Galen and Hippocrates depicted in a 12th century mural/ Wikimedia Commons.
The tradition of metzitzah b’peh goes back to biblical times but has created a modern-day dilemma for religiously observant Jews.
New York City officials linked the practice to 17 cases of infant herpes since 2000, of whom two died. In the latest development, the city will stop requiring mohels who use oral suction to have parents sign consent forms, which many hadn’t complied with anyway. Instead the city will focus its efforts on educating members of the ultra-Orthodox community about the risks and dangers of the practice.
But why do some Jews practice oral suction circumcision, or metzitzah b’peh, and where does the rite come from?
Though to a small number of observant communities, the practice is routine and normal, to cosmopolitan sophisticates it may seem pretty gruesome. After the mohel cuts off the foreskin, he uses his mouth – oral suction, rather than say a sponge - to effectively clear the wound on the baby’s penis of blood, lest it clot and decay.
As for where it arose, metzitzah b’peh is a time-honored tradition codified in the most important Jewish scripts, much like circumcision itself.
(JTA) — Natan Zaidenweber thought the mohel was kidding. His wife, Linda Raab, thought it was some kind of religious formality and didn’t give it a second thought.
But the mohel, Cantor Philip Sherman, was serious. Though most fathers demur when he invites them to perform the bris on their sons by clipping their foreskin, preferring to delegate the task to someone professionally trained in the procedure, Sherman finds that about 5 or 10 percent of dads agree to do the cut.
“It is the father’s mitzvah to actually perform the bris as Abraham did for his son, Isaac,” Sherman said. “Many fathers have told me what an incredible moment it was for them to do the actual bris and enter their sons into the covenant of Abraham.”
The Mill Valley, Calif., couple realized the cantor wasn’t joking only once the ceremony was underway. Sherman began with a naming ceremony for Jay Hilay and his twin sister, Sivan Rose. Then he again offered Natan the option of making the cut.
The new dad stepped forward, and as his startled wife screamed his name in a tone that she says was intended to say, “Are you crazy?,” a friend reassured her it would be easy.
“I then took a deep breath, surrendered to the faith I had in Phil and motioned that they had my blessing to proceed,” Raab said.
Sherman set up what was needed, gave the baby some sugar water, put a clamp in place and offered Zaidenweber some direction. Making the cut, Zaidenweber said, was a powerful bonding experience.
“I’m glad I did,” he said. “I’m glad I have that connection with my son. Your love is equal for both [twins], but it’s special that we have that bond.”
For Raab, too, the experience was a positive one. Sherman had told the gathering that a baby’s cry during a bris is like the sound of the shofar opening the gates of heaven.
“I closed my eyes, heard Jay’s cry and actually was able to experience it as deeply spiritual and beautiful,” Raab said, noting her pride that her husband took on the role.
“He stepped up, fearlessly, with a faith in himself that I wouldn’t have had in myself,” she said. “I have since been aware of how much his modeling has helped me to muster more courage as I face the tasks of mothering.”
If the couple were to have another son, would Zaidenweber make the snip again? Yes, say mom and dad, without hesitation.
We know his gender. We know his name. Now it’s time to move on to the next critical news item from London. I speak, of course, of the newborn HRH Prince George of Cambridge, and whether or not the little royal foreskin will be snipped.
Notwithstanding that the debate about the possibility that the new heir is actually Jewish has been put to rest, we are still left with the question as to whether his parents will opt to have him circumcised. We can be sure, however, that if they do decide to snip his tip, it will likely be a mohel, or Jewish ritual circumciser, to do it.
In the last day, the British press has been filled with articles about the relationship between the House of Windsor and circumcision. “Will William and Kate call for the rabbi?” ask the tabloid headlines, unaware that a mohel need not necessarily be a rabbi.
They ask, because historically, the male offspring of the British royal family have been circumcised. The tradition dates back to the reign of George I, who brought the custom over from his native Hanover in the early 18th century.
