Wednesday, June 01, 2005

SAY IT AIN’T SO

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Remember the huge outcry that erupted when the integrity of the renowned mohel, Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, was attacked? Everyone was inflamed. “How dare they try to dictate how we practice our religion in 21st century America,” was the echo you heard wherever you went. “This is New York, this is our town! They’ll never get away with it!”

Then the brouhaha died down. Everyone was convinced the problem would go away somehow. Just like PETA would not be able to stop shechita in America, a local health commissioner would not succeed in halting metzizah b’peh, the assumption went. After all, people thought, how could an entire religious community be dissed without serious repercussions? One would have to be almost paranoid to think that could happen…right?

That kind of uncertainty that defuses outrage is exactly what veteran politicians count on when they exceed their mandate. They expect a bit of a backlash and some bad press for a while. Then, as sure as day follows morning, public attention shifts elsewhere and our public servants are free to continue pursuing their whims.

So, too, with the attack on circumcision ritual. People calmed down and apathy soon replaced indignation.

The truth suffers, the cause suffers, but injustice marches right on.

For the New York City Health Department, it seems that due process and “separation of church and state” are allowed to be suspended when ancient Jewish religious practices are at issue. Responsible medical research and testing—standard procedure in every other investigation—are dispensed with at the Health Department when the target of inquiry involves members of the religious community.

Rather than follow the State’s lead and rescind the restraining order on the respected mohel, the City Health Department continues to defend its decision, despite the apparent flimsy nature of its allegations against him.

What it comes down to is this: The City Health Department has banned a world-renowned expert mohel from performing metzitzah b’peh based on the following “evidence:” three infants came down with herpes.

The snap conclusion was that the infections must have been transmitted by the mohel.

But where are the grounds for this assumption? Is there any known precedent for mohalim transmitting the virus? Should not herpes in newborn baby boys be a more common occurrence in communities where metzizah b’peh is practiced?

WHERE’S THE PROOF?

Furthermore, it has never really been proven that people with herpes (HSV) antibodies can infect infants through metzizah b’peh—just because someone postulated such theory does not make it fact. To date it is but an unsubstantiated claim. Nevertheless, it was immediately used by the health department to legitimize the attack on Rabbi Fischer.

Imagine that three patients of a world-class physician, who treated 12,000 patients, contract a certain virus. Would the health department immediately curtail the doctor’s ability to practice medicine? Would they hastily place blame for the contraction of the viruses on the respected physician or would they investigate each individual case thoroughly to ascertain the source of the virus? Would they rely on circumstantial evidence to ban the physician? Would they develop theories and act upon them before they are proven?

More likely, responsible health officials, before embarking on such extreme “solutions,” would first thoroughly investigate all family members and acquaintances, and comprehensively examine the matter from all angles.

They would convene a conference of infectious disease experts who would analyze the problem in depth in order to arrive at the best avenues of safeguarding public health. In a case with potentially sweeping ramifications, they would immediately publish their findings in order to assuage everyone’s concerns.

If the city health officials did in fact follow the above protocol in the case of Rabbi Fischer, they certainly aren’t telling anyone. Instead they hide behind patient confidentially concerns.

They are so concerned about people’s rights to privacy, but what of Rabbi Fischer’s rights? Is he not entitled to be deemed innocent until proven guilty, healthy and safe until proven otherwise? Is the community not entitled to utilize his expertise and services until credible evidence is presented that he is unsafe? Though medical tests established conclusively that he is not afflicted with any active herpes virus, the city insists that the metzizah b’peh he performed led to three children contracting the virus.

By pointing a finger at him, these officials convey the impression that they alone are concerned with saving Jewish lives. They want you to believe that the hundreds of rabbis and tens of thousands of people who support Rabbi Fischer and the metzizah procedure don’t really care about human life. They want you to believe that the Torah, which is a Toras Chesed, and an Eitz Chaim, mandates bizarre rituals that imperil children.

Does this not smack of the devious designs of countless people in the past who, while inciting opposition to religious observance, cast themselves as humanitarians driven by noble motives?

