The Reasonable Rabbi Standard? Brooklyn Prosecutors Reportedly Investigate Rabbi Who Transmitted Herpes To Baby In Circumcision Ceremony

We have previously looked at the liability questions surrounding injuries and deaths linked to herpes transmissions from Rabbis during ultra-Orthodox circumcision rituals known as metzizah b’ peh. During the ceremony, the rabbi or mohel removes blood from the wound with his mouth. The latest tragedy occurred with the death of a two-week-old boy in Brooklyn who contracted herpes from the Rabbi. In 2005 another infant died from the same alleged transmission from a rabbi. This could raise a difficult question on defining the “reasonable rabbi.”

The latest infant died on Sept. 28, 2011, and the cause of death was listed as “disseminated herpes simplex virus Type 1, complicating ritual circumcision with oral suction.”

During the ceremony known as the bris, the rabbi or mohel removes the foreskin from the baby’s penis, and with his mouth sucks the blood from the incision on the penis.

There is a criminal investigation reportedly on the way in the district attorney’s office in Kings County Brooklyn. That could make for an interesting case when the practice is 5000 years old and and traced to Abraham. While health officials have long objected to the practice is dangerous, religious leaders have refused to end it — and Jewish parents continue to follow the practice despite the known risks. The problem is that Type 1 herpes is common and the symptoms can be subtle or non-existent for the carrier.

Any criminal prosecution would likely be based on reckless rather than true intent as well as child endangerment. Here is one such provision for a misdemeanor offense:

§ 260.10 Endangering the welfare of a child.
A person is guilty of endangering the welfare of a child when:
1. He knowingly acts in a manner likely to be injurious to the
physical, mental or moral welfare of a child less than seventeen years
old or directs or authorizes such child to engage in an occupation
involving a substantial risk of danger to his life or health; or
2. Being a parent, guardian or other person legally charged with the
care or custody of a child less than eighteen years old, he fails or
refuses to exercise reasonable diligence in the control of such child to
prevent him from becoming an “abused child,” a “neglected child,” a
“juvenile delinquent” or a “person in need of supervision,” as those
terms are defined in articles ten, three and seven of the family court
Endangering the welfare of a child is a class A misdemeanor.

Yet is there a “substantial” risk of transmission given the high numbers of such ceremonies and handful of transmissions? Criminal negligence statutes have long been controversial by taking a civil tort standard and charging that conduct as a crime. The added problem in this case is the consent of the parents as guardians for the child. If the Rabbi is liable, wouldn’t the parents be liable as well? Such a prosecution would come with a heavy political price for the District Attorney in Brooklyn and likely to trigger intense backlash from the Orthodox community.

There is a strong tort case to be made in such cases. I would think that Rabbis at a minimum should be tested to determine if they are carriers. If so, they should not engage in this practice. Then there is the question whether, even with protocols and testing, this ancient practice is per se negligent in mandating oral contact with an infant’s bleeding penis. There are many ancient practices of religions that are no longer considered safe or lawful. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has long been defended as culturally and religiously required, but has resulted in criminal convictions in this and other countries. This practice is obviously far less intrusive and harmful. However, it is not enough to claim a religious exemption to an act that would be otherwise viewed as grossly negligent. The question remains whether a reasonable rabbi would engage in this practice or to do so without taking particular steps for the protection of the infant.

Source: ABC and Daily News

53 thoughts on “The Reasonable Rabbi Standard? Brooklyn Prosecutors Reportedly Investigate Rabbi Who Transmitted Herpes To Baby In Circumcision Ceremony”

  1. The American Medical Association’s Policy on Circumcision

    Virtually all current policy statements from specialty societies and medical organizations do not recommend routine neonatal circumcision, and support the provision of accurate and unbiased information to parents to inform their choice. [They seldom define “routine”, apparently meaning “non-therapeutic” or “universal” – two very different things – depending on circumstances.] The recent policy revision by the American Academy of Pediatrics also states that analgesia (anesthesia) should be provided for the procedure.

    Circumcision decreases the incidence of urinary tract infections in the first year of life, and also protects against the development of penile cancer later in life. The circumcised male also may be somewhat less susceptible to HIV infection and certain sexually transmissible diseases. The low incidence of urinary tract infections and penile cancer mitigates [another strange word: they meant “nullifies”] the potential medical benefits compared with the risks of circumcision. In the case of sexual transmission of HIV, behavioral factors are far more important in preventing these infections than the presence or absence of a foreskin.

  2. A gorilla would know better than to jepoardize it’s own baby’s life or amputate part of it’s genitals. It is called maternal instinct.

    #1 Did half of you not read the article? The sucking of the blood thing is only done by the “ultra orthodox”, which I’m assuming must include the Hasidic. That freaks me out because I live in a Hasidic neighborhood. Gussy it up any way you like- a grown ass man who is in fact in charge of a flock of people is sucking the blood off on infant’s penis that he just cut in front of a crowd. And he’s sometimes passing on a fatal disease-HERPES!!!-something that anyone who knew about this practice knew could happen. Even a total schictsta like me.