Prince Charles lost his foreskin as an infant back in 1948. Dr. Jacob Snowman, the then-medical officer of the Initiation Society (a sort-of guild for UK mohels), wielded the blade, as he was better trusted than a regular physician to perform the minor surgery. In fact, the royal family traditionally prefers to rely on the know-how of mohels.
“There are many people outside the Jewish community who call on them for circumcision,” Maurice Levenson, the Initiation Society’s current secretary, told The Telegraph in reference to mohels. “Their experience and expertise provides parents with a considerable degree of comfort and reassurance.”
Newly minted New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner dodged a question at a mayoral debate last night on the controversial Jewish circumcision practice known as metzitzah b’peh.
The practice, which entails direct oral suction on an infant’s circumcised penis, has been blamed in a handful of cases of herpes. The city’s health department, under the urging of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has instituted a regulation requiring parents to sign a consent form indicating that they are aware of the risk of herpes transmission before the practice can take place.
The Democratic mayoral candidates have previously mostly said that they support the regulation.
Weiner, when asked about his position on the consent forms at a forum in Manhattan Beach, didn’t address the question directly.
“For me, it comes down to my values as someone who believes in the ethos of New York, and part of that ethos of New York is we all come from different places, we bring different cultures, we bring different ideas,” Weiner said.
In his response, Weiner also cited a 2005 Forward report from his previous run for mayor in which he said that he opposed city regulation of the practice.
“It is not the place of the department of health to be deciding on a religious practice,” he told the Forward at the time.
In the legendary days of the Yiddish Forward, Ab. Cahan, the founding editor, could leave his office at 175 East Broadway and roam the streets, synagogues, restaurants, schools yards and tenements of the Lower East Side to listen to his readers. And he did, often. It helped him keep a finger on the pulse of his community and enabled the newspaper to directly connect with and reflect the ongoing concerns of his readers’ daily lives.
Now my office is on the eighth floor of a building in Lower Manhattan, largely removed from most of our far-flung readers. But I am able to tap into a virtual Lower East Side in cyberspace — a shtetlsphere, if you will — where engagement with readers can produce an ongoing conversation and some terrific journalism.
That’s what we’ve been doing this year. I hope you’ve noticed.
We began by asking you to nominate your most inspiring rabbi, and the result was a mesmerizing set of profiles of spiritual leadership across the nation. Then we asked for “Six Words on the Jewish Mother” and the result is published in this week’s paper — 18 charming, concise, hilarious odes just in time for Mother’s Day. A similar project for Father’s Day, also in conjunction with Smith Magazine’s Six-Word Memoir®, will commence soon, with a May 29 deadline for submissions.
But before then, we invite you to take part in a different kind of conversation on the brit milah, the circumcision ritual that has been a staple of Jewish life for millennia and is now under assault, from within and beyond our community. It’s a ceremony that inspires emotions ranging from rejoicing to repugnance — with dissonant combinations of everything in between. We would like you, our readers, to share your experiences as parents of a Jewish newborn facing this ancient, primal rite, or as an adult who chose to enter the convenant. Were you conflicted or inspired? Was it a moment of discovery or of disgust? Or did you, perhaps, walk away from it? What were the consequences?
As you can see, our efforts to engage readers span from the celebratory to the serious, as befits a publication that seeks to capture the many facets and challenges of American Jewish life today. Join us.
New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu opposes new city regulations that require parents to sign consent forms before their baby may undergo a controversial oral suctioning technique employed as part of a ritual circumcision, Liu told the Forward today.
The regulations, championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were imposed this January in response to reports of babies contracting the herpes simplex virus during the ritual procedure.
Some Orthodox Jews see the consent forms a curb on their religious liberty. The have made their opposition to the forms an issue in the mayoral campaign, asking candidates to stake out positions on the regulations.
Liu has previously voiced support for the ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh. His remarks today, however, appear to amount to the first time he has been reported to explicitly oppose the consent forms.
