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July 7th, 2012
08:34 PM ET

Circumcision ritual under fire in New York due to risk of herpes infection

By Pauline Kim, CNN

New York (CNN)– A controversial Jewish circumcision ritual is under fire after allegedly causing the deaths of two infants and exposing potentially thousands more to the risk of herpes infections.

New York City health officials are pushing a proposed regulation that would require parents to sign a consent waiver before they take part in a circumcision ritual called "metzitzah b'peh," typically practiced by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ritual potentially poses a fatal risk to newborns, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The legislation was proposed at a Board of Health meeting last month by Dr. Jay K. Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control for New York City's health department, after 11 infants contracted neonatal herpes between November 2000 and December 2011, after the circumcision ritual. Two of the infants died.

Jews regularly practice circumcision as part of their religion, but mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews practice metzitzah b'peh, during which the mohel, or person performing the procedure, orally sucks the blood from the infant's newly circumcised penis.

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The numbers reported came to light as the city's health department launched an investigation after the infant deaths were reported in New York, the most recent in September in Brooklyn.

The health department reported last month that an estimated 20,493 infants in New York City were exposed to direct oral suction. Baby boys who were reportedly circumcised "with confirmed or probable orogenital suction" between April 2006 and December 2011 had an estimated risk of contracting neonatal herpes (HSV-1) infection of 24.4 per 100,000 cases, making the risk 3.4 times greater than those infants who did not have direct oral suction, according to the health department findings.

In a statement advising New York parents to refrain from direct oral-genital suction during circumcision, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said, "There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn.

"Parents considering ritual circumcision need to know that circumcision should only be performed under sterile conditions, like any other procedures that create open cuts, whether by mohelim or medical professionals."

Reports of infant herpes infections and deaths are not new.

In November of 2004, the Department of Health reported that twin male infants contracted neonatal herpes after the ritual circumcision, one of whom died.

Spokesman Jerry Schmetter of the Brooklyn Defense Attorney's office said a criminal investigation regarding a rabbi who was linked to infant herpes cases, was "still ongoing."

In the case of the Brooklyn infant's death in September, the parents of the baby refused to tell authorities who performed the ritual.

The United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg in Brooklyn could not be reached for comment.

Jeffrey Mazlin, a certified mohel and physician in New York who regularly practices circumcision procedures, said "only the more orthodox, the more traditional mohels" perform the metzitzah b'peh.

"[Orthodox Jews] look at it in terms of religion being more important than the individual, whereas someone who is more liberal will make sure that the individual's rights are taken care of," he said.

But the ritual is not just an upholding of a Jewish tradition, but also a firm reminder of their beliefs.

"Because blood is the life-giving element, they believe that it's supposed to be part of the whole procedure," Mazlin said.

The little blood that is drawn from the newly circumcised penis is usually left alone or wiped away under regular procedures, he said.

"There are no known medical benefits to sucking [the blood]," he said.

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Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of Talmudic Law and Bioethics at Yeshiva University, dismissed any defense of the practice, calling it "primitive nonsense."

"[The ritual] has nothing to do with religion. It's only their customs. But they've managed to convince the city that it's a violation of their religious freedoms."

Tendler notes that there is an alternative to the metzitzah b'peh in which a mohel doesn't use his mouth directly, but uses a sterilized glass tube or pipette to suck the blood from the wound, which many modern orthodox Jews have started to incorporate during their circumcision rituals.

The Jewish tradition of circumcision rituals originate from Scripture, in which God tells Abraham that all men must be circumcised eight days after they are born.

"Hundreds of years ago, they didn't know that you can get an infection by sucking the blood. So they were not concerned," said professor Arthur Hyman of Yeshiva University.

Dr. Daniel S. Berman, an infectious disease specialist, has defended the practice, arguing in a paper published in the Jewish journal Dialogue that there is still no evidence that metzitzah b'peh directly caused any of the reported infant herpes infections.

Berman even attributes racial bias in the New York City government as the reason behind the proposed mandate for the parent consent waiver.