Our community isn’t new to blood libels; we’ve been through them way too many times before in our history. For centuries, Gentiles claimed—and in some places still claim—that Jewish law called for the use of sacrificed Gentile blood as an ingredient in Passover Matzohs. Government authorities and their charges energetically sought to put an end to the “dreaded” practice and many Jews lost their lives in this unholy crusade.

Is the current attack on a circumcision ritual much different? Those who insist, as the city’s health department does, that a mohel with dormant herpes, carried by at least 90% of the adult population, can kill infants through a bris with metzitzah b’peh—a theory that has not been tested and proven—are in effect saying that Jewish customs have deadly consequences and we don’t care.

Subscribing to that belief is tantamount to saying that we religious Jews are no different than pagans who offered up their children in sacrifices to a non-existent deity. Those who buy into that mindset regard us as fundamentalist fanatics intent on preserving antiquated practices that breed sickness and death. In fact, metzizah b’peh has been performed on millions of newborns without any ill effect, for untold centuries.

To its great credit, the observant Jewish community is united in protesting the actions of the Health Department to date. Leaders of the greater Torah and Chassidic communities have come together to decry the decision of the Health Department to halt metzitzah b’peh.

“THE SECRET INVESTIGATION”

When the New York City Health Department slapped a restraining order on Rabbi Fischer, forbidding him from performing metzitzah b’peh, many of our readers wrote the health commissioner in defense of Rabbi Fischer and our hallowed traditions. One of them forwarded to us a response received from Mr. Isaac Weisfuse, the Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health:

“Our investigation has led us to conclude that the mohel who performed the circumcisions on these infants was responsible for transmission of the virus to them, and to propose that this individual no longer perform metzizah b’peh in order to prevent spread of this infection in the future.”

“Our investigation has led us to conclude…?”

What was the nature of that investigation, one wonders. The public has not been given the courtesy of any further information. We are expected to simply accept that a thorough probe was carried out and the results were crystal clear that Rabbi Fischer transmitted the herpes virus to the infants he circumcised! Yet, skepticism abounds in many quarters. One cannot help but wonder about an investigation that remains shrouded in secrecy, whose results appear to have been pre-determined.

In any case, accusing Rabbi Fisher of endangering newborns is tantamount to a blood libel.

We ask the City Health Commissioner to show us proof that Rabbi Fischer transmitted the virus to the babies. Until they can provide conclusive and credible evidence to support their accusations, we do not accept the claim. The public demands that the Health Department either back up its claims or back off.

Anything short of conclusive evidence conveys to residents of the City of New York, that decisions at the City Health Department are made arbitrarily or are based on the agendas or whims of city officials, as opposed to being grounded in meticulous medical research.

STATE OFFICIALS SEE NO LINK TO RABBI FISCHER

In contrast to city officials, the State Health Department set the correct tone by acknowledging that no correlation exists linking the contraction of the viruses by the three babies to Rabbi Fischer. The State Health Department admits it has no business regulating or legislating religious practices. What has taken the City Health Department so long? What is hindering their ability to see the obvious truth?

What compounds this travesty is the misleading attempt by a City Health Department official to cast the decisions of the Health Department in the bris milah case as having limited ramifications. Isaac Weisfuse writes that, “We have no intention of regulating metzitah b’peh,” and “we are not seeking to regulate a religious practice generally, but are merely trying to safeguard the health of children in the community relative to a specific individual.”

Don’t get suckered into believing that the goal of the City Health Department is merely to restrict a single mohel from performing metzitzah b’peh.

It seems clear that those behind this attack on Rabbi Fischer have further designs up their sleeves. If they succeed in casting as fact the unproven theory that people who have herpes antibodies alone can kill infants, how can they not regulate metzizah? If 90% of the adult population in fact carry those antibodies, how can those in charge of public safety permit mohalim to come in oral contact with infants?

