New Yorkers have been following with amazement and horror campaigns in California and Germany to ban ritual circumcision. In some instances — particularly California — the campaign has been accompanied by the publication of lurid cartoons depicting religious Jews in the most degrading and stereotypical images. In Germany the campaign has been so fierce as to raise the strategic question of whether, absent the promised relief from the Bundestag, the Jewish community will be able to remain in the country once ruled by Hitler.
Yet the most serious threat to devoutly religious Jews has emerged here in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg is about to take the first steps toward regulating and restricting the free exercise of the practice of orthodox Jewish circumcision. He will move against it through the city’s least accountable public agency, the board of health. It is set as early as today to put through a regulation against a traditional part of the circumcision ritual in which the mohel, as the person performing the circumcision is called, uses his mouth suck blood from the circumcision wound.
The oral suction, known as the metzitza bipeh, has been practiced safely for centuries. The mental hygiene department does not seek to ban all circumcision; on the contrary, it acknowledges the health benefits of circumcision generally. What it wants to do is require a written waiver or consent from parents before the metzitza bipeh can be done. It wants to enforce such a requirement even though the incidence of herpes, which it represents it is worried about, is extremely low, lower than many other dangers that go unregulated in the city.
By no means all circumcisions are performed using metzitza bipeh. But enough are that the most distinguished leaders of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York have pleaded for a chance to work with the city to avoid a confrontation. The Agudath Israel of America — its chairman, Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger, and its executive director, Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel — wrote to Mayor Bloomberg on September 4. The rabbis said that they believe that what the city is about to do would represent the first time an aspect of bris milah, as circumcision is known, was ever regulated by a government authority in America. They pleaded with him to choose a path of cooperation and consultation.
Their plea was rejected. The mayor had his commissioner of mental hygiene, Dr. Thomas Farley, write back to the rabbis acknowledging that circumcision is a religious practice but warning: “The right to religious freedom, however, is not absolute.” The commissioner quoted the Supreme Court as having remarked in a 1944 child labor case that the right “the right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill-health or death.” He ignored the central complaint of the rabbis, which was the failure of the department to consult. In a meeting with the mayor yesterday, the rabbis were rebuffed again and left, as they wrote the mayor later, “deeply disappointed.”
So another step has been taken by the secular state to undermine religious authority and restrict free exercise. What religious Jews in the city will be able to do to protect their free exercise is unclear at this writing. They are up against what has emerged as one of the most instrusive administrations and most arrogant departments in the modern history of the city. There seems little prospect for relief from the legislature or the governor. It may be that the Jews who once fled to this city for its freedom will have to choose between going to court, trying civil disobedience, or having the traditional circumcision performed in one of the neighboring and more welcoming free states.
Correction from September 13, 2012:
Metzitza bipeh is a part of the circumcision ritual in which the mohel uses his mouth to suck blood from the circumcision wound; this was incorrectly stated in an earlier edition of this editorial.