: “We spoke to [the mohel] before the bris about the medical requirements according to German law, and he assured us that the bris would meet those requirements, and he did it that way. There were even several doctors in attendance.”
Dr. Ulrich Fegeler, a spokesman for the German Pediatric Association, nevertheless warned: “What this rabbi is accused of doing is neither hygienic nor in accordance with acceptable medical practice. If this controversial procedure continues, it will be taken to the courts for legal action.”
With the charges now filed against him, Teichtal said that “the important thing for us as a community is to stand together.”
That, however, is precisely the opposite of what has happened since the controversy broke out. While Gideon Joffe, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, has voiced support for Teichtal and for the Jewish community’s “right to practice the traditions they’ve inherited from their ancestors,” Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, stressed his organization’s opposition to MBP.
The Central Council is currently in the process of drawing up guidelines for the certification of mohels in Germany, Graumann told the Jüdische Allgemeine, Germany’s main Jewish newspaper. And in compliance with Germany’s circumcision law, mohels who perform MBP will be denied a certificate, he vowed.
The split paralleled the discord among Orthodox rabbinical groups weighing in on the controversy in Germany and elsewhere.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Moscow-based president of the Conference of European Rabbis, which is the primary Orthodox rabbinical assembly in Europe since World War II, told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung in early April, that, for hygienic reasons, he recommended use of a glass pipette for suctioning blood during circumcision. He criticized “closed ultra-Orthodox communities” that “flout community rules.”
“While we respect Rabbi Teichtal’s right to practice his tradition,” Goldschmidt said, referring to MBP, “we doubt it was wise to do so as a public community rabbi.”
In a separate interview with the news agency JTA, Goldschmidt hinted at his underlying concern. He said that he wanted to be “supportive of [Teichtal] without endangering the whole issue of brit milah.”
Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Center of Europe, a Brussels-based organization founded by Chabad to rival the Conference of European Rabbis, has strongly backed Teichtal. In an April 18 editorial in the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, the center’s general director, Menachem Margolin, criticized Goldschmidt and others for “aligning themselves with those who are working against Jewish interests.” He said that such misguided efforts could lead to governments once again “accusing Europe’s Jews of inhuman and uncultured practices.”
In an interview with the Forward, Margolin cited a long list of commentary and rabbinical debates regarding MBP. “There are many things in each generation that Jewish leaders are trying to change and improve,” he said, but warned, “this is not an issue that should be discussed in a non-Jewish paper. It’s something to be discussed by rabbis.”
The Israel Chief Rabbinate’s decision to enter the dispute on Teichtal’s side has, meanwhile, complicated perceptions of its position on the issue in Israel itself.
Earlier this year, the rabbinate issued a letter to Israeli mohels that was seen as an effort to support the use of sterile pipettes. The letter followed an Israeli study which found that 30% of neonatal herpes in the country was attributable to MBP.
But in an April 22 letter to Teichtal from Morsiano, the rabbinate’s director of the division for circumcisions, the Israeli rabbi stressed that MBP was integral to the circumcision ritual. There is no justification for canceling MBP, he wrote, “unless the mohel has a sore in his mouth, or some infectious disease.” At the same time, Morsiano said that the mohel is required to get the family’s permission to perform the oral suction.
Medical authorities say that adult herpes carriers often have no sores and are unaware they are infectious. Yona Amitai, one of Israel’s most prominent pediatrics experts, said that in his view, the rabbinate had, through its letter, “highly discouraged” the alternative method of performing the rite with a sterile pipette. “I highly criticize this approach from the standpoint of public health despite the fact that I am religious,” Amitai said.
But Morsiano, in an interview with the Forward, insisted that he has not come out against the tube method, nor has he backtracked on the recent letter to Israeli mohels, which presented the sterile pipette method as equally valid. The intended meaning of the letter, according to him, was that “there is no justification to abolish [MBP] as an option for those who want it.”
A.J. Goldmann reported from Berlin. Nathan Jeffay reported from Jerusalem. Donald Snyder reported from Greenwich, Conn. Contact A.J. Goldmann at [email protected]