The most outspoken individual to emerge from the increasingly contentious conflict between government and the Chareidi sector is Rabbi A. Romi Cohn, a noted mohel who is considered a leading expert in the rules of milah. Speaking at a hearing this past week in Queens on the issue of metzitzah b’peh, Rabbi Cohn emphasized, “I myself have performed 25,000 circumcisions, and, thank G-d, we have not had one single incident … our guidelines are, I think, much stricter than the medical profession.” Cohn spoke in his capacity as a representative of the American Board of Ritual Circumcision, which certifies mohelim who are deemed fully qualified to perform brit milah in complete accordance with halachic and health safety guidelines.
Rabbi Cohn was responding to an effort by the New York City Health Commissioner to require parents of a newborn male to sign a consent form stating that they are in favor of having a mohel perform oral suction – which, according to Jewish teachings, is intended to clean the child’s post-circumcision wound – on their baby, despite the perceived risk. The Health Commissioner’s action was prompted by reports claiming that since 2000, two infants in New York allegedly died after contracting herpes from an infected mohel who had performed metzitzah b’peh on them.
In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Voice, Rabbi Cohn harshly criticized the city authorities, and even had sharp words for the Orthodox community. “The fact is that the medical authorities have never been able to actually prove that the act of metzitzah b’peh caused a child’s death,” he stated. “And even if one wants to go along with their line of thinking – in the past twelve years, one baby died and one become brain damaged in situations where the procedure was done. Statistically speaking, that has no tangible value to establish a health concern.”
While acknowledging that the city is not currently trying to outlaw metzitzah b’peh, Rabbi Cohn was outraged that the government wishes to impose the requirement of a consent form. “I am a Holocaust survivor who came to this country so that I could enjoy freedom of religion,” he declared. “The government is interfering here with a basic religious right. This is creating a real chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) that all Jews have to protest.” The mohel complained that he is receiving virtually no tactical support from the city’s Orthodox community. “Previously, Satmar sent a representative to a similar hearing to speak out on behalf of maintaining our freedom to perform metzitzah b’peh,” he noted. “But nobody from that community came to the latest hearing – I think they may be afraid to ‘rock the boat’ politically by appearing too outspoken on this issue.” Cohn also took the popular Chareidi publication Hamodia to task, claiming that – despite his heartfelt urging – it would not cover the issue due to its sensitive nature.
City officials defended the idea of requiring parents to approve the procedure beforehand. “The concept of informed consent puts more of the decision-making power and more of the information in the hands of the parents,” said Susan Blank, the assistant commissioner of the STD Control Program at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Blank said she did not understand why rabbis are opposed to a regulation which, in her opinion, confirms their religious freedom while simultaneously giving parents greater control over their child’s well-being. “The Department has received multiple complaints from parents whose children may not have been infected, who were also not aware that direct oral suction was going to be performed as part of their sons’ circumcisions,” stated a notice from the New York City Board of Health.
Adding fuel to the fire, Mayor Bloomberg issued a strong statement that highlighted the city’s perceived opposition to metzitzah b’peh. “There are certain practices that doctors say are not safe and we will not permit those practices to the extent that we can stop them,” Bloomberg said. “You don’t have a right to put any child’s life in danger, and this clearly does.”
The mayor’s comments drew a shocked reaction from Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who stated that he is “frankly aghast” at Bloomberg’s words. “Orthodox Judaism isn’t barbaric,” said Hikind. “Who cares more about children than their own parents? There’s no call for Mayor Bloomberg to speak disrespectfully to our community, to speak condescendingly about our cultural traditions.” The outspoken politician went on to assert, “This issue is about religious tenets, and it requires an extremely sensitive and respectful approach, not flip remarks that are insulting to an entire community.”
When asked to respond to Hikind’s criticism, a Health Department spokesperson told The Daily Politics, “There is no safe way to perform oral suction on any open wound in a newborn. To protect infant health, parents considering ritual Jewish circumcision need to know that circumcision should only be performed under sterile conditions, like any other procedures that create open cuts, whether by mohelim or medical professionals.”
Another leading mohel said that New York City’s efforts to restrict the ritual could lead to legal action. “Being a mohel is a religious status…I cannot follow an outside authority,” said Rabbi Levi Heber, the director of the International Bris Association, according to a report on the website cityandstateny.com. “If we feel that our religious freedom is being restricted, we have the right to challenge it in court … we are ready, if needed, to challenge this,” he said. The Board of Health plans to finalize its decision on the consent form proposal in September.