THE DANGER OF TURNING A BLIND EYE

If we remain silent and apathetic, the consequences will be severe. Today it’s Rabbi Fischer’s right to perform metzitzah b’peh and tomorrow, bris milah in general will be up for regulation, followed by government interference in other religious practices as well. Is it far-fetched for do-gooders in charge of public safety to claim that Shabbos candles lead to fires? How about Chanukah Menorahs? Why not simply use electric bulbs, why the archaic practice of using candles and oil with wicks?

Clearly, the City Health Department has overstepped its bounds in the matter of bris milah. If the Health Department is allowed to proceed, eventually every mohel will be subject to a witch hunt. Every mohel will be guilty until proven innocent, denied due process and treated without simple decency, without any respect for his past, present or future.

Contempt for religion and our right to practice it as we see fit will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s headlines.

A fine man has been dragged through the mud, flushed down the toilet, as it were. Apparently, it is only a crime to flush a Koran down the toilet, not a rabbi, not a Jewish religious practice, and not a community of hundreds of thousands of peaceful, law-abiding Jews.

Dare we suggest that because we are a civilized, respectful, peace-seeking people, we are being taken advantage of? How much longer will we be led down a broken trail of lies and governmental deceit? It is time we rise up, and respectfully but forcefully do what we can to bring closure to this sorry chapter.

When murderous savages who have no qualms about burning down houses of worship with co-religionists and Korans inside are insulted, our government reaches out to them, throwing money and ambassadors in their direction in an attempt to prove that the United States esteems the Muslim religion.

When wild-eyed fanatics kill themselves in Iraqi mosques causing the loss of innocent life and presumably consigning books of the Koran to a fiery end, no one has the temerity to condemn the perpetrators. But when a US publication said a Koran was flushed down a toilet, the entire establishment, from the president and defense secretary right down the ranks, rushed to the media to mouth platitudes bewailing the affront to Islam.

In stark contrast, when our practices are defiled, when our holy people are called murderers, the entire city establishment sits by, hiding behind the rubric of “we are protecting the children.” Well, what were the heroes who daily come face to face with murderers in Gitmo doing, if not protecting innocent human life?

And what are we doing to protect our dignity? What are we doing to stand up for our rights as loyal, tax paying, law-abiding citizens? Why are our practices allowed to be spat upon? Why are our rabbis allowed to be maligned as reckless individuals who advocate harmful behavior?

If we relinquish autonomy in the religious arena to any degree—and allowing the city government to tamper with bris milah is a huge surrender—we will pay a heavy price. We are turning the clock back a few decades to when Jews in America had to fight for the religious freedoms we take for granted today.

It may be about time that we raise the decibel of protest a notch higher. Wherever you live, write a respectful letter to Mayor Bloomberg and the health commissioner and ask them to come clean.

They can be reached at:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg
City Hall
New York, NY 10007
TEL.: 212.NEW-YORK
FAX: 212.788.2460

Thomas R. Freiden M.D. Commissioner of Health, 125 Worth Street, CN-28 New York, NY, 10013
TEL.: 212.788.5261
FAX: 212.964.0472

2 Comments:

Blogger moseson said...

Thank you for enlightening us on this very sensitive subject.
It is clear that some in the Health dept wish to regulate and actually prohibit the method of metzizah b'feh, and they are hell bent on restricting Rabbi Fisher at all cost, so that they can establish a connection between metzizah b'feh and neo-natal infections, which have never been established.
Moseson

6:39 PM  
Blogger Lisaantlip said...

Here is the DIRECT QUOTE about that from the court document footnote:

"In 1998, DOHMH worked with the religious community affected regarding an incident of an infant reported with herpes infection after a different mohel performed MBP. The mohel was linked to two cases of neonatal herpes, one in 1988, and one in 1998. Working with the community, DOHMH was able to fulfill its mandate to investigate and to resolve the matter, in that the mohel agreed to cease practicing MBP."


Has RF suubmitted to the City for testing yet? Why not? It seems to me that RF should just get tested and if he is negative, fine, and if he is positive, fine, either way, there should be some cooperation.

The documents also state:

"DOHMH is not attempting to interfere with the ritual of circumcision, but, rather, wants to ensure that the practice of ritual circumcision does not result in disease transmission."

3:43 PM  

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