Ritual Circumcision Death Being Investigated By Brooklyn Prosecutor

A ritual circumcision death is being investigated by Brooklyn prosecutor after a two-week old baby boy died at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn, New York in September.

The baby contracted herpes from a religious ritual circumcision called metzitzah b’peh conducted by an unnamed Rockland County rabbi, said The New York Daily News. In 2005, this type of circumcision spurned controversy following the death of another baby.

A spokeswoman for the city Medical Examiner confirmed the recent baby’s death following an inquiry by the Daily News. The cause of death was listed as “disseminated herpes simplex virus Type 1, complicating ritual circumcision with oral suction.” The Daily News noted that, as of today, city officials declined to comment on the matter; the name of the rabbi who performed the circumcision is still not yet known. The New York Times indicated that Charles J. Hynes, Brooklyn district attorney, confirmed that the investigation was continuing. The DA offered no other information.

In 2004, city health officials revealed that another baby boy died following the ritual oral suction called metzitzah b’peh conducted by a Rockland County rabbi who specializes in the ritual described as “centuries-old, ultra-Orthodox,” said The Daily News.

The ritual involves a rabbi or mohel removing the wound’s blood with his mouth, said The Daily News, which noted that this practice has been criticized by health officials who say it carries “inherent risks” for babies. Metzitzah b’peh takes place during the circumcision ritual of the bris ceremony. The rabbi or mohel, removes the penis’ foreskin and sucks blood from the wound to cleanse the area, explained The New York Times.

Metzitzah b’peh is practiced nearly solely in ultra-Orthodox communities; however, it is seen in Orthodox Jewish communities, said The New York Times. The City has long worked to stop the practice and broaden education efforts over the health risks involved.

In 2003 and 2004, three babies who underwent ritual circumcision by Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer were diagnosed with having contracted herpes, according to city officials, said The Daily News. Of those babies were twin boys circumcised in October 2004 and a Staten Island boy; all were circumcised by Fischer. One of the twin boys died, said The New York Times; Fischer was banned from performing the ritual in New York City.

According to The New York Times, the DA has received minimal cooperation in the community.

About two-thirds of newborn boys in the city’s Orthodox communities are circumcised with metzitzah b’peh, Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told The New York Times. Rabbi Zwiebel told The Times that mohels in the Hasidic community were aware of the hygiene issues with the practice and said there are steps they can take to limit risks. “We’re not oblivious to what’s going on,” Rabbi Zwiebel told The Times.

“The worst thing that could happen is if the authorities regulate this practice, then it could go underground,” he said. “I think the practice would continue, but there could be significant difficulty in gathering evidence. I would hope that our government officials take steps in conjunction with the community,” Rabbi Zwiebel added.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg met with rabbis in the city in an attempt to push them toward stopping metzitzah b’peh. This was in 2005, said The Times and the rabbis argued that the practice is safe and no concrete proof exists that it causes herpes. “The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years,” said Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2005, wrote The Times. “‘We do not change. And we will not change.”

This week, the mayor said, “There is probably nobody in public life who fights harder for the separation of church and state than I do, but I just wanted to remind everybody: religious liberty does not simply extend to injuring others or putting children at risk…. And we will continue working with the community and others to prevent more baby boys from suffering these tragic fates,” wrote The Times.

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