New York City’s health commissioner announced this week a new approach to metzizah b’peh, the controversial and relatively rare practice of oral suction during circumcisions, which has been linked to the spread of herpes simplex virus-1, a potentially fatal virus for infants.
“Every time there is a mohel who performed MbP [metzitzah b’peh] on an infant who has contracted HSV-1, the Health Department will serve them with Commissioner’s orders banning them from performing the ritual,” the department stated, according to The New York Jewish Week.
Previously, mohels would only be banned if they tested positive for the herpes virus. This new plan requires no testing at all for the mohel, only the infant.
However, both policies rely on the mohels to self-enforce the rule, a rule they might dislike.
Rabbi Levy Y. Heber, a mohel in Crown Heights, was quick to criticize the commissioner.
“Do we just blame people by means of association?” Heber asked. “This is what some would call a witch hunt or a modern-day blood libel, where you blame the mohel for something without looking into facts or evidence.”
According to the New York Daily News, the ritual of metzizah b’peh is first mentioned in tractate Shabbos of the Babylonian Talmud, in which it is argued that performing the ritual is necessary from a medical standpoint to prevent infections.
In the 19th century, scholars adopted a different stance, with one German scholar publishing a handbook for mohelim in which he argued that metzizah b’peh was harmful to infants. Most Ashkenazic rabbis stopped performing the ritual entirely during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s.
In a 2006 article, OU.org stated that “while there is definitely basis for an insistence on metzitzah b’peh, primarily from kabbalistic sources, one should carefully consider the risks involved when contemplating the practice for one’s own newborn son. Certainly, it is worthwhile to consult one’s rabbinic authority.”
The Department of Health’s decision this week was praised by Marci Hamilton, the head of the CHILD USA advocacy organization, who told Jewish Week that “deference to a religious organization at the expense of infant health betrays [the Department of Health’s] very reason for existence.”
“The next needed step is enforcement of such a ban,” Hamilton said. “By creating this bright line rule, the department has created predictability and acted on the right side of preventing harm.”