Here’s the scenario: a ritual practiced by a small religious sect on their newborn babies has been found to pose severe health risks to these children, including the threat of brain damage, life-long disability, and death. Babies who undergo the procedure are more than three times as likely to suffer from certain health conditions than babies who do not, and several infants have died as the direct result of infection contracted during the ritual. The government does not ban the ritual altogether, but proposes a law requiring parents to sign a consent form detailing the risks involved before the procedure can take place. In response, the representative organization of the sect publishes a statement accusing the government of violating religious freedom and seeks a lawyer to bring a lawsuit against the state in order to overturn the law. The religious organization’s more “moderate” counterpart, which does not perform the ritual on its newborns, voices its concern and argues that the sect should be allowed to police itself regarding health precautions.
This is the battle that’s being currently being fought by Agudat Yisrael regarding metzizah b’peh, in which a mohel uses direct oral suction on a newborn’s penis in order to drain the wound of blood. The ritual carries the risk of infecting the infant with herpes, a potentially deadly virus for babies who do not have the antibodies common in adults. A proposed state law would require parents to sign a consent form detailing the risks of metzitzah b’peh before it can be performed during a brit milah. The Agudah has taken steps to fight the law, claiming that the health risks associated with the ritual are greatly exaggerated and that the proposed consent form would violate freedom of religion.
While the RCA does not halachically require that a mohel perform metzitzah b’peh, the Orthodox organization also joined the fray, stating that it is “deeply concerned” by the proposed law and that mohels should be trusted to take their own precautions to avoid infecting newborns. It should be noted that current “precautions” taken by practitioners of metzitzah b’peh include the use of mouthwash immediately prior to oral contact. Mouthwash has never been shown to be of any use in combating the transmission of herpes.
Do the responses by the Agudah and the RCA sound overly dramatic or even absurd? They should. New York State has not banned the admittedly dangerous ritual; it has simply proposed that parents be informed of the risks, something all involved parties should want. It has given the final decision regarding the procedure to the infant’s parents with the simple requirement that they be made aware of every aspect involved. Instead of being perceived as an attack on religion, the new law should be understood for what it is: an attempt to protect the health of the city’s children while preserving every parent’s freedom of religion and right to make decisions for his or her own family. Far from decrying the proposed law, religious Jews should appreciate the fact that the state is concerned with the health of their children—seemingly more concerned than organizations like the Agudah that have done little to protect newborns from the risk of infection.
From bans on headscarves in France to limits on ritual slaughter in Netherlands and actual legal action against circumcision in parts of Germany, there are still plenty of battles to be fought by those who care about freedom of religion. However, those real religious causes will only be harmed, not helped, by paranoia regarding shadow persecution.