    #2 Anyone who defends this is out of their mind and probably a member of a cult. I think its great that the Jewish community has rituals that have been going on for 5000 years. Who else can say that? However freedom of religion does not extend to the freedom to endanger the life of a NEWBORN. Maybe if these Rabbis had been cooperative and taken care of this problem the first time they KILLED A BABY instead of being arrogant jerks and not doing anything another baby wouldn’t have died. Christopher Hitchens wrote about it years ago in his book God is Not Great and said it had to stop before another baby died.

    If you would do whatever your Rabbi told you to, and that included risking the life of your child while cutting the most sensitive part of his PENIS off and then sucking the wound with his mouth- something that the city has been trying to end for some time now- than you are in fact an irresponsible and selfish parent. You put your religion and the desire to appear holy before the life of your own offspring- even a gorilla knows better than that. How do you feel about the mothers at Jonestown who gave their babies poison kool aid because Jim Jones told them to? Was the end result not the same? If a Rabbi expects his followers to do this ritual and pressures them than he is in fact coercing the parents and is liable too. How could anyone defend this? Its just like Catholics defending the Pope hiding away child molesters and letting them molest again and again. It is just like the fringe Mormons who marry off their 12 year old daughters.The common thread is that they do these things to children or babies- the innocent and defenseless who can’t speak for themselves. The parents of this baby are “stonewalling” the investigation according to the NY Daily news, the only paper with the cojones to call out the orthodox community. No parent has the right to kill their child. The child doesn’t choose its religion and anyway the bris was forced upon this baby -AGAINST his will.

    #3 Seamus – right on to you. Ask a doctor whether circumcision is necessary and they will say…well no. There is simply no real reason for it aside from religion. The foreskin is the most sensitive part of the penis. How any man can advocate circumcision is beyond me. It doesn’t hurt that much people say. Really and how would you know that? I can see cutting it off for hygiene when we lived in dirt huts. Fine. The penis in its natural state has been given a bad name and that is insane. If it aint broke don’t fix it. What if the rumors are true and sex is in fact better for an uncircumcised man and better for a female too? Would you still circumcise? People probably would if someone powerful encouraged them too. While we are on the subject of Abraham- if it were 2012 and Abraham tried to kill his son he’d hopefully go to jail.

    1. About the 5,000 year history bit — the Chinese have a far longer record of continuous cultural practices than the Jews. And if I simply can’t avoid religious people and their practices, I’ll take the Chinese any day. Better looking women and far better food.

  3. Am just eating my breakfast and wondering if anybody will re-visit the site of circumcision.
    On which my comment is: Whatever comforts you in your life’s journey. But herpes transmission should be avoided. If you want to prance around naked on your front lawn to memorialize something, by all means, do it.
    As for merits and demerits medically, sexually, etc they can be found scientifically. Finding people to provide a two-armed experience should be no problem. Any volunteers to be coupled up (no pun) to an EEG equivalent or doing it under a two-person MRI scanner?

    But as Mike S. implies, the principal erotic zone, as we all know, is the mind set at the moment. Of course he meant much more than arousal being involved in mindset.

    People take drugs to alter mindset (my catchall word for the day). So why not religion.

    As for the Iranians, my understanding that the basis for Shiism is that they are doing constant penance for not supporting in battle in time, and thus causing the death of a Mohammad descendant and his family. So to them, causing maximum pain is natural. But can understand 13 year old boys are not enchanted with the sacrifice, however meritous it may be in Shia eyes.

  4. Note that my previous comment that it is done with a strawlike device (a small amount of blood is drawn through the device which the rabbi then spits out). This is true of the many orthodox circumcisions that i personally have witnessed. However I must amend that it is possible that their are people who do it directly.

    1. “Mike S.,
      Shouldn’t we ask your partner’s opinions? 🙂 Sorry, I couldn’t resist!”

      This is how I’ll answer your impertinent question. By the way Katz’ Deli on Houston Street in Manhattan has the best hard salami I’ve ever eaten.

  5. Dredd raises a salient point but I believe that they do it at 13 which is the age Ismael got it, and it is a lot more painful at that point. In fact my Iranian friends tell me that kids run away from home on their 13th birthday.

  6. As the Professor noted in his story this is an “Ultra-Orthodox” practice and they make up 10% of Jews.

    I must disagree with you here Mike. Mezizah bpeh is done by all Orthodox Rabbis and doctors. Ultra Orthodox are crazy Hassidim mostly in Israel. As many non religious jewish people turn to these practitioners for the Bris ceremony, it affects them too. I am interested as well as the Professor in what the Prosecutors find scientifically.

