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. Beechwwod1

    the "Chosen People" beleive in a jewish Messiah, a military Leader who will take over the world and make them Rulers of the World. Another society recently called that their "Fueher". In History there have been jewish Messiahs before, but once they failed, they were no longer considered the Messiah.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Apatheist

      Did you just compare Jews to Nazis???

      July 8, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  2. JG

    Totally disgusting. This IS against the law....just seems like the Jews are getting a free pass.......Not acceptable at all.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  3. Jewish

    And in today's modern world, we have another name for metzitzah b'peh: Pedophilia. Strange how the more religious someone is, the creepier their rituals are. Does anyone wonder why organized religion is heading out the door so fast?

    July 8, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  4. fred

    that's there for a reason, leave it alone psychos.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  5. DrJStrangepork

    Sometimes tradition must take a back seat to logic. This is a dangerous practice that freedom of religion should not protect.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  6. Star

    ...practice "under fire... due to risk of herpes infections" – not because it's mutilation and molestation? (thanks
    , nillerz, for putting is so succinctly). Why do we need to justify this as a medical concern, rather than for what it is – abuse! These children can't fight against this for themselves, and it is disgusting that we allow it under the guise of historical religious practice and religious freedom.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  7. vozdejustica1

    Jew's are total nutcase.. Everyone I have had the sad fortune to come across has been 1 card shy of a full deck and believed the world owe them some debt and they where better than the rest of the world. Come to find out they are child molesters hidding behind religion. Just get a huge police van and round up anything dressed up Jewish. No need for a trial just throw then in a cell for life.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • j

      your a f&$&^%#@ nutcase, go sit in traffic @hole

      July 8, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  8. Zman

    So who believes certain religious faiths should be federally outlawed, and if so which ones?

    July 8, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Polergiest

      A communist would. I think Stalin had a list.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • vozdejustica1

      The Jewish faith is high on the List !!!

      July 8, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  9. r

    I bet Obama would like the job of a Mohel.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Apatheist


      July 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  10. bal

    Jews are just as bad as muslims when it comes to screwed up traditions. Hello folks its 21st century. Common sense and respect for your fellow human beings is the best religion.

    July 8, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • vozdejustica1

      Jew's are back stabbers that can't be trusted. Consider Joseph Lieberman and his public betrayal of the Democratic Party in 2008. They view themselves as better than anyone else so If Lieberman could not be the first "Jew" in office and hold the U.S. as a puppet state of Israel then he would do everything he could to sabotage the Democrats efforts to retake office.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  11. AZ Wildcat

    Just another benefit of religion. It is time to exterminate all religion once and for all.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Polergiest

      It's been done before by major powers. Three times actually, in the Soviet Russia, China, and North Korea all have successfully eliminated religion. They continue to execute more people than anywhere on the planet. They do have to make sure they properly censor everything you can see, and they do require absolute faith in the state in it's place. And they've had minor issues with starving populations at one point or another. But hey, guess that's a small price to pay so you don't have to see bibles in hotel rooms anymore.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  12. Seyedibar

    It's bothersome that so many Americans believe in gods and spiritis and magic. It's even more insane that they mutilate their children's genitals in those gods' name.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  13. Gas Giant

    Finally...a story in the "belief" section on CNN that shows religions for the whacked out nut jobs they really are. Humans are so gullible.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • quark brain

      "Humans are so gullible."

      While chimps (like you) aren't?

      July 8, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • self-confessed atheist

      Direct admission that non-believers aren't human(e).

      July 8, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  14. Grumpster

    Sounds like a branch of the Church of Jeffrey Dhamer to me. These people are nuttier than the Branch Dividians.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  15. n8r0n

    Religion is all a bunch of twisted nonsense. Grow up people. There's no invisible space god who cares what you do.

    What is real are viruses and bacteria. You wing nuts should spend a little more time learning about what science has discovered, and a little less time mumbling to imaginary figures.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  16. ikihi

    who cares if this is their religion. perverted acts like this need to stop!

    July 8, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  17. Joshua Ludd

    Here is an idea... ban the genital mutilation of infants. If, when they turn 18 they want someone cutting on their genitals without anesthetic for their religion, they can have it done then... when they are adults and it is their choice. Mutilating a child's genitals is barbaric, monstrous, and should be banned worldwide. Its your religion? Great. When your child is old enough to make their own choices in the matter THEY can decide if it is their religion and they want their genitals mutilated for it.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • n8r0n

      If we let children mature before deciding whether or not to participate in religion, then there would be almost no religion left.

      Religion's existence is predicated based on the idea that it's pushed on people at an age when they have neither the emotional, or intellectual maturity, to separate reality from utter nonsense.

      July 8, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  18. Baldenario

    Sucking infant penises is legal in New York City?

    Totally demented! 😦

    July 8, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • vozdejustica1

      Jew's are total nutcase.. Everyone I have had the sad fortune to come across has been 1 card shy of a full deck and believed the world owe them some debt and they where better than the rest of the world. Come to find out they are child molesters hidding behind religion. Just get a huge police van and round up anything dressed up Jewish. No need for a trial just throw then in a cell for life.

      July 8, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  19. terry

    OMG !!!

    July 8, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  20. Shocked!

    How is this ok???? If anyone else did this, it would be perverted and disgusting and grounds for going to jail! Claim religion all day long, but this is one part of religion I feel needs an intervention.

    July 8, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • vozdejustica1

      Good Point this is child abuse !!!

      July 8, 2012 at 11:18 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.