Eight days after every male Jew is born, a part of his flesh is cut off and buried in the earth as a reminder of the covenant Abraham made with G-d and as a sign that the man will help perpetuate the Jewish people. The brit milah is a cornerstone of the Jewish faith and the physical marker that has differentiated Jews from their neighbors for centuries.
Apart from its status as a commandment, as seen in Genesis 17:10-14, according to the New York Times Article “Benefits of Circumcision Are Said to Outweigh Risks,” circumcision provides several significant health benefits: “studies have linked male circumcision to lower rates of infection with human papillomavirus and herpes simplex Type 2. […] The procedure has long been recognized to lower urinary tract infections early in life and reduce the incidence of penile cancer.”
Despite the numerous positive aspects of the ritual, many staunch critics of circumcision continue to excitedly wave the banner of humanitarian abuse. As Catholics Against Circumcision reminds its followers in 1 Corinthians 12: 18: “As it is, God has set each member of the body in the place he wanted it to be.” The primary argument against circumcision is that it mutilates the body and harms an utterly defenseless newborn before he has the mental or physical capacity to defend himself.
Recently, there has been a surge of efforts trying to ban circumcision (in Aug. 2012 an ethics committee overruled a court decision in Germany that condemned circumcision as “grievous bodily harm” and therefore illegal; in 2011, San Francisco proposed banning circumcision), but now the opposition seems to focus on one specific aspect of circumcision: metzitzah b’peh (oral-genital suction to draw blood from the fresh wound). New York City health officials now propose a required parental consent for a mohel to perform metzitzah b’peh. The consent form would ensure that parents legally acknowledge the potential health risks of performing this procedure, since, as Ha’Aretz writes, “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said the procedure was unsafe and put the babies at risk of infection with the herpes simplex virus, among other possible complications.”
Although on the surface it seems as if the consent form blatantly discriminates against a traditional Jewish practice, the reality is that, as Ha’Aretz’s “N.Y. to require parental consent for circumcision rite” points out, only a small subsection of Jews still prescribe to this antiquated practice in the first place. “While most mohels use a sterile pipette or gauze rather than direct suction, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis say metzitza bepeh is a religious commandment. Haredi leaders in New York have already announced they will refuse to follow the new rule, saying they would even sacrifice their own lives in order to carry out God’s commandments.”
Moreover, New York City isn’t even striving to ban the practice, merely ensure that parents fully consider the potential health side effects for their infants. If using instruments that are more sterile than a potentially infected mouth can fulfill the commandment, then as forward-thinking Jews, we should welcome the innovation and attention to infant health.