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 * On September 9 of this year, the NYC Board of Health rescinded that requirement.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.
The NYC Board of Health convened a meeting and asked doctors to send a report about every child that showed signs of having herpes. Much to their chagrin, they got the opposite result of what they were looking for.
“We showed them all the professional data from Eretz Yisroel and proved that the average infection rate in Eretz Yisroel, as compared to the average in the US, is much lower, even though in Eretz Yisroel the majority of babies undergo bris mila with metzitza. Nevertheless, they stuck to their position that parents must sign the consent form before having a bris done.”
R’ Heber, who felt the opposition was growing, personally went to the Board of Health to attend one of the meetings on the subject. He proudly told them that he represents the Jewish people, the rabbis of Orthodox Judaism, “and they are all looking to us. This is not just a private matter in New York, but a mitzva that pertains to all Jews.” R’ Heber begged them not to promulgate a law that limits this. He even threatened – “You should know that we are ready to fight for this and we won’t spare any amount of money to get the proposed law rescinded.”
R’ Avrohom Cohen also attended the meeting and spoke from his heart. He told the officials that he went through the Holocaust and came to America because he heard there was freedom of religion here and now he feels that America is persecuting religious people.
When the law was passed in New York, European countries also began passing laws against bris mila. In one instance, the local shliach in Europe went to the government and asked, “Why are you doing things that look anti-Semitic?” In response, they used the New York legislation to support their position.
New York Mayor (at that time) Michael Bloomberg, a Jew, led the opposition against metzitza b’peh. At one of the meetings he spoke very harsh words against the mitzva. He even said, “I myself am Jewish and I am the only one who can fight against this. I am not afraid of 10,000 guys in black hats demonstrating against it.”
“We began thinking about what to do,” says R’ Heber. “We had to fight through legal means in the courts.” R’ Heber knew he had to bring out the “heavy guns.” Upon the advice of lawyer, Yerachmiel Simon, he made contact with one of the largest law firms in New York so they could handle the legal battle.
Unfortunately, the opposing side enlisted hundreds of Reform “rabbis” (many of them women) who claimed metzitza is unnecessary.
R’ Heber saw that he couldn’t do this alone and that he had to enlist public opinion which had been quiet until then. He contacted the Hisachdus HaRabbanim of Satmar in New York and they agreed to join the fray. “We felt it wasn’t enough, for we were only two groups of Chassidim.” So he then contacted the leaders of Agudath Israel in the US and got them on board too. Agudath Israel represents many k’hillos including groups to whom this issue is not that important. The very fact that such a large organization was standing up for religious liberty in Jewish matters sent a powerful message. There was unprecedented achdus and collaboration. “With achdus like this we felt we had strength, public opinion, as well as moral support with which to carry on the fight. We also had a stronger financial base with which to finance the legal and media battle.”
The religious groups sued the City of New York with their main claim being that the city has no authority to mix into religious matters. “We added that if we did something that harmed people, there are laws against harming people even with no religious connection, but in this case, the government is claiming we are doing something dangerous. We maintained that it is not dangerous. Furthermore, we said that this issue could not be decided based on feelings and unsubstantiated statements but solely on meticulously researched data and the Board of Health had clearly refused to do this.
“They knew that they couldn’t fight bris mila directly, so they began with something easier to attack, metzitza, which had public support. According to their plan, every so often they would increase the pressure against the mitzvah until they would get the mitzvah prohibited altogether.
“There was an enormous danger that the result could be that the city would directly forbid it, but we knew that the law was simply an anti-religious law presented as a health issue. We knew that if we remained silent now, they would come with additional limitations, like it being illegal to perform a bris any place that isn’t sterile (like a shul, private home, etc.). And from there, they would outlaw bris mila and it would be much harder to fight that.
“We felt that we had no choice because this was an attack on the Jewish people of New York and it would affect Jews in other states and in countries around the world. For Lubavitchers and Satmar and other religious people, it wouldn’t matter because we would continue doing the mitzva regardless, but as Lubavitchers, we feel responsible for all the Jewish people! Also, I had seen a letter that the Rebbe sent to Dr. Grutzendler who had written about metzitza and recommended that the government get involved and prohibit it. The Rebbe wrote him, “From government intervention in prohibitions and coercion in the lives of Jews, nothing good ever resulted for Jews, not for their souls nor their bodies, as many examples in Jewish history demonstrate.” The Rebbe’s resolute position motivated me to continue.
“Many political friends advised us not to fight the city because we won’t win. Some friends said that we didn’t stand a chance in the legal battle, but there was no choice.
“The first legal hearing took place in federal court and we lost. The judge said that the Board of Health certainly has the right to make a law like this, for it isn’t anti-religious. They only wanted to prevent something that spreads disease.
“With the advice of all those involved, the askanim decided to appeal to the New York State Supreme Court. Three judges were unanimous that the claim against the Board of Health was justified. Not only that, but they warned the government that it cannot do anything anti-religious, even under the guise of health measures, without absolute, direct proof.
“This ruling was given a year ago. Although we won, it wasn’t final because we had to go back to the first judge and she had to rule on whether the danger to the infant is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt or not. The Board of Health had to bring evidence, and so did we.
“It was impossible to know how things would turn out. We knew that they could say that indeed, in this form, there is no problem but that way is problematic, and they could make a law that would limit a bris k’halacha. It all depended on the goodwill and mood of the judge. We were afraid that she would not be convinced by our arguments. It was very likely that she would say the Board of Health’s findings were more authoritative when it comes to health matters than anything we could show.”
At this tense stage, elections were held in New York. Bloomberg was out and even the composition of the Board of Health changed. Those who replaced them came to us to conclude matters with a compromise in which we would have to give in on something. It was a big question whether to accept this or not. If we did not accept the compromise, we could lose everything.
“Each of the plaintiffs went to consult with his rabbis about compromising. I spoke with rabbanim and many of them were afraid to take the responsibility on such a grave matter. It was something for which only the Rebbe could take responsibility.
In the end, there were Chabad rabbanim who told me decisively that we had no right to make a compromise on a mitzva and we had to do all we could to protect it, and as we saw with the court case regarding the sefarim that even when there was an opportunity to compromise, the Rebbe was not willing to do so.
“I went back and told the others that Chabad’s position is not to agree to any compromise. The Satmar representatives also came back with the answer not to compromise. Consequently, all those who comprised the side of the plaintiff agreed to follow through to the end.”