New York – 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.
The ritual of oral suction — or in Hebrew, metzitzah b’peh — is practiced almost exclusively in ultra-Orthodox communities and, to a lesser degree, in Orthodox Jewish communities, despite efforts by the city to curtail it and educate communities about its health risks. The procedure occurs during the circumcision ritual of the bris, as the practitioner, or mohel, removes the foreskin of the penis and then sucks the blood from the wound to clean it.
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.”