  7. Mezizah Bpeh is done using a strawlike device. The rabbi or jewish doctor (I had a medical doctor do my flawless job) does not suck on the kids little weenie. It is not even essential to the Bris ceremony. In Jewish Orthodox Law, circumcision is a central concept. It is a covenant that God made with Abraham and is continued through thousands of years. In Jewish thought, there is Biblical Law and then Rabbinic Law. According to Biblical Law you simply remove the foreskin. The Rabbinic Laws which are not as binding include blessings and prayers said at the ceremony mezizah bpeh and various other practices such as giving the baby a tiny dab of wine from the cup of blessing. Whether circumcision is barbaric or not is up for debate. I have seen research that the baby only experiences pain for around a day based on brain scans, but I cannot verify if this is true. I can verify however that for an adult the Bris is very painful and the pain can last for weeks. I saw the case back in 2005. It was not verified that the form of mouth herpes the Rabbi had back in 2005 actually caused the infants death. If it is indeed proved to be dangerous I sure as hell will not allow the doc doing my kids job to do the Mezizah bpeh.

  8. I was circumcised. It is a barbaric tradition to mutilate the most sensitive parts of a man’s penis, and should be illegal. Parents shouldn’t have any more right to do this than remove a childs ears. The “mouth to genital contact”, while disgusting, is not abuse, and a child would no more bare emotional scars from this than being a claustrophobic fetus. Criminally, the rabbi is no more or less guilty than any and every rabbi who has ever done this procedure. Criminal prosecution in this case is preposterous, and prosecutors should be fired for this outrageous and ridiculous attempt to prosecute. Punish the guilty, not the unlucky. Please.

  9. Sue the Rabbi and seek relief in the form of turn abouts fair play. If the jury rules for the plaintiffs then they get to whack the Rabbi’s pee pee off. No pun intended. Next time the Rabbis will be more careful if their own pee pee is on the hook so to speak.

  10. “but I never would have imagined what the orthodox version of the circumcision process entailed.”


    As the Professor noted in his story this is an “Ultra-Orthodox” practice and they make up 10% of Jews.

    As to Anon’s comment on circumcision, I’m very glad to have been circumcised and it certainly never affected my sex life, or turned off my sex partners.

    I could make some lame comment about Jewish me doing it better, but not only would that be untrue and nonsensical, but would demean what sexuality is really about.

  11. SwM,
    Is that revenge for inflicting cervical cancer? IE papilloma virus causing cancer in the prostate. Will read it now? Just wanted to demonstrate my deductive powers.

  12. My mom said to my 12 year old ears: “I thought you could keep it clean yourself”. Hygiene was all the rage as a reason in the non-Jewish NC.

    And here in Sweden, the little I know says it’s unpractised. So if a Swedish girl says: “Gimme some skin”, there’s no doubt what she means. Before they just invited you to a cup of tea at their place.

    My AZ friend said her half-Irish and fair son got skinned in the kitchen by a doc; and he went on to study Hebrew, now teaching it to younger kids, and has had his Bar Mitzvah.

    As for rituals, the extreme ritual slaughtering of 500 horses and ritual chanting without error otherwise da capo, was until modern times common in India.

    Myself, I endorse reciting the table of elements, or a passage from Kantian philosophy.

    BTW, the jews in Medina heckled Mohammed for his aping of Judendom.
    He drove them away but kept the ritual and theology passages.

  13. I object to the oxymoron “reasonable rabbi.” Anyone who could possibly believe — let alone act in imitation of — the barbaric crap written in Genesis deserves many applicable epithets, but “reasonable” does not qualify as one of them. Hence:

    From “Boobie Political Science” (an episode of Fernando Po, U.S.A. — America’s Post-Linguistic Retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    Like Abram prostrate on the ground
    In Jewish tribal lore
    George fell down flat upon his face
    Thus promising to score
    Some skin from off his penis tip
    So “GAWD” would not get sore

    The Boobies couldn’t get enough
    They cheered and stomped and grinned
    And held their bloody penises
    (Appropriately skinned)
    So “GAWD” and George could see at once
    That none of them had “sinned”

    Thus did the Church and State combine
    In prehistoric days
    And soon the Boobies learned to stage
    Those awful Passion plays
    Which featured killing Boobies in
    Excruciating ways

    And Cicero in Roman times
    Inquired of something odd,
    “Is there a man so mad who thinks
    He drinks and eats a god?”
    The mack’rel-snapping Boobies blushed
    And answered with a nod

    Michael Murry, The Misfortune Teller, Copyright 2005

    Ugh. Disgusting. Deluded old men giving blowjobs to bleeding infants while other old pedophiles in skirts eat the flesh and drink the blood of a renegade Jew who died two thousand years ago. What barbarism.

  14. Doesnt the Rabbi have a brother who is a doctor and who could do this cleanly in a hospital?

  15. I have been to many of these procedures, including my two sons and three grandsons (in my lap), and don’t remember (or want to) any oral suction of blood.
    I do like to joke that this is a Jewish kid’s first discount.

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