“For thousands of years, this has been a practice that has been observed by people,” Liu said. “As with most procedures, some risk is inherent. But I would certainly defer to the rabbis on this as opposed to thinking that, well we know better after thousands of years of this practice.”
Asked specifically about the consent forms, Liu responded: “I’m not in support of the changes that Mayor Bloomberg made.”
Other mayoral candidates have made similar remarks. Eric Salgado, a Democrat, also opposes the mandatory consent forms.
Former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, a Democratic mayoral candidate who enjoys heavy support from ultra-Orthodox activists, has said that he is open to dialogue on the metzitzah b’peh issue, but stopped short of saying that he opposes the consent forms.
So far in 2013, the New York City Department of Health has informed the public of two instances of babies contracting herpes after undergoing metzitzah b’peh in New York City.
While I was researching my Forward story about circumcision and pain, I realized that I didn’t know what a circumcision actually looks like. I’ve only attended one bris — apart from my own — and there I didn’t have a good line of sight to the baby.
I was particularly interested to know more about the circumcision procedure because one of the more interesting aspects of the reporting for this week’s story was that circumcision opponents are not the only people who describe the process as cruel.
Many Orthodox mohels perceive medicalized circumcision — a longer, more involved procedure than traditional circumcision — as particularly uncomfortable for babies. Even injecting anesthetic into infants is seen as painful.
Meanwhile, more liberal Jewish mohels, most of whom are doctors, think the idea of using sugar water or grape juice as the only form of anesthetic before and after removing the foreskin, as most Orthodox mohels do, is unfair to the child. Why avoid pain medication when research shows that babies feel pain and when analgesics are so prevalent today?
The American Association of Pediatrics has doubled down on its position that the health benefits of infant male circumcision outweigh the risks. But the AAP’s new policy statement, released today, stops short of recommending routine circumcision of boys.
The report did warn against “mouth-to-penis contact during circumcision,” which has been linked to a seldom-performed, ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice known as metzitzah b’peh, which involves a mohel sucking blood away from the wound. A baby boy died in New York last year when a mohel infected him with herpes.
The AAP’s circumcision task force, an interdisciplinary panel of specialists, has worked since 2007 to comb through more than a thousand articles and studies to come up with its new guidelines.
Previous guidelines, issued in 1999, also found that the health benefits of circumcision outweighed the risks.
But this latest study found even more evidence, gleaned from health studies during the past decade, showing that circumcision decreases the risk of urinary tract infections in infants and of sexually transmitted diseases in men.
The big studios seem to be running out of superheros for the summer movie season. They must be scraping the bottom of the barrel if the best they can do now is Thor and the Green Lantern.
I have a solution: A brand new superhero, minted just last week, and a big, big Hollywood star who seems hyped to play him.
We’ve recently been introduced to the comic book “Foreskin Man,” the quite blatantly, Medieval-style anti-Semitic creation of one Matthew Hess, a key figure behind the ballot initiative to ban circumcision in San Francisco. The comic’s hero fights off the dark, Shylock-looking character known as “Mohel Monster” who brandishes his knife and looks to cut up Jewish babies’ penises. Foreskin Man is a waspy, blond haired hunk in a yellow cape whose real identity is the mild, mannered bachelor Miles Hastwick.
Russell Crowe is apparently auditioning for the part via Twitter. After one of his followers informed Crowe that he was expecting a son and hoping to circumcise him, the Australian star known as much for his acting as for throwing telephones at people in hotel lobbies, responded: “Circumcision is barbaric and stupid. Who are you to correct nature? Is it real that GOD requires a donation of foreskin?”
Crowe went on to call another follower that defended the ritual practice a “moron,” and extolled the virtues of his own foreskin: “It’s cold here in Ireland, it’s like a turtle neck, but for my penis.”
It’s a done deal then. The only question is: Who will play the arch enemy of Foreskin Man, “Monster Mohel”? I vote for Pacino!