(photo credit: REUTERS)
New York City’s Board of Health on Wednesday canceled its requirement that parents sign an informed consent form before their children undergo metzitza b’peh, a controversial Talmudic practice in which a drop of blood is orally suctioned from the penis following a circumcision.
The move garnered immediate praise from ultra-Orthodox groups.
Metzitza is a source of controversy within the Orthodox community, with more modern elements rejecting it while it is firmly embraced by the more conservative ultra-Orthodox factions. Initially imposed as a safety measure by early Mishnaic sages, researchers have linked it to the spread of herpes. According to Yeshiva World News, health officials have connected 17 cases of infant herpes to the practice over the last 15 years.
“There’s a difference between ensuring people have information to make an informed choice and the choice that people actually make,” health commissioner Dr.
Mary Bassett was quoted as saying by the Capital New York website.
“It’s our goal to ensure people have information at their disposal. The choice they make remains theirs. Parents are balancing their conception of a spiritual risk as compared to a medical risk and our goal is really to ensure they have information about the medical risk. We’re incapable of directing that calculus.”
The board indicated that it believes that previous efforts at regulation were ineffective.
Mayor Bill De Blasio’s opposition helped strengthen him electorally in ultra-Orthodox communities when he ran for mayor in 2013.
In a joint letter, the ultra-Orthodox Central Rabbinical Congress of the US and Canada, Agudath Israel of America and the International Bris Association stated that they were grateful to the board for “closing this unfortunate chapter in what otherwise is this great city’s shining history of tolerance and of protecting religious liberty while safeguarding public health.”
“This regulation of an aspect of bris mila, the practice of ritual circumcision that has been a foundation of the Jewish religion for thousands of years, was the first of its kind in the history of the United States. As a result of today’s vote, it is now off the books. For all who treasure religious freedom, and are truly committed to the health and well-being of our children, this is cause for celebration.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infants who undergo metzitza “had an estimated risk 3.4 times greater than the risk for HSV-1 or untyped HSV infection among male infants unlikely to have had direct orogenital suction.”
Despite the strong ultra-Orthodox support for the practice, many more modern Orthodox Jews oppose it and substitute suction via a glass tube to avoid the risks of orogenital conact.
Several prominent contemporary decisors of Jewish law, such as Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, have called for the traditional method of suction to be shelved due to contemporary medical knowledge.
“The rule that’s above all rules in the Torah is that you cannot expose or accept a risk to health unless there is true justification for it,” Tendler told The New York Times in 2005.