When Ignorance Is Dangerous

Once again, reckless yellow journalism has aimed its poisonous fangs at our community, this time targeting the hallowed practice of bris milah.

Since the waters of this often misunderstood issue have already been badly muddied, it is imperative that we set the record straight.

The April 24 issue of the English-language Forward newspaper contained an article whose headline read “New York City Stonewalls Forward on Metzitzah B’peh Circumcision Regulations.” Its subtitle was even more provocative: “Babies Are Sickened — But City Won’t Give Info.”

Written by Paul Berger, the article notes that a year has passed since NYC passed a regulation requiring mohalim to seek written parental consent before performing MBP, and charged that “the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has refused to respond to multiple requests from the Forward for basic information about how, or if, it is implementing its regulation.”

The article referred to a comment made by an individual mohel in which he said that he refuses to comply with the regulation, and the article insinuated that the NYC Health Department should be asking mohalim who practice MBP for copies of signed forms they have collected.

The next day, the Forward went a step further and published a scathing editorial attacking New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for what it referred to as the city’s failure to enforce the regulation.

Unsurprisingly, what the Forward articles didn’t include was the background:

On September 13, 2012, in response to an inquiry emailed by Hamodia, a spokesperson for the Health Department declared that “We do not plan to monitor circumcision. Rather, we will rely on parents to report problems to us, and we will review whether consent has been obtained when investigating infectious diseases cases that might be related to [MBP] performed during circumcision.”

This information was subsequently reported by Hamodia, and the city’s stance is a matter of public record.

Even more telling is that the Forward ignored the key fact that the alleged connection between MBP and the health risks has yet to be proven, and that the highly controversial consent regulation is being challenged in federal court.

Agudath Israel of America, the Satmar-affiliated Central Rabbinical Congress, and the Chabad-affiliated International Bris Association, along with three mohalim, filed a lawsuit against the regulation. In December, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit heard arguments on a request to overturn a lower court’s decision denying an injunction against the unprecedented regulation of bris milah.

In their court pleadings and in oral arguments, the Jewish groups persuasively argued that the regulation violates the right of free speech, which includes the right not to speak, in that it forces mohalim to disseminate a message which they consider to be false. In addition, they argued that it violates a mohel’s right to freely practice his religious beliefs.

In addition to its inherent infringement on religious rights, the regulation, if allowed to go unchecked, would create an extraordinary, dangerous precedent that would pave the way for further governmental actions that would restrict religious freedom.

Leading medical and statistical experts have concluded that the millennia-old practice of metzitzah b’peh is safe, and when practiced properly it poses no additional risks of infectious disease.

Even if the statistics originally provided by New York City authorities in defense of the regulation — which have been thoroughly discredited by noted experts — were accurate, the city has never moved to regulate any of a number of other activities carrying significantly greater and far more demonstrable risks.

A legal brief in support of the Jewish groups, submitted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and co-signed by Michael W. McConnell, a former Federal Appeals Court Judge who is considered one of the foremost contemporary constitutional law scholars, cited widespread “governmental hostility” toward Orthodox Jews.

“[The] broader historical and societal context shows a pattern of targeted regulations against Orthodox Jews. Indeed, targeted government measures against Orthodox Jews are becoming depressingly regular features within the City and surrounding municipalities,” the brief says.

In reality, in keeping with halachah and mesorah, mohalim go to extraordinary lengths to safeguard the health of the infants they circumcise. While the importance of the bris taking place on the eighth day is so imperative that it is performed even on Shabbos and Yom Kippur, mohalim regularly postpone brisos due to jaundice or other health concerns even when a pediatrician gives a go-ahead.

Furthermore, in their arguments, the city insisted that a consent form was necessary because a parent may be unaware that MBP was being performed, and also to inform the parent of the city’s safety concerns about the practice.

But even according to this argument, the widespread news coverage about the passing of this regulation and the ensuing legal battle made consent forms wholly unnecessary. Since the regulation has been passed, there hasn’t been a single publicized complaint from a parent that he or she didn’t know that MBP was being performed on his or her child.

This regulation is  a brazen attempt by a governmental agency to tell Jewish parents — and our Rabbanim — how to practice their religion.

During a 2012 presentation before the NYC Board of Health, Jay Varma, who still serves as the Deputy Commissioner for Disease Control for the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, alluded openly to the city’s real agenda.

“Because this is a longstanding religious tradition, our long-term approach should be to turn the parents into the ones who object to this procedure, and hope that the rabbinical authorities who insist that this procedure be done, hopefully will eventually find safer approaches to it as many other rabbinical authorities have.”

It is extremely troubling to consider that the city that hosts the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora, in a country that it is famed for its laws protecting freedom of religion, should try to pasken for us how we should perform bris milah.

As we fight for our legal rights,  will continue to be led by the eternal light of the Torah, our hallowed mesorah, and the facts.