An internationally respected expert on medical ethics and Jewish law is calling on Rockland officials to take steps to discourage a controversial part of the circumcision ritual that New York City voted last week to regulate.
Rabbi Moshe David Tendler of Monsey said that in the interest of public health, local officials should call together Rockland rabbis who advocate oral suction of the wound after circumcision and ask them to order their followers to stop.
“They should use the carrot-and-stick approach,” Tendler said. “Tell them, ‘If you don’t stop, we will do what New York City did and pass a law.’ ”
New York City’s Board of Health voted Thursday to require parental consent for oral suction, a ritual practiced by some ultra-Orthodox Jews during circumcision. Parents will have to sign a form acknowledging that the city Health Department advises against the practice because of risks of herpes and other infections.
Rockland Commissioner of Health Dr. Joan Facelle, a pediatrician, said there are no plans to outlaw or limit the practice in the county’s large and diverse Jewish community. The Westchester Department of Health is not considering any action, a spokeswoman said.
Rockland is making plans to provide educational booklets about the practice prepared by New York City to hospitals in the county, where they would be given to parents of baby boys, Facelle said.
“As a first step, we want to educate so people understand why there is concern about this practice,” Facelle said.
The procedure is called “metzitzah b’peh” in Hebrew. During the ritual, the person performing the circumcision cleans the wound by sucking blood from the cut. Doctors say the procedure puts the child at risk for herpes simplex type 1, which is usually harmless to adults but can be deadly to newborns.
The Health Department says there have been 11 confirmed cases of herpes simplex since 2004 in newborn boys after circumcisions that likely involved direct oral suction. Two of the infants died.
A Monsey rabbi, Yitzchok Fischer, has been the subject of a state order prohibiting him from performing oral suction.
Tendler’s opinion will hold sway with some — but not all — Jews who favor oral suction, predicted Samuel Heilman of New Rochelle, a sociologist and college professor who has written extensively about the Hasidim and other Jewish groups.
“For people looking for cover, people who don’t accept this idea of metzitzah b’peh, he provides a reason not to do it,” Heilman said.
But the most fervent supporters of the practice are followers of Hasidic rabbis and are not likely to be influenced by Tendler or anyone else, Heilman said.
“If their leader says it’s metzitzah b’peh, then it’s metzitzah b’peh,” Heilman said. “It’s the herd mentality — they will do what their rabbi says and they are not interested in looking at anything else.”
Tendler and many other experts contend that oral suction is not required by Jewish law as part of the ritual.
“It’s a hoax perpetuated by some of the rabbis,” said Tendler, who has been harassed for his stance on the topic. “It’s a prefabricated lie.”
Others maintain that oral suction is an integral part of circumcision.
“There are many rabbis who consider metzitzahb’peh to be unnecessary,” said Avi Shafran, a rabbi and spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization. “But (there are) many rabbis, including in Rockland County, I assure you, who feel quite strongly otherwise.”
But the ritual itself isn’t the real issue, said Shafran, whose organization has threatened to sue New York City to overturn the law.
“The issue isn’t really about the practice itself but about whether it’s proper, in our country, to interfere with the freedom of religious practice,” Shafran said. “That is a fundamental First Amendment issue, not one that Rabbi Tendler’s point of view on the particular practice here can be allowed to obscure.”
Tendler said he understands why many religious groups bristle at the idea of government intervention.
“Should the government be involved?” he asked. “I concur that the government should not be involved.”
But if religious leaders don’t act to ban the practice, secular officials will have little choice, he predicted.
Few people in favor of the practice understand the risks it poses, said Tendler, who has a degree in microbiology.
“They don’t appreciate the fact that this exposes the child to danger,” he said. “Danger that the child is being exposed to for no reason.”
Source: The Journal News