Metzitzah And The Safety Of New York’s Children

By Ben Hirsch (The Jewish Week)
March 18, 2015

While reading the recent article in the Jewish Week (“Charedi Leader Opens Door On Metzitzah,” March 3), I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d fallen down the rabbit hole.

Here was Satmar spokesman, Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg (UJO), acknowledging statistics showing that the vast majority of adults are infected with the herpes virus (if you’ve ever had a cold sore, you have the virus) and invoking science to argue correctly that testing mohels before allowing them to perform metzitzah b’peh (MBP) — wherein the mohel, or ritual circumciser, “cleans” the infant’s circumcision wound by sucking the blood from the baby’s penis with his mouth — would provide a false sense of security because someone can contract the herpes virus from one day to the next.

For once, we seemed to agree.

Yet, rather than conclude from this that the practice — which has been responsible for transmitting herpes to infants, causing serious health problems, including permanent brain damage, and death — must be stopped because of the risks it poses, Rabbi Niederman dug in his heels and insisted that MBP must be allowed to continue, unfettered by government regulation.

Why? Because, according to the rabbi’s logic, testing will only prove what we already know to be the case — that most mohels are infected — and therefore lead to not having enough mohels to perform this dangerous ritual.

Following Rabbi Niederman’s lead, Agudath Israel of America’s Rabbi David Zwiebel says he is open to the concept of testing mohels for the herpes virus — but only if provisions can first be made to ensure an ample number of mohels to perform MBP.

Huh?

Frankly, I’ve long given up any expectation of hearing responsible statements from Rabbis Zwiebel or Niederman when it comes to child protection. After all, both have long advocated the position that rabbis must be consulted before sexual abuse can be reported to the authorities.

But I had hoped to feel differently about the mayor. Instead, however, it seems Bill de Blasio has become their enabler.

The consent form rule enacted under former Mayor Bloomberg wasn’t much, but if adhered to, could have helped to identify infected mohels. Now, Mayor de Blasio says it is unenforceable. Why? Because, the mayor argues, the charedim are violating the rule and enforcement will result in the practice “going underground.” And besides, the city lacks the manpower to enforce the law.

This convenient logic allowed de Blasio to live up to his campaign promise made to the charedim that if elected he would rescind the MBP consent form rule.

Thus, instead of using the rule to prevent mohels shown to be carrying the herpes virus from performing MBP and harming infants, de Blasio is rescinding it and rolling back to a version of an earlier 2006 self-policing agreement between the state and rabbis and mohels — an agreement that was flagrantly violated by the charedim.

What other group could manage to get a law repealed on the basis of their refusal to comply?

De Blasio defends his proposal and argues that, given his new relationship of “trust” with the charedi rabbis, this time they will comply and identify to health authorities mohels who have infected infants with herpes. Our experience with rabbis protecting child molesters has shown the extent they will go to protect from secular authorities even the most reviled within the community. It is safe to say that — at a minimum — this same level of protection will be afforded prominent mohels.

On the issue of prosecuting charedi sex offenders, Rabbi Zwiebel, was quoted in an October 2009 New York Times article headlined “Orthodox Jews Rely More on Sex Abuse Prosecution” as saying that “prosecutors should recognize ‘religious sensitivities’ by seeking alternatives to prison, to avoid depriving a family of its breadwinner” and “should be careful not to be seen as making a power grab from rabbinic authority.”

Does de Blasio truly believe these same charedi rabbis who refuse to allow child molesters to be reported lest they be imprisoned and lose their jobs, will cause well-respected mohels to lose their livelihood by reporting them to the authorities?

If, as the mayor says, he “absolutely believe[s] in” the “very firm commitment” he received from these rabbis why hasn’t he asked — as a demonstration of good faith — that they identify the mohels already responsible for sickening 17 infants with herpes, killing two of them and leaving others with permanent brain damage? Why must we wait for these particular mohels — whom we know to be carrying the herpes virus — to sicken or kill more children before asking the supposedly newly cooperative rabbis to identify them? Oh, the siren song of the charedi block vote.

This issue needs to be depoliticized.

Labeling as religious ritual an act known to be killing and maiming infants cannot make it legal. Mohels and parents who subject 8-day-old infants to the life-threatening practice of MBP could be charged — under existing statutes — with negligent homicide or manslaughter if the baby dies.

And if their rabbis continue protecting them, they could be charged with obstruction of justice.

Rabbis and mohels have a high tolerance for injury inflicted on helpless children yet will have zero tolerance when they are the target.(Mohels will not perform MBP if they even suspect the infant may have an infection or disease that could potentially harm the mohel.) If prosecuted, rabbis would again declare the ritual unacceptable under Jewish law — as was done 180 years ago by the most prominent charedi sages of the era — and immediately authorize several medically safe alternatives already sanctioned under Jewish law.  

Mayor de Blasio has demonstrated a serious lack of leadership. He is either hopelessly naive or so cynical that he’s knowingly selling children’s lives in exchange for a bloc vote. Either way, the public needs to send him a clear message that we value the safety of New York’s children over his desire to win the next election.

Ben Hirsch is a co-founder of Survivors for Justice (www.sfjny.org), an organization that advocates and educates on issues related to child safety.