Berman's opinion does not appear to be representative of the larger medical community. He could not be reached for comment Friday by CNN.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York could not be reached for comment.

Last week, a court in Germany outlawed circumcision on infants with the exception of medical purposes.

The ruling came after the case of a Muslim couple whose 4-year-old son was hospitalized after a circumcision procedure.

The Department of Health is accepting public comments on the proposed regulation until a public hearing July 23. At the hearing, there will be a public forum where the board will consider all comments and make a final vote September 13.

- shirleyhenrycnn

Filed under: Judaism • New York

soundoff (643 Responses)
  1. Tom

    Willard Romney is kind of a doofus isn't he.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
  2. Aaron

    http://www.thelocal.de/society/20120626-43383.html

    July 7, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  3. BOOGER

    Hello, there! This is yer neighborhood ki-ke telling you that I haven't seen such bull shicht since I got beat up in first grade fer killing Christ. I'm now sorry that I DIDN'T! Then, again, the 'Church' has taken the 'best and the brightest' out of the gene pool for centuries, leaving trailer trash to follow pedophiles who are 'abusing' their sons....just go to confession, get absolution, take communion... THEN GO OUT AND DO IT AGAIN. You'll be forgiven... you sorry brain dead so-and-so! Your whole 'religion' is a lie, but, you, being brain dead from the get-go WON'T see it. Now, get drunk in Saturday night, beat the crap out of your fellow trash, then go to church on Sunday and do it again. LOSERS!

    July 7, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
    • Steven

      Sounds like you're really upset. Must be from the painful memory of having your wee wee sliced off by the mohel. Thank God I'm intact. Just as GOD intended it!

      July 7, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Bryan

      This coming from someone who holds belief in the evil Talmud, which states that a jew can perjure himself in court, kill a gentile without sin, steal from gentiles, then go for a yearly swim and be forgiven for all the nasty things he did to God and other jews, but not gentiles, because we don't count. What a hypocrite

      July 8, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • MOSHE

      Bryan, who says you don't count? You DO count...as much as a chicken, a donkey, or any other animal.

      April 6, 2013 at 8:30 am |
  4. southernwonder

    a child can grow up to hate the society he lives in if you subject him to such cruelty that forms one of his first few impressions as he enters this world.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Newborns have not yet developed the brain structures to create memories. Take a biology course.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  5. Don

    This is another example of religion controlling weak minds....

    July 7, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  6. Steven

    So does this mean that Jews are blood suckers??

    July 7, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  7. Don

    Stop male mutilation.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  8. paul cos

    I once had a wallet made of foreskin,when you rubbed it ,it became a suitcase.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Are you sure it wasn't a briefcase ?

      July 7, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
  9. Mad Sam

    Those people are disgusting. Sucking and drinking the blood of an infant's d**k ... seriously? Infecting them with herpes so that many of them die or live the rest of their lives with a nasty, reoccurring virus?

    How is this even allowed? The government should protect the lives of defenseless beings, especially babies. Ritualistic mutilation is unnecessary, unnatural, and dangerous.

    Above all, religion is disgusting. This is another example of what religion does to normal people.

    Oh, well. Religion brought us 9/11, animal sacrifice, and sucking infants' d**ks. What next?

    July 7, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Nah

      mad: "Above all, religion is disgusting. This is another example of what religion does to normal people."

      Yeah! I mean, people are sick, violent, murderous, greedy, partisan, etc. because of religion! Not because they're human!

      LET'S STRING THEM ALL UP FROM TREES!

      Mor on.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      They need to move on to enlightened things, like snake handling.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • nat

      No one drinks the blood. It is forbidden by Jewish law to drink any blood. The suction is for the purpose of drawing blood out of the wound to clean it and has been done for thousands of years and has been supported by people much more intellectually advanced than yourself. Please do not comment regarding matters of which you are totally ignorant. And don't believe everything that you see on CNN.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • Seri

      Err, Nat? First you defend the practice thats been perfomed for thousands of years and then say dont beleive everything you see on the news? Which is it?

