After a hiatus, we once again wade into the very uncomfortable waters of metzitah b’feh, the controversial circumcision ritual in which the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the circumcision to clean the wound. The practice has resulted in the death of at least one child from herpes.
A blog called The Canonist has acquired a letter sent by the city’s Health Commissioner, Thomas Frieden, to his counterpart on the state level, Antonia Novello, criticizing the state’s protocol to prevent the transmission of herpes from mohels to infants.
Frieden, who has circulated advisories in Yiddish warning of the dangers of the practice, notes in the letter that the state’s protocol “does not mention any role for local health officers” and makes clear that his department “does not intend to cede its authority to investigate disease incidence occurring in New York City and to intervene when appropriate.”
It’s worth noting that back in January, the Central Rabbinical Council asked Frieden to do just that – cede his authority to the state health department, which they assumed would be less aggressive on the issue. The city’s criticism of the practice grew into a full out campaign issue in some Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, where some Satmar members bristled at City Hall’s interference in what they considered a religious rite (and right). Before Bloomberg’s reelection there was even talk of a deal, in which the city would decrease their pressure in exchange for political support.
But according to the letter, Frieden hasn’t backed down and is still on the case. He takes issue with language in the state’s protocol that suggests that a community could by justified in not cooperating with an investigation into an alleged transmission of the disease. “There is absolutely no justification for not cooperating in an investigation surrounding a potentially life-threatening illness in an infant.”
Perhaps the most troubling element of the letter, however, is what Frieden calls his “fourth fundamental concern” with the protocol:
“That the children of parents for whom metzitzah b’peh is not considered religiously necessary may undergo this procedure without the knowledge and/or request of both parents.”
- Jason Horowitz