Baby’s Death Renews Debate Over a Circumcision Ritual
Prosecutors are investigating the death of a newborn boy who died in September after contracting herpes through a controversial practice of ritual circumcision, reviving a debate in New York over safety and religious freedom.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, confirmed on Wednesday that the investigation was continuing, but declined to comment further.
The cause of death of the 2-week-old boy, who died at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn on Sept. 28, was Type 1 herpes, caused by “ritual circumcision with oral suction,” according to the medical examiner’s office.
In 2003 and 2004, the city reported three cases of Type 1 herpes that were linked to circumcision, involving a boy on Staten Island and twin boys in Brooklyn, one of whom died. The procedures were done by one mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, who was later prohibited from performing the ritual in New York City.
The authorities have not determined the identity of the mohel in the most recent case, but since the death they have been trying to work with the Hasidic community. In 2004, after the death of the twin, the Brooklyn district attorney tried to investigate but received little cooperation within the community, according to a person with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not brought to trial.
It was not believed that Rabbi Fischer was under investigation for the latest case, and he did not return a phone call seeking comment. His lawyer from the 2004 investigation, Mark J. Kurzmann, said he would not comment.
Roughly two-thirds of newborn boys in the city’s Orthodox communities are circumcised with metzitzah b’peh, said Rabbi David Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, who said he was using a calculation based on religious school enrollment figures.
He said that the mohels in the Hasidic community were cognizant of hygiene and that there were things they could do to reduce the risk of herpes without ending the practice. “We’re not oblivious to what’s going on,” Rabbi Zwiebel said.
“The worst thing that could happen is if the authorities regulate this practice, then it could go underground,” he said. “I think the practice would continue, but there could be significant difficulty in gathering evidence. I would hope that our government officials take steps in conjunction with the community.”
In 2005, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg assembled rabbis throughout the city to try to persuade them to move away from metzitzah b’peh. But they said that the practice was safe and that there was no definitive evidence that it caused herpes. “The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years,” Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said at the time. “‘We do not change. And we will not change.”
But in the Bronx on Tuesday, the mayor talked about the medical examiner’s findings in the most recent death, which was also investigated by the health department.
“There is probably nobody in public life who fights harder for the separation of church and state than I do, but I just wanted to remind everybody: religious liberty does not simply extend to injuring others or putting children at risk,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “And we will continue working with the community and others to prevent more baby boys from suffering these tragic fates.”