The largest Orthodox Jewish synagogue umbrella organization has published a defense of a rare and controversial ritual that the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene claims has caused two deaths and multiple cases of permanent damage in the past decade.
The Orthodox Union, which in addition to serving hundreds of Orthodox synagogues in the United States, is also the world’s largest kosher certification agency, published an article that defended the practices of metzitzah b’peh, or direct oral suction of a circumcision wound, in the most recent issue of its Jewish Action magazine. The practice of direct oral suction is said by health authorities and infectious disease experts to create a high risk of infection with herpes simplex, through the transfer of the virus from the mohel to the newborn; the infection, which is relatively harmless to an adult with a fully-developed immune system, can cause sickness, long-term damage, and even death in a newborn.
Efforts to stop the ritual by New York City health authorities have been met with fierce protest by the ultra-Orthodox community. As I reported in October 2012, city health authorities under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg had tried years ago to launch a public-awareness campaign making parents aware of the risk of the procedure, but scuttled that effort after ultra-Orthodox leaders threatened to order constituents to stop taking their sick infants to city hospitals for treatment.
The article in Jewish Action, which is a summary of statements on medical topics made by the recently-deceased ultra-Orthodox leader R’ Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, declares that, “there is no conclusive scientific proof that a herpes infection would result from this procedure, unless the mohel had some sore or bruise in his mouth,” and that “Rav Elyashiv ruled that it is obligatory to continue the tradition of oral suction.” There is in fact no study suggesting that the ritual is any more or less likely to result in a herpes infection when the mohel has or is lacking a sore or bruise in his mouth; in fact, investigators for the New York City DOHMH have not been able to examine evidence approaching that level of detail, as they have been consistently denied in their requests to obtain even the identities of mohelim whose circumcisions have led to infection.
The article provides no citation of medical and rabbinic authorities who disagree with Elyashiv’s position cited here.
The full text of the relevant section of the article follows here:
Recently, the practice of metzitzah b’peh, oral suction, has been making headlines. The question at the heart of the debate surrounding this issue is whether the practice can possibly infect the baby with the disease of herpes. In the past, many different objections to the performance of oral suction have been asserted. Among halachic authorities there is a consensus that suction must be performed, but they disagree as to wehther the suction can be performed via a tube (thereby avoiding direct contact with the mouth) or via oral contact. Rav Elyashiv ruled that it is obligatory to continue the tradition of oral suction, for there is no conclusive scientific proof that a herpes infection would result from this procedure, unless the mohel had some sore or bruise in his mouth. In such a case, it would be forbidden for him to perform oral suction and another person should be assigned to perform it in his stead.
The Jewish Action article can be found at this link on page 41.
UPDATE 5:00PM: The OU responds with a letter clarifying its position:
I am a big fan of the Jewish Channel and in the past have even had the privilege to participate in one of its programs. I was therefore greatly taken aback to see on the TJC website a story headlined, “Orthodox Union Publishes Defense of Direct Oral Suction of Circumcision Wound,” by Steven I. Weiss.
The headline and the article take completely out of context a single halachic opinion held by the late Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv zt”l. In context, a short blurb on the controversial subject of metzitza b’peh appears in the current issue of the Orthodox Union’s quarterly publication Jewish Action along with a number of his other opinions. All were published to accompany a story marking Rabbi Elyashiv’s upcoming first yahrzeit.
The OU shares the long-stated view of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) that metzitza b’peh through a sterile tube is halachically acceptable. It is disappointing that The Jewish Channel suggested otherwise without, at least, first seeking comment or clarification from the OU. For Jewish Action to publish an item in this fashion in no way suggests that it is the opinion of the Orthodox Union and, in fact, it is not.
Thank you for the opportunity to clarify this matter. I appreciate your consideration.
Chief Communications Officer
So, it would appear from this letter that the OU differentiates its official organizational position from that of Elyashiv on the issue of the number of ways in which oral suction may be performed: the OU says that oral suction through a sterile tube is “halachically acceptable,” and does not appear to take the position that direct oral suction is not acceptable. Further, the OU does not appear to object to the other positions stated in Elyashiv’s name in the Jewish Action article, such as that, “there is no conclusive scientific proof that a herpes infection would result from this procedure, unless the mohel had some sore or bruise in his mouth,” and that the proper solution when a mohel has such a sore or bruise is that “another person should be assigned to perform it in his stead.” The OU similarly does not object here to statement that there is a “question at the heart of the debate” over direct oral suction of “whether the practice can possibly infect the baby with the disease of herpes.”