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. Anniedee

    Oh wow, if this isn't a PERVERTED intepretation of scriptures. How disgusting. No wonder Jesus was angry at the Jewish leaders of his day, for adding all kinds of USELESS JUNK to the law of Moses.

    I don't suppose anything will shame these ultra-Orthodox Jews into becoming sensible or reasonable. But this is way over the line. Besides being very unsanitary. AND, what's a holy man doing with HERPES anyway? How many Jewish LAWS did the guy break in order to contract THAT disease.

    This is the first I've heard of this problem. But it's a doozy. And it's really tragic that little babies are dying because of such religious stupidity.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:29 am |
  2. Forrest

    Better than the Catholics. At least these Jews keep their child molesting right out in front with their rituals instead of hidden in their private chambers.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:07 am |
  3. WOW

    Jew-deism and all religions suck. Atheism rocks!!!!!!!!!! This article explains it all.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:52 am |
  4. Pu$$y Galore's Flying Circus

    Similar joke but totally unrelated to religion – okay, I will alter it to offend Christians, just for giggles:

    Two hunters – a Buddhist and a Christian – are out in the woods when thge Buddhist collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The Christian whips out his phone and calls the emergency services, starting with 811 as our prayer troll seems to believe, then actually calling the correct number. He gasps, "I think my friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a gun shot is heard. Back on the phone, the Christian says "OK, now what?"

    The Christian then goes to a bar to find a jew and a parrot, but that's another story.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  5. Nate

    That ritual sounds like something that some pedophile made up in order to get their jollies.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:28 am |
    • CurmudgeonTx

      Now, this is one story I am glad there are no pictures for...yech.

      July 8, 2012 at 4:02 am |
  6. PD

    This is wrong. They should not make them sign, it should be considered child abuse. Any person who performs such should be locked up in prison. And parents who allow such to their children should have the children removed. Religion is a blight, but people have their right to believe. What they do not have is the right to inflict these things on children.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  7. jebus

    Perfectly normal, perfectly natural

    July 8, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  8. Dakota2000

    Judisim. Lots of smart people, but some really dumb practices.

    July 8, 2012 at 3:05 am |
  9. countertrans

    oh look at me, i am going to suck blood from an infants penis, but if you think its weird u are an anti-semite...bhoo hoo.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:47 am |
  10. countertrans

    sucking on an infants penis. they were right, these people are vermin's.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:45 am |
  11. g

    separation of church and state, it goes both ways so its none of the governments business

    July 8, 2012 at 2:33 am |
    • PD

      No. It does not. The state's main responsibility is to protect the rights of people. It is a right of the child not to be exposed to aids and other diseases.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:18 am |
  12. JP

    This is a tiny, tiny, tiniest, subset of the ultraorthodox....not at all related to anything 99.9999 percent of Jews would accept. Plain sick and totally unaceptable.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:18 am |
  13. 60minuteman

    They should require that the CHILD sign a release form first.

    July 8, 2012 at 2:02 am |
    • Outraged

      An informed and legally binding release.... IE the child has to be 18

      July 8, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  14. b4bigbang

    Ok, now for the oldest story applicable here:
    Two men were hunting and one got bit on his Johnson by a rattlesnake.
    Fortunately the afflicted hunter's buddy was able to get a cell-signal and called the poison center.
    The poison center told the buddy that he had to suck the poison from his fellow-hunter's Johnson or he would die.
    He walked over to his afflicted buddy and the stricken hunter asked his him "what did the poison center say?"
    He said "they told me you're gonna die".

    July 8, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • Peace2All


      You've made me chuckle twice today. Loved the video you posted.



      July 8, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • b4bigbang

      Thanks Peace2All. Yeah, just trying to throw in a little humor here before some of the more hot-headed trolls here start circ umcizing each other right below the chin.....

      July 8, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  15. Yaakov

    Thank you CNN for fomenting a blood libel! Your company is one of the most irresponsible news agencies in the world. Thank you for making it your business to personally attack the Jewish religion. Just look at the comments section to see how your totally irresponsible, racist, bigoted, Nazi articles are fomenting anti-Semitism and hate. A victory for liberalism, isn't it? Way to go bigots! Just curious – which Nazi publication did you plagiarize this from?

    July 8, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • Dude Looks Like A Laity

      So this isn't just another excuse to get a kok in the mouth, then?

      July 8, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • Smirnoff

      Cry me a river, you fundamentalist schlemiel.

      July 8, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • rh

      This has been a big story in NYC papers for weeks. It is NOT a lie, and if you are Jewish, you should be rightly appalled.

      This practice is being done by a subset of a subset of your community.

