Circumcision, herpes, and religious freedom

The idea that a grown man would put his mouth on an infant’s penis is rather disturbing under pretty much … Continued

The idea that a grown man would put his mouth on an infant’s penis is rather disturbing under pretty much any circumstance. Yet according to an understanding of Jewish law that has more than a little support within parts of the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox communities, that is a necessary part of the blood drawing required in Jewish ritual circumcision.

Tragically, two infants in New York were recently infected with herpes after undergoing a circumcision ceremony which included the oral blood drawing. Of course, post-surgical infections, many far worse than those suffered by the two babies in question, occur in hospitals every day across this country, so why is this story being covered in the national media?

I can think of at least three important reasons why this story is news — each instructive, not only regarding the ongoing debate about circumcision, but about the dangers of religious fanaticism and the meaning of religious freedom in America.

First, the story catches our attention because it is a story of religion gone awry — a topic of constant interest, especially with an American media that is both fascinated with faith, and yet seems to delight in mocking or unmasking those who practice it in ways deemed “unenlightened.” And of course, this story gets our attention because of it’s sexual, and potentially pedophilic, overtones.

Does anyone really think that if the blood was drawn from the infants’ fingers, even by mouth, the stories of subsequent infection would garner as much attention? Does anyone think that the debates over circumcision in general would be as fierce, and fiercely emotional, were some other part of the anatomy involved? The answer is obvious.

All that said, the second reason this story deserves our attention is because it is genuinely disturbing that this practice continues despite the clear evidence that the practice itself is dangerous. In fact, according to many religious authorities the practice is not only unnecessary, but actually prohibited precisely because of the evidence that it is harmful to the babies.

So however scintillating the story may be, it is also an important episode about a serious breakdown within religious community. The fierce attachment to oral bloodletting may well reflect a dangerous approach to faith which can be found, not only among some segments of the altra-Orthodox Jewish community, but among practitioners of every faith I know.

This is a story about the dangers of confusing belief in the perfection of a tradition and its institutions — an entirely reasonable claim made by many traditional adherents in many different faiths — with the arrogant presumption that the way any particular group practices their faith is, by definition, perfect and above critique.

One need not be ashamed or uncomfortable about a tradition that was practiced in good conscience for millennia in the absence of any evidence that it was actually harmful. I appreciate, and even respect, fierce attachment to a tradition.

Actively refusing however, to take steps that mitigate a clear and present danger to members of one’s own community, especially when alternative means to honor the tradition can be found, is both dangerous, and not really even about defending the practice in question. In fact, the community which practices this form of oral blood letting is part of a rich and nuanced legal tradition which has long found creative solutions to living with new medical knowledge which impacts their observance. This is, I fear, about something else.

This has become, whether those involved in the fight realize it our not, less about cutting penises, and more about thumbing noses. For me, that is the most disturbing part of this whole story. This has become a case of celebrating rejectionism as a means of defining community — a dangerous approach when practiced in any community, faith-based or otherwise.

Those who defend the practice cite their “right” to define their own norms of religious practice regardless of what anyone else has to say. And though I am a staunch supporter of religious freedom, and a committed defender of religiously-mandated infant circumcision, I don’t hesitate to declare that those who defend oral blood letting are wrong about their rights, which is the third reason this story demands our attention.

The test of our commitment to religious freedom is at precisely those moments when the practice in question is unpopular. That right however, was never meant to include failing to mitigate known dangers to children who cannot otherwise defend themselves. And it certainly does not include a parent’s “right” to refuse to acknowledge, as required by New York State law, which allows the practice, that by practicing oral blood letting parents are putting their children at greatly-increased risk of contracting a serious and otherwise preventable infection.

As with the protection and expression of most freedoms, the protection of religious freedom is a delicate balancing act — trying to honor the rights of practitioners, those impacted by their practices, and the greater good of the larger community in which they take part.

While I have no doubt that we will continue to have much debate about circumcision in general, this is one practice whose potential dangers must be admitted by those who practice it. Ritual circumcisors must be more carefully supervised, even if we can not agree that it is a practice that should be stopped altogether. That approach would return some balance to a situation that seems pretty clearly unbalanced to me.


Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • RespectNature

    The metzitzah b’peh is just the icing on the cake. The real problem is the circumcision. One should not have the right to practice one’s religous freedom on another person’s body.

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