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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. jeff

    Wait till they are 18 years old then ask them if they want their penis mutilated.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  2. stephanurus

    Sick.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  3. Um...no

    I don't belive sucking the penis of a baby after cutting off the extra skin is Kosher.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  4. E B

    In other news......driving to the grocery store could result in road fatalities.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:19 am |
    • Paul

      Stupid analogy.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:35 am |
  5. just because you claim not to believe

    There is no need to label people phonies, what a pathetic little loser.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:11 am |
  6. eva68

    CNN likes to post things like this to get people all riled up when they have no real information.

    July 8, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Jim MT PA

      Must be a type of Vampire Jew. Vampires use all religions for their purposes.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  7. Rational Libertarian

    Shomer shabbos Dude.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  8. Grey, Atlanta

    First off, metzitzah b'peh is practiced by a small minority of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Most Jews, regardless of their denomination, do not practice this ritual. It traces its origin hundreds (if not thousand) of years back, and was once thought to be medically beneficial to an infant. The same Ultra-Orthodox Jews that practice metzitzah b'peh dress in medieval clothes, refuse to be photographed, speak Yiddish as their everyday language (instead of English in the US or Hebrew in Israel), are anti-Zionist, and do not accept the modern State of Israel. These are not mainstream Jews – they are a fringe. They are concentrated in some New York neighborhoods, and that's probably why this is topical in New York. Incidentally, CNN should know that you cannot reach a Jewish organization on a Friday. So, the reason these organizations could not be reached for comment is the Sabbath, not their reluctance to speak to the press.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • lostisland

      How could you possibly defend such a sick practice?

      July 8, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Jimmah

      Nice try at softening things. We know what phoking day is the sabbath. It's all pretty sick

      July 8, 2012 at 7:48 am |
    • Grey, Atlanta

      Are you dumb or just a bigot? Where do you see me defending this practice? I'm telling you when it originated, why it was practiced, and that it's not practiced by the absolute majority of Jews. This is why CNN should never have published this. Articles like these foment hated among the dumb and the lazy.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:58 am |
    • amused123

      Fringe or not, how you defend such a sick practice? Freedom of religion ends where someone else's life is put a grave risk.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • amused123

      it would seem that some of my keys are not working. oops.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  9. Mike in SA

    Wow...an ultra-orthodox way for an adult to suck a baby's penis. We usually put people in prison for that.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • lostisland

      You got that right – Can it get sicker? Genital mutilation AND pedophilia all wrapped up in a nice religious package. I think the catholic pedophiles and mohel's should share the same jail cells.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:45 am |
  10. Jimmah

    Just plain bloody weird....some orthos reaa
    Loy smell bad too

    July 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      There are plenty of reasons to condemn these "religions", but you obviously are just a semi-literate bigot. If you have something intelligent to say... nah, that would never happen.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Jimmah

      I did. We all agree it's weird to suck a baby's bloodied penis

      July 8, 2012 at 7:51 am |
  11. sick of christian phonies

    Sucking the penis of a new-born...if it wasn't a "religion", they'd be pedophiles and put in jail. Sick, sick religion.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  12. lindy

    Oh please Jews have been doing this for thousands of years..this story is nothing more then a hate attack

    July 8, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Jimmah

      Nice try, use that crap on stupid goy.....it's just another weird heeb practise

      July 8, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      It is NOT a hate attack. It reports on the concern about herpes due to this practice. You may wish the sick rituals practiced by these ultra-weirdos stay hidden from public view, but that does not make it a hate attack.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Jews have been committing genocide for thousands of years. If the Jews decided Koreans were the new Canaanites, would it be hateful for us to stop the Jews massacreing the Koreans?

      July 8, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • lostisland

      Yeah, I imagine pedophiles have been with us since we were chimpanzees.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Joe public1

      It just plain old nasty ethically an hygienicly, a thousand years or not!

      July 8, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  13. lostisland

    It occurs to me that the Pope and his priests should adopt the ritual of sucking on a baby's bloody penis. It would then allow their pedophiles to escape prosecution AND also drink the blood of christ (in a manner of speaking).

    July 8, 2012 at 7:20 am |
  14. UK Dave & my fellow scientists

    Then we must pray against herpes.
    Dear Lord, we pray against herpes. Amen.
    Then we must pray against other confusions too.
    Dear Lord, we pray against other confusions too. Amen.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • The Corrector

      When we lack confusion, we achieve our goals.
      We are destined for friendship UK Dave & our many fellow scientists.
      Naturally, we pray together in these issues.
      Let's pray goodbye to herpes & confusions. Amen. 🙂

      July 8, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  15. Rational Libertarian

    Religion is incredibly weird, but each to their own. However, how this crap is legal is baffling.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:12 am |
  16. Frank

    Now write an article condemning the M uslims FEMALE MUTILATION PRACTICE in the west? Or will be considered HATE SPEECH?

    July 8, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      No. It is as vile a practice as this one. Did Abraham- the "father" of both of these sets of sick beliefs- authorize these things?

      July 8, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Mike

      Uhhh....what?

      July 8, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  17. rick

    I wrote a post but for some reason they won't post it and it had good points, not the nonsense and lame jokes that have been told. But I guess CNN censors any opinion they don't agree with. The management at CNN must contain some communists.

    July 8, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  18. Sheena

    Kramer said this was NOT a good idea.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:58 am |
  19. rick

    testing

    July 8, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    July 8, 2012 at 6:37 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Yes, it changes what might otherwise be rational, thinking beings into automatons hoping for magic.

      July 8, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • truth be told

      Prayer is the vehicle that has propelled mankind into the world of advancements we enjoy today.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Truth be told: You're being sarcastic, right? You're confusing "prayer" with "scientific inquiry", which most of you christians reject for your book of magic. Galileo was only forgiven by the catholic church incorporated for HIS "heresy" a couple years ago!

      July 8, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Lots of claims of prayer curing cancer, etc; all nonsense. If so, what does your god have against amputees? Never saw one of them grow back an arm.

      July 8, 2012 at 8:30 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.