      Maybe now you know how it feels for Muslims to be tagged to be the same as the perpetrators of 9/11.

      July 8, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • DavidBenCohen

      Yaakov, Get a grip. I've read and I've read and I've read... for 60-years I've read. And NOWHERE can I find a Jewish reason for a mohel to SUCK on the penis of an infant... or anybody else for that matter. Before you go calling others Nazis, irresponsible, racists and bigots, many of us reading your slander are interested in knowing why you think you aren't sounding a lot like all of those things yourself.

      My second question to you is: why doesn't this fall under the civil definition of pedophilia.

      Lastly, now that a medical/statistical connection can be made between this practice in your community and DEATH, do you think it may be time to reconsider this non-religous sickness. If you are too young to understand all these words, please consider a community elder and have them respond.

      And, yes, I was born a Cohen.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • Dakota2000

      Yaakov- don't play the anti-semite card. Sucking you know what, of a baby is weird to 99.99% of the human race. Sorry, you can't do what every you want and then call everyone nazis'

      BTW: how are those Palestinians doing under Israeli care, speaking of Nazis.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:08 am |
    • McIver3

      Yaakov – This is no blood libel. It's concern for health of dying babies.

      I'm not an orthodox Jew, nor born a Jew, but read the Torah regularly. Help me out here- Where in the Torah or Talmud does it say for a mohel to suck the blood off of a baby's penis?

      July 8, 2012 at 5:38 am |
    • Jr jr.

      calm down guys. He is only upset for not being able to suck a baby's penis. Disgusting. I am shuddering just writing about it.

      July 8, 2012 at 6:43 am |
  16. Lucy

    This infuriates me! How is it possible that a man can legally suck a baby's dick? Why does religion trump the law? Makes NO sense. In any other case, an adult male who sucks a child's dick would be called a pedophile and be in prison. Religious practices should not trump the law. Put these quacks in jail! POOR KIDS!

    July 8, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • fritz

      I know! I freaked when I read it! You gotta be kidding me! They are either taking this religious ritual stuff way too far or these guys doing this are just plain sicko pervs! I'd become violent if I found out some guy put his fiilthy herpes ridden lips on my kid's junk during some religio-medical procedure!! The whole notion makes my skin crawl!

      July 8, 2012 at 1:41 am |
    • rh

      Two infants died, it's way beyond that.

      This is cultism and should be stopped. Find another country that does not protect its children.

      Attempted murder and murder should be the charges.

      July 8, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • Meg

      I agree. It's beyond comprehension how anyone could allow this to happen to their child. Sick!

      July 8, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  17. IslandAtheist

    Religion should be a four letter word.

    July 8, 2012 at 1:10 am |
  18. Brian

    This reminds me of a comment my psychology professor made: "Religion has all the symptoms of a mental illness. We don't consider it as such because so many people go in for it."

    July 8, 2012 at 1:03 am |
  19. Stendec

    OK, now I get it... Adolf really was right all along!

    July 8, 2012 at 12:56 am |
    • rh

      Yeah, sure, and every Christian will massacre a camp full of kids, and every Muslim will crash planes into buildings.

      Really these people should be called "Jews" as much as Jim Jones and his ilk should be called Christians.

      July 8, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  20. Danny of Delphi, Soothsayer of the Obvious

    One good way to know that your religion is bullshit: Your God requires that weird old men cut part of your dick off.

    Second way to know, just in case the first didn't quite convince you: The weird old men then suck your dick to get blood out.

    If not yet convinced, yoou are just too stupid to be bothered with.

    July 8, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • Danny of Delphi, Soothsayer of the Obvious

      One good way to know that your religion is bullshit: Your God tells you not only to abandon your family to follow him, but also to impoverish yourself and give everything to the poor so that you get a front row seat in heaven.

      Second way to know, just in case the first didn't quite convince you: You don't do it, even though you still claim to follow him because he is infallible.

      If not yet convinced, I have a special today on the Brooklyn Bridge. Great opportunity. Act now, operators are standing by!

      July 8, 2012 at 12:49 am |
    • Mickey

      Those who believe in Jesus – then drink his blood and eat his flesh.

      Oh, and kill anyone who doesn't believe!!

      July 8, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • JustAnObservation

      The more I read these comments the more I'm convinced that Atheism is the new religion du jour.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:03 am |
    • Dan

      Mickey....Nowhere does Jesus Christ tell us to kill those who don't believe.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:38 am |
    • Topher


      "Oh, and kill anyone who doesn't believe!!"

      Yeah, you've got the wrong religion there.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • jebus

      Topher and Dan, try reading your Bible:
      Romans 1:18-20 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.

      July 8, 2012 at 3:11 am |
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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.