Brit milah (circumcision) ceremony (illustrat
Brit milah (circumcision) ceremony (illustratIsrael news photo: Flash 90

A group of Orthodox rabbis in New York City have maintained that they would ignore a proposed law that would mandate that parents sign a consent waiver in order to perform a part of the traditional circumcision ritual that has been linked to two infant deaths.

During the ritual, called metzitzah b’peh, a mohel (circumcisor, ed.) uses oral suction so that a small amount of fresh blood flows from and cleases the wound after removal of the foreskin.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, at least 11 infants are thought to have contracted herpes from the practice, two of whom died and two of whom have irreversible brain damage.

About 200 rabbis signed a proclamation claiming the Health Department “printed and spread lies . . . in order to justify their evil decree.”

“It is clear to us, that there is not even an iota of blame or danger in this ancient and holy custom,” the letter states.

“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” said Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg. “If, God forbid, there was a danger, we would be the first to stop the practice.”

Niederman said the research linking metzitzah b’peh to infant deaths is “full of holes,” adding that the practice is performed safely “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide, and that babies who aren’t circumcised can also acquire herpes shortly after birth.

“We are convinced that the data is flawed and there’s no risk whatsoever,” he said, adding that “safeguarding the life of an infant” is one of the Torah’s most important principles.

While most modern mohels use  a sterile pipette for the suction, about two-thirds of boys born in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox communities are circumcised in the oral suction manner, Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of the Orthodox Jewish organization Agudath Israel of America, told ABC News in March. 

The Department of Health argues parents should be informed of the risks before making a decision. Since 2004, it has received “multiple complaints from parents who were not aware that direct oral suction was going to be performed as part of their sons’ circumcisions,” according to a public notice.

A Health Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the rabbis’ proclamation but said, “It is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice.”

The law would require mohels to explain the oral suction procedure and its risks, including the possible transmission of herpes simplex virus, and have parents sign a waiver.

Niederman said the government should “do what they feel is right” and advise against the ritual if they think there’s a risk.

“But don’t put it on the mohel,” he said. “Don’t force parents to sign something that is against their religious beliefs.”

The city’s Health Department is scheduled to vote on the proposed law September, 13. Niederman noted his concern that the vote to enact the law would force rabbis, who are “among the most law-abiding citizens,” to put their religious beliefs first.

“When it comes to the law, we are all there – it’s our obligation, according to our religion. But not when the law goes against our religion,” he said.