Beis Moshiach Magazine
In recent years, Jews in New York had to contend with a new blood libel in a modern guise, in which the New York City Board of Health required parents to sign a legal consent form before their infant could have metzitza b’peh (oral suction) at a bris. * The influential Board of Health was on one side, facing a lone Chabad Chassid, a mohel by profession, on the other side. He was able to galvanize religious Jewry in New York to fight a battle that seemed hopeless. * On September 9 of this year, the NYC Board of Health rescinded that requirement. Beis Moshiach met with mohel, R’ Levi Heber, who told us about the miraculous battle that he fought and won. * A behind the scenes look at the news.
In recent years, certain entities in the US began raising a hue and cry against bris mila. They put forth various reasons, such as “you may not inflict a wound on an infant without his consent.” Then they started attacking bris for health reasons.
“I saw that what was needed was an organized effort to respond to them for I often responded in newspapers and the media and it helped. I remember how they once wanted to ban circumcision in S. Francisco until age 18. They wanted to conduct a referendum on this. It ended up being withdrawn from the ballot when the S. Francisco Superior Court Judge ruled that it would violate a California law that makes regulating medical procedures a state, not a municipal, matter. In any case, it showed that there was opposition and we needed an organized response.”
About five years ago, these organizations began directing their attack on one aspect of bris, the metzitza b’peh (oral suction). A bris consists of three components: mila, peria, metzitza. All three are part of the mitzva and always have been. This is what Jews have done for thousands of years without changes. There are various explanations for metzitza with some saying it is a health matter and others saying it is a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai; some say it involves physical health and others, spiritual health.
A description of a bris mila is first brought in tractate Shabbos (133) and the Gemara there refers to all three components. The Rambam in the Laws of Mila describes the three steps in detail. Even in the blessings recited after the Birkas HaMazon at a bris, these three mandatory components are mentioned.
About a hundred years ago, the Reform movement began calling for the abolition of metzitza. Over the years, this issue was the basis for one of the biggest battles between the maskilim (so-called enlightened ones) and the traditionalists.
Reform organizations in the US were clever enough not to fight against the bris itself, for they knew that it would not go over well within the Jewish public, as distant as it was from traditional observance. So the strategy was to focus on one detail of bris mila. They maintained that metzitza is dangerous and could transmit germs and diseases, and it should therefore be done away with. In support of their position, they cited cases in which, supposedly, a mohel transmitted a virus to an infant.
At first, these organizations publicized their propaganda material in hospitals. When they saw this was ineffective, they began lobbying for a law to this effect. Their efforts in promoting metzitza as dangerous to babies began to stir things up within the Jewish public.
They finally were able to get the NYC Board of Health to pass a law in 5772 which mandates a mohel to declare in writing to prospective parents that metzitza b’peh is dangerous for a baby, and parents had to agree to proceed with something that might cause the transmission of germs and in some cases might even cause death to an infant. In addition, the form stated that the Board of Health recommends not doing metzitza b’peh. Parents had to sign this form. Obviously, this caused many Jewish parents to want to forego this part of the bris and sometimes, the entire bris.
At first, religious Jewry was asleep on the watch. They did not realize the danger involved. R’ Heber began sensing that there were people who were afraid of mohelim. These people read in the newspapers that there was something associated with mohelim that made babies die.
He started doing research and spoke with doctors about contagious diseases like herpes. They said that large percentages of the population had herpes in one form or another and it wasn’t a problem for adults. For babies it could be dangerous, but 90% of herpes in babies was transmitted during birth through the mother and the other 10% through other means.
“There was no compelling evidence that the babies with the virus received it from the mohel at a bris. This was researched thoroughly and included children who did not undergo a bris as well as female babies that had herpes. But for those organizations it was convenient to present it as though it all came from the mohelim.”
The defamation reached its heights in a case in which a child was said to have died as a result of herpes. What the authorities did not say was that at the same time, twenty gentile children died from the virus too, and these children did not have a bris. They deliberately sought to associate this child’s death with a bris, despite the absolute lack of evidence.
“I myself spoke to the mother and interrogated the rest of the family and found out that they all had the virus,” said R’ Heber. “Furthermore, at that time, one of the younger children had the active herpes virus in his mouth and he took his pacifier and put it in the circumcised infant’s mouth. But the Board of Health chose to ignore that angle and instead blamed the parents for endangering their child [with a bris].”
There was another case in Monsey in which a child was diagnosed with herpes. The local Board of Health did a DNA test on the mohel along with a few comparative samples from other donors with each one identified by number in order to prevent corruption of the test results. The two times they tried this, the DNA test conclusively showed that the virus could not have come from the mohel. There was no connection between doing the bris and the infant’s infection.
“We asked for a similar test in New York but the Board of Health refused, saying they had enough evidence to establish linkage. Despite all this, even before it was proven, mohelim were denounced and by extension the mitzva of bris mila, and were held up to public ridicule and incrimination. It was a modern day blood libel.”