When the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office announced that it would investigate the death of an infant who got herpes during a controversial circumcision practice, many decided to revisit the tradition, and ask whether it still has a place in modern society.
Now, this particular case deals with a very rare technique called metzitzah b’peh — which is when the individual performing the procedure, the mohel, uses his mouth to suck blood away from the baby’s penis.
Metzitzah b’peh tends to take place only in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, but New York has nevertheless tried to educate parents about the health risks of the practice: The New York Times reports that in 2003 and 2004, three cases of circumcision-linked herpes were reported to the City, one of which resulted in death.
Runnin’ Scared caught up with Rebecca Wald, founder of Beyond the Bris, a multimedia forum for anti-circumcision Jews. Wald talked to us (and our sister paper!) about the practice and how this case has affected American Jews.
Runnin’ Scared: What prompted you to start this website?
Rebecca Wald: There is a growing sense by some in the Jewish community that there needs to be a place for Jews who don’t wish to circumcize their sons, and who are opposed to circumcision, to connect with each other. So I founded Beyond the Bris in 2010 as a way to support Jews who shared those feelings.
Runnin’ Scared: Were you just interested in the topic?
Wald: Prior to having a son, it was more theoretical for me. I knew that I was opposed to circumcision, but I wasn’t a parent on the front lines of having to make a decision. When I had a son, the issue became all the more intriguing to me and all the more meaningful to me.
Runnin’ Scared: How has the Jewish community reacted to your project?
Wald: I have received a lot of support from Jews who are for my project — even ones who favor circumcision. There’s lots of different ways to be Jewish and we jewish people have sort of taken what is meaningful to us and kept them. With things that are not meaningful to us or that we are morally opposed to, there is room in our religion to express disagreement. So, in that sense, I think Judaism is a very open and dynamic culture, and I attribute that as being one of my main reasons why I found a degree of support in the Jewish community for what I am doing.
Runnin’ Scared: Why do you think this practice persists?
Wald: It’s something that’s been done for thousands of years. I think there’s a feeling that when a young man is looking for a wife, it will be an issue if he is intact, because Jewish women may find being intact less than desirable. And for religious Jews, it is seen as a commandment from God.
Runnin’ Scared: How has the Brooklyn investigation impacted debate among Jews?
Wald: I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more reaction from Jewish people nationally to denounce this practice. In my understanding, the Jewish people who are part of the anti-circumcision movement recognize that this is a very rare practice — that is done only by the most religiously observant Jews. Even there in many, many communities, it has been modified so that the suction is not done with the mouth to the genitals — it’s done through a sterile pipette.
I think anytime there is news made over circumcision, it brings awarness to the issue and I think that regardless of how anyone feels about the benefits or the risks of circumcision, we should all agree that infants need to be protected from life threatening sexually transmitted disease that can be consequences of this very practice.
Runnin’ Scared: What started an anti-circumcision movement among Jews?
Wald: There’s actually a range of reasons why people are opposed to circumcision — not everybody is opposed to it for the same reasons. Some see it as a men’s rights issue — that every man should just be able to decide for himself whether to be circumcised. Other people see it as having to do with what’s in the best interest of the newborn.
Runnin’ Scared: Are Jews changing their mind about circumcision?
Wald: We’re seeing a slow shift. Rabbis are becoming more willing to do naming ceremonies for boys who they know are intact. And we are also seeing more Jewish humanist rabbis who are distancing themselves from circumcision.