Why Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Babies Keep Getting Herpes


By Emily Shire


On July 22, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revealed that two new cases of neonatal herpes had been diagnosed during July. One baby was found at 16 days old to have “pustular lesions on the penis and genital area,” and a 17-day-old was found to have “lesions on his penis, left foot, and left thigh.”

Based on the timing and the locations of the lesions, the male infants had contracted the herpes simplex virus during their Jewish circumcision custom, a bris, which occurs on the eighth day of life. Circumcisions are a standard—even beneficial—health practice. But each of these boys underwent a bris that followed an ancient ritual not widely practiced outside the ultra-Orthodox community.

Metzitzah b’peh (MBP), the orogential (mouth to genitals) suctioning of blood from the penis of an infant male following circumcision, poses one of the most unique and upsetting public health issues. While infants who do not undergo MBP can contract neonatal herpes, infants who do are 3.4 times more likely to do so, according to the New York City Department of Health. Since 2000, 16 cases of neonatal herpes have resulted from MBP in New York City alone, with three proving fatal and others causing long-term health effects, including brain damage. A practice that sounds immediately abhorrent and baffling to nearly anyone outside New York’s ultra-Orthodox community has forced a controversial clash of local politics, culture, and power.

MBP has been practiced for millennia with varying regularity among different sects of the Jewish community. However, in 1837, Chasam Sofer, a revered sage in the central and eastern European Jewish world, said oral suctioning could be stopped when it appeared to cause a public health crisis in Vienna. He stated that Jewish law did not state MBP as necessary for fulfilling the Jewish commandment of circumcision, and “even if oral suction had been mentioned in the Mishnah, we would be able to change it to another method which accomplishes the same thing, so long as we heed qualified physicians.” Other rabbis followed with similar rulings, and in many circles, MBP eventually fell out of practice for most Jews.

Multiple religious authorities definitively stressed during the reporting of this article that MBP is not at all necessary to complete a bris. “The most fundamental precept of Jewish law is preservation of health, and life comes first. There’s no close second,” says Ben Hirsch, who was raised in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community and is the president of Survivors for Justice, a group devoted to raising awareness of sexual abuse within the community. “The rabbis are obligated under Jewish law to defer to medical professionals, but they are refusing to do so, and infants are being maimed and killed.”

Most succinctly, Dr. Moshe Tendler, a microbiologist and professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, wrote in a 2004 Pediatrics article: “The rule that’s above all rules in the Torah is that you cannot expose or accept a risk to health unless there is true justification for it.”

But Agudath Israel of America, the most powerful Haredi (a more extreme and traditional form of Orthodox Judaism) organization in the United States, has endorsed the safety of the practice. When asked if he thought MBP was safe, Director of Public Affairs Avi Shafran said in an email, “We do indeed, certainly safer than skiing. Or driving. Or crossing a street in Manhattan, for that matter.” Both the New York City Health Department (PDF) and the CDC have outlined the practice’s significant risks to the safety and health of an infant.

As of 2012, the city estimates 3,600 circumcisions involving MBP are performed each year, but mohels (religious figures who perform the circumcision) and others connected with the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox community estimate the numbers closer to 5,000 to 10,000 annually.

Based on these high numbers, those who support MBP argue that if it were a risky procedure, there would be more than 16 incidences reported in the New York City area since 2000. “If it were a real danger, you’d see a lot more cases,” said Rabbi Adam Epstein, who was trained and certified as a mohel in New York. “A person who grows up in a pornographic country is going to have trouble understanding these purity customs. Of course it sounds archaic and disgusting to a pornographic mind. I can’t defend my view to the general public that has been exposed to different ideas.”

Yerachmiel Simins, a lawyer who has represented the community in negotiations with the city and the state over MBP, said it has “been practiced for millennia, and you have an incredible safety record over time. Under their [the Health Department’s] theory, you’d expect to see hundreds or thousands of cases, and you don’t see them even when it’s a reportable disease. The numbers haven’t gone up at all.”

But that assumes parents are reporting all of the cases or that hospitals are consistently tracking them. “Most families in the Hasidic community go to a doctor that the community had made a deal with to get their child looked at. Depending on what the doctor sees, they really avoid going to the hospital,” says Shmarya Rosenberg, a former member of the Chabad-Lubavitch community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Rosenberg is the blogger and journalist behind FailedMessiah, a site devoted to exposing abuse and corruption within the ultra-Orthodox world.

“My suspicion is that there are many more cases of milder herpes infections,” he says. And many parents will refuse to report the mohel who performed MBP, he adds: “I think some parents try to bring their kids to hospitals outside of the state, where reporting is different. I truly believe there are cases that are never reported.”

Rosenberg specifically alleges that Maimonides hospital in Borough Park, Brooklyn, which is home to a large ultra-Orthodox community, does not adequately report cases. “I’m sure that people who bring their kids to Maimonides find the case is never probed. Maimonides is very dependent on the Haredi community,” he says. Maimonides has denied that claim. In a statement to The Daily Beast, the hospital said: “Maimonides Medical Center adheres to all federal, state and city regulations, as well as our own explicit policies which require staff to inform the NYC DOH of cases of neonatal herpes.”

Hirsch believes MBP stems from the competition among Hasidic rabbis to “demonstrate one segment is holier than another.” In an arms races to prove they are holier than thou, rabbis add more and more prohibitions and prerequisites. “When it comes to something mundane, like kosher laws, their pronouncements may be absurd, but so be it,” says Hirsch. But MBP is “an issue where there is no doubt that children are dying and being harmed for life.”

Few parents within the community hesitate to submit their sons to this form of circumcision, despite the health risk noted by the New York City Department of Health and CDC. Part of that, though, is a result of many parents not even realizing they are exposing infants to a life-threatening disease. “They don’t understand science. They have no secular education for the most part. They go to schools where they are taught only in Yiddish and only about Jewish subjects. They know nothing,” says Rosenberg.

It’s not just that many parents are not aware of the health risks. There is immense communal pressure to have MBP performed. Frimet Goldberger wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward about her son undergoing MBP. At the time of his bris, she was recovering from a C-section and unable to attend. She did not know MBP would be performed, but she says she doesn’t think it would have made a difference to the ultimate outcome. “It probably wouldn’t matter to me anyway had I been aware that the mohel is performing MBP, because everyone did it,” she said in an email. “Standing up to ‘everyone’ and to the community’s traditions and norms, or what they consider the absolute, indisputable halakhah [Jewish law], would’ve been unthinkable.” Her son is now 9 years old and never contracted neonatal herpes, but Goldberger says she wishes he hadn’t gone through with MBP. “I can’t go back in time and undo it, but I am upset—not at my family and the community, who truly believe in this—but at my own naiveté. Yes, I regret that I allowed my son to undergo this risky and potentially life-threatening procedure.”

Hirsch also believes even when parents do understand the potential risks associated with MBP, they will still submit their infants to the tradition. “They believe they are obligated to engage in it,” he says. They treat MBP not only as a divine commandment, but one that bears incredible social weight in the community. To defy a rabbi’s order on a bris, a highly public event that is meant to be a celebration, can seal one’s fate as an outsider for life. “They’re believers and, in most cases, captive. They can’t just defy their leaders and pack up and move to Montana,” Hirsch says.

What is so difficult for anyone outside the community to understand is the pressure of social stigma. It not only motivates parents to concede to the practice, but also not to report incidences when medical issues arise. “When parents go to the hospital with a baby boy infected by a mohel, there is pressure to identify the mohel. Yet they know that if they expose a mohel, their life is over,” says Hirsch. “They’d