Thursday, October 18, 2012

Circumscribing Circumcision - An Introduction

I know it's been a while . . . the holiday season proved to be busy, but it's time to get back to commenting on  real issues that matter.  For the next several posts, I wanted to do a series on the recent circumcision debate taking place in New York.

As many readers are likely aware, many Jewish groups have filed suit, and are challenging a recent controversial decision by the New York Board of Health (see here).  The decision by the Board of Health, in brief, requires informed parental consent before metzitzah b'peh is allowed at a brit milah, the Jewish ritual circumcision performed on all males.  Metzitzah b'peh is/was a small customary component of the ritual, whereby the mohel (man who performs the circumcision) would suck to draw a small amount of blood during at the conclusion of the ceremony.  The custom is sourced in ancient ideas about bloodletting, with the notion being that this ceremony will help to protect the baby.  Many have preserved the custom while also insuring higher standards of safety by having the mohel used a sterilized pipette instead of sucking directly.

The NY Board of Health issued its ruling in part because of controversy surrounding the death of certain children, and the possibility that potentially deadly diseases such as Herpes may be transmitted to the baby, resulting in illness and even death.

There are several important questions to address:  1)  From a perspective of Jewish law, what is the status of this custom, and need it be kept in light of our modern scientific knowledge and understanding about viruses and the transmission of disease?  2) Should we be tolerant of more conservative approaches towards the preservation of custom?  3)  How big need the risk of illness or death be before we act?  4)  Are the challengers correct in asserting that the First Amendment protects them against government regulation?  5)  What is our general attitude towards laws with a secular purpose which incidentally impinge on religious practice?

As many of you know, I have the benefit of writing from multiple perspective on this issue.  On the one hand, I studied at Yeshiva University, and had the pleasure of studying this topic with the esteemed Rabbi Tendler (an outspoken advocate on this issue).  On the other hand, I am an attorney, and have long taken a particular interest in issues relating to the 1st Amendment, particularly the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

In the next post, I'll begin by discussing the relevant constitutional clauses, and other relevant Supreme Court Cases.  I hope that this will be a fruitful and educational discussion about the cross-section between religious freedom and governmental regulation.

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