      You do realise that the article is about babies actually getting diseases from this ritual. Oh, some people far more intellectually advanced than myself know the following.
      The human mouth is home to a host of bacteria naturally, let alone in persons with diseases like herpes. Sucking at an open wound does not clean it. Whether you like it or not, the mohel consumes some blood even though they spit it out. This cult like ritual, sounds more like something you would hear devil worshippers doing, I mean just add a goat and your summoning the beast! .

      July 8, 2012 at 6:53 am |
  10. Andy

    For those obviously ignorant posters in this thread, the people that do this are a tiny minority of ultra religious Jews.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:51 pm |
    • Jimmah

      Still weird and is a Jewish practise

      July 8, 2012 at 7:43 am |
  11. Garnet69

    Before anyone passes judgement on Jews in general (unless you pass similar judgement on all Catholics for the practices of some priests, or all Baptists for the practices of some preachers, etc.).....I was raised Jewish, consider myself Jewish, although I am an Atheist (and no, that is not a contradiction) and have never heard of this ritual until a few days ago. Yes, I had a bris, but the methods described in this article are only practiced by such a small percentage of Jews that it would be a statistical anomaly.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  12. MyselfOfCourse

    Glad I still have my foreskin!

    July 7, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  13. JBHedgehog

    Are you kidding me? Hey...Orthadox Jews. CUT IT OUT! It's a stupid ritual in the first place but sucking out the blood? GOOD LORD is that dumb. Just because your forefathers (no pun on foreskin) did it doesn't mean YOU have to do it! How about you review practices before blindly proceeding with them?

    July 7, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • Teri

      But, that's the thing with religion – people are supposed to blindly follow and not question.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  14. Kalamazoo Mom

    Mutilating a newborn baby boy is beyond disgusting. Many new parents don't even realize it is unnecessary and optional. It should be illegal in every state no matter what the religious beliefs of the parents are. What kind of man sucks a newborn baby boy? Only a pervert would sign up for that job.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Ting

      They do it because that is what God expects. God is not happy if he doesn't see some infant penis sucking. Don't you want God to be happy?

      July 7, 2012 at 10:52 pm |
  15. Jim

    Sick pedophiles, period. Parents to sign a consent waiver? Why? The babies can't consent. Perversion at its finest!!

    July 7, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  16. angie

    what the fu.ck

    July 7, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Stunned

      ditto from me too. This is just plain disgusting and absolutely not justifyable.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  17. lunaticinmyhead

    My Grandfather always told me that Jews ate babies. Guess it's sort of true. That is really disgusting.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • Andy

      Your grandfather was a moron. Obviously he passed that trait on.

      July 7, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
    • MOSHE

      Coming from a probable Christian, it's funny for you to point fingers. During the Holocaust, European non-Jews were cannibalizing Jews. They made lampshades, soap, and shrunken heads out of them. Worst of all, many Christians kept freezers full of Jewish "meat". After the war was over, they had enough to last them years.

      April 6, 2013 at 8:33 am |
  18. morkindie

    I thought unnecessary plastic surgery on an infant was illegal.
    Somebody call the cops!

    July 7, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  19. Craig

    This sounds a whole lot like a small church in Oregon City, OR that collectively believes that since doctors are not mentioned in the Bible, they shouldn't take their children for any medical treatment. Several children have died...from preventable or treatable conditions, and finally the legislature put a stop to it, changing the law so it favors treating the children. At least three couples have now been charged under the law, and guilty verdicts have been returned.

    In short, while I have no problem with someone's religious beliefs, when young children are sacrificed at an age where they are too young to consent, it's not your belief, it's their rights! You do something that results in their death, you deserve to be tried for doing it. Some of this pre-historic religious nonsense needs to be stopped, not because there something wrong with the religion, but because it results in preventable deaths. If this...erm...mohel...is spreading herpes to new-borns, he should be punished. In short, this is just plain dumb!

    July 7, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  20. TAK

    So now the First Amendment protects pedophiles? The catholic church is kicking themselves for not thinking of this defense. Just proves the stereotype, jews are better lawyers.

    July 7, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.