March 27, 2014
Rabbi Performs Controversial Metzitzah B'Peh Circumcision Rite - Law or Noby Paul Berger
After cutting off the infant’s foreskin, Rabbi Avrohom Cohn leaned down toward the baby boy who was cradled on a white pillow atop his grandfather’s knee.
Standing fully over the child, with his back to the dozens of immaculately dressed guests at the Syrian Jewish gathering in Brooklyn, it was impossible to see what Cohn did next.
Asked after the ceremony whether he performed the controversial rite metzitzah b’peh, also known as MBP, in which a ritual circumciser places his mouth on the baby’s genitals to suction blood from the circumcision wound, Cohn smiled and said, “I did what I had to do.”
If Cohn performed MBP without getting written consent from the infant’s parents, he broke the law.
It’s something he has done many times before.
For more than a year, ritual circumcisers, known as mohels, have been required to obtain written consent from parents before performing MBP.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene instituted the regulation in the fall of 2012 after a number of babies contracted herpes following MBP.
The department says that 14 infants have been infected in New York City since 2000. Two of those babies died, and at least two others suffered brain damage.
But Cohn, who performs MBP regularly, says he has never obtained consent from a parent, and he never will. “I don’t believe in it,” Cohn said of the consent form.
Cohn, 85, is no ordinary mohel — he is chairman of the American Board of Ritual Circumcision, and widely considered one of the top mohels in a very Jewish city.
In an earlier telephone conversation, Cohn told the Forward that MBP must be performed to fulfill the commandment of circumcision. He said that the only exception is if the rite puts an infant’s health at risk.
By this, Cohn did not mean the health of the infant in front of him at a bris. Cohn said the risk he feared was that the infant of a couple who are “not strictly observant” might transmit a disease to him via MBP — and that he could then transmit that disease to another infant.
“They could be drug users, they could be going to prostitutes and who knows what, and are infected with all kinds of diseases,” Cohn said, referring to nonobservant parents.
When a reporter from the Forward called the infant’s father after the circumcision, the father said that he was aware of the risks of MBP and that he had instructed Cohn not to perform it. “I didn’t allow him to do that,” the father said.
So what did Cohn actually do when he “did what I had to do”? Confronted with the father’s testimony, Cohn said that he had not, after all, performed MBP. But the reason, he said, had nothing to do with the father’s request; it was because the father did not seem observant enough. “That young man is out to have a good time,” Cohn said. “I don’t think he’s so careful who he has a good time with.”
This was not the only time that Cohn followed his own rules regarding MBP, at times even contradicting the expressed wishes of the parents.
Shortly before the Syrian circumcision ceremony began in Brooklyn, one guest remarked to another that he was at a circumcision recently where Cohn was asked not to perform MBP, but the rabbi refused to comply.
Meanwhile, the health department has issued two warnings since January 2013, related to two infants being infected with herpes following MBP.
Despite the two recent cases, the city has never sanctioned or warned a mohel for failing to comply with the consent form regulation.
Mohels are required to keep a copy of the signed forms for one year. But the city will not say whether it has ever enforced the law by asking a mohel to provide a signed copy of such forms.
The Forward recently filed a freedom of information request asking the health department whether it had ever requested signed forms from a mohel. The request also asked for copies of any such forms submitted with the names of family members redacted.
The health department denied both parts of the request. ...
But Cohn said that the city’s claims that MBP causes herpes are a “blood libel” and that he will never obtain written consent before performing MBP.
“Now I am here in America all these years, and I am terribly disappointed religion is being interfered with,” he said. “If they want me to go to jail, I will go to jail.”