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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. mmi16

    All religious rituals are MAN MADE. The Bible, Torah & Koran are all MAN MADE! Religion is MAN MADE!

    July 8, 2012 at 12:36 am |
  2. John Ross

    they suck WHAT from the WHAT?!

    This has got to be a gag right? How do you train for this? Can you imagine a bigger mental scar to BJ than this? First I hack it until it bleeds, then you get a hummer.....who made this up?

    We have guys like this in the Catholic Church – we try to put them in jail though.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  3. Bootyfunk

    i want my foreskin back!

    we condemn female genital mutilation in the middle east/africa while performing male genital mutilation here in america without a thought. circ.umcision should be illegal everywhere. there's no reason for it. the myths about cleanliness have been debunked.

    it's just a primitive and brutal judeo-christian rite branding the victim, signaling s.exual obedience to yahweh by removing part of the reproductive organ. it's religious hocus pocus to fulfill god's disgusting desire for the bloody flesh from a man's p.enis. future generations will look back in horror at the thought of a 'civilized' nation performing genital mutilation on its most helpless of citizens, babies.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • john the guy not the baptist

      The Nazi's found this a conveniant way to identify male jews during their regime. The spread of the practice, in order to have all males circ*umcised supposidly for health reasons was just a ploy and should be outlawed.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:05 am |
  4. yuri pelham

    Consuming blood is against Jewish law. But the babies shouldn't be punished for the sins of the parents.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  5. Control Me

    In today's society, we care most about controlling others and making them conform to our world view. We do not really care about the individuals often referred to as victims. It is the control and conformity that is important. If the babies health were the real issue, the parties involved could be tested for communicable agents, but not the practice itself must be stopped because clearly it is immoral to suck a babies penis.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:04 am |
  6. Lupus the Great

    This just maybe a way to keep the Jewish population small. Who needs more lawyers?

    July 8, 2012 at 12:04 am |
    • yuri pelham

      Nor more Nobel prize winners.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:15 am |
    • Garnet69

      Great logic Lupus, the world does need more ditch diggers to work with you.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  7. ROCKWOOD

    They've been clippin doinks in America since the 50's at least.........why has it become such a problem?

    July 8, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  8. Lupus the Great

    Child abuse is not IK in any religion.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:00 am |
  9. Lupus the Great

    That is just gross!

    July 7, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
  10. Fn0rdz

    Because it pleases the "creator of the universe" to suck blood from an infant's mutilated penis...

    July 7, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  11. mhklein

    The health of the infant must be paramount, but if there is any way that these people's customs can be respected without endangering the child, that's what should be done. Freedom of religion isn't just for religions we approve of.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • pdxmum

      Freedom of religion stops where another person's body starts. Last I checked, a human infant was still a person.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  12. Tyler

    "religious freedom" DOES NOT mean you can harm others, cut off parts of their body. etc.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
  13. Luek

    The Bronze Age is over! It is easy to come up with non-violent ways to appease a thunder god rather than throwing bloody infant foreskins at it. A lock of hair from the infant is okay. Or a dyed fingernail would suffice. Get creative.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
  14. Woody

    I guess it never occurred to the genius parents of these babies, that the huge cold sore on the lip of the organ sucking rabbi was likely caused by the, highly communicable Herpes Simplex Virus. But then again, when "[Orthodox Jews] look at it in terms of religion being more important than the individual", I guess they couldn't care less. It must be God's will.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
    • Thomas Henley

      I think what you might have failed to consider is that ultra orthodox Jews do not touch their faces with razors...they have very long and often very wild beards...lurking underneath all that hair might be a cold sore / herpes virus they might not even know exists.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • Dan

      Herpes can be transmitted without a sore being present.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  15. james

    This is a joke........right ?

    July 7, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Steven

      No it's NOT! It's FACT. Look it up. But God help anyone who exposes what the TRUE Jews really do!

      July 7, 2012 at 11:39 pm |
  16. jqent

    (Neddy Seagoon voice): I don't wish to know that!

    July 7, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
  17. thinquer

    For clarification on "orogenital suction" see Leviticus Chapter 17 וַיִּקְרָא10 in the Torah (Hebrew Bible) "And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eateth any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people."
    Orogenital suction is against God's law to the Jews about ingesting blood, and therefore has bad results. The practice is not from God or the Torah, it is a man-made custom .

    July 7, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      So you kill your disobedient children.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
    • Steven

      This further proves that ultra-Orthodox Jews should be banned, they don't even follow the religion. They are genetic inbreds who only inter-marry. It's like cousins marrying cousins. And yet they CONTROL politics in Israel and the Occupied Terrorities. They are blood sucking terrorists.

      July 7, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • Heidi

      Thank you for the clarification! That is exactly what I was thinking - if one follows the Torah, they are supposed to go to great lengths to avoid consuming blood because 'the life is in the blood'. So many human traditions 'suck'...

      July 8, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • Ruby

      I've often wondered about this very thing. Since blood ia trefah, how can they justify this primitive custom? At the very least, they need to certify these guys as virus free before they do such things.

      July 8, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  18. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    Actually the elephant in the room is not the genital mutilation, but the indoctrination the poor child must endure at their hands, and the years it will take to recover from theism. Some day, that will be seen a abuse.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
  19. PhilG

    How about we just ask them to not suck the blood out of the child's chopped off foreskin.

    Just wrap it in some gauze with some Neosporin on it and change it daily.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  20. Aaron

    Muslims do this barbaric stuff also.

    July 7, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
    • NQuest

      Yeah right. That sounds like BS to me.

      What if a Catholic priest was caught doing this? IT WOULD BE BREAKING NEWS!! ... for sure!

      July 7, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
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About this blog

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.