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Metzitza B’Peh: Infant Russian Roulette

Jews perform a brit mila in the French Jewish Community in Paris.

Jews perform a brit mila in the French Jewish Community in Paris.
Photo Credit: Serge Attal/FLASH90

The most recent issue of Ami Magazine called on readers to oppose New York City’s proposed law requiring informed parental consent before performing Metzitza B’Peh.

Just when I thought there was nothing more to say on the issue of Metzitza B’Peh (MbP), the cover story in Ami Magazine compels me to comment.

The ultimate analogy to MbP is the following. Take a gun that has a 1 million bullet capacity. Place one bullet in one of the chambers leaving the rest empty. Take that gun, point it at the head of your 8 day old infant and pull the trigger.

Is there a sane person in the world that would do that? I think the answer is obvious.You would have to be literally insane to do such a thing even though the odds of killing the baby are statistically insignificant. Why would anyone do such a foolish thing? There is a loaded gun and a chance that the bullet will end up in your child’s head!

And yet that is precisely the argument being made by those who oppose the proposed New York City law requiring informed consent by parents before allowing a Mohel to do Metzitza B’Peh. The argument is that the percentage of infants found to have been infected by herpes due to MbP is statistically so insignificant that requiring parents be informed about the danger is an unwarranted governmental interference in the practice of Judaism.

The logic of this argument truly escapes me. I wonder how they would answer the question I posed? Would they tell you that you should point a loaded gun to your child and pull the trigger? Even if the chances are 1 in a million that the bullet will not be fired? I think I know what their answer would be.

Another argument they make is that there is no absolute incontrovertible evidence connecting the herpes contracted by the infant to the Mohel. This is true. Furthermore they say that in any case the Mohel washes his mouth out with an antiseptic mouthwash like Listerine.

The problem with these arguments is that they lack any common sense. Is there any question that it is possible that a Mohel with an active herpes virus (unbeknownst to him) can transmit it to a child via oral contact with an open wound? Even people with the most rudimentary knowledge of medical science know that it is possible.The fact that there is no conclusive proof that this was the case in the cases cited above doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. The circumstantial evidence that they did pass it on to the infant was very persuasive to the CDC. Furthermore washing a mouth out with a strong mouthwash like Listerine has no effect on viruses. Antiseptics only work on bacteria.

My friends, performing MbP is playing Russian roulette with your child’s life! Are you willing to pull that trigger?

And yet there is a religious argument to be made in favor of it. This is what is really at stake here. Chasidim are adamant that MbP is an absolute religious requirement! If I understand correctly – they view a Bris done without MbP to be invalid! Leaving out the fact that that is certainly not the universal view in Judaism – including the view of many Gedolim of the past and present, let us grant them their right to believe that. They therefore argue that this is a church-state issue.

The problem with this argument is that the constitutional right to freedom of religion is not absolute. When there is a compelling interest of society that contradicts a religious ritual, the government has a right to interfere. To put this point in stark relief I will use an extreme example. If there was a religion that required human sacrifice, the government would certainly be within its rights to legislate against it. While MbP is nowhere near human sacrifice, the principle is the same. Where to draw the line of “compelling interest” is beyond my pay-scale and I will leave it to constitutional scholars to sort out.

That said, I would be opposed to the government legislating against doing MbP. That it is considered so vital by so large a segment of Jewry combined by the low probability of a child ever contracting herpes moves me to oppose it. In this case I do feel that banning the procedure would be an unconstitutional impediment to freedom of religion.

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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Binyamin and Chaya Maryles, uncle and aunt of Emes Ve-Emunah author Harry Maryles.
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