Agudath Israel of America is profoundly disappointed in the New York City Board of Health’s adoption of a regulation requiring a mohel to obtain written consent from parents of baby boys before performing metzitzah b’peh, or oral suction, as part of b’ris milah.
While not all Jewish religious authorities require metzitzah b’peh, many do—which means, for the tens of thousands of families in New York City who follow the view that the practice is an integral part of b’ris milah, that the city is inserting itself directly into a religious practice. It does so by compelling mohalim to deliver a message with which they fundamentally disagree. The regulation raises serious constitutional concerns and will surely be subject to strict judicial scrutiny.
The regulation, moreover, is based on the assumption that the risks associated with metzitzah b’peh are so substantial as to warrant an aggressive governmental campaign against the practice. However, serious questions have been raised regarding the Health Department’s assessment of the risk. What is more, the city has never moved to regulate any of a number of other activities carrying significantly greater and more demonstrable risks.
Looming in the background of the regulation’s adoption is the fact that the circumcision rite itself has come under attack in other parts of the world, raising the specter that New York City’s move may establish a dangerous precedent for additional governmental interference in b’ris milah.
Agudath Israel had appealed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Thomas Farley for an adjournment of the vote so as to allow responsible Orthodox Jewish leaders to engage Health Department officials in substantive dialogue about how to best protect children’s health without impinging on free speech and religious liberty. In the end, unfortunately, they declined the request. Agudath Israel regards this as an opportunity squandered.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president, said that it is “sad that the City of New York, which has made such an important contribution to the renaissance of Jewish life over the past century, has become the first jurisdiction in the United States to regulate an aspect of b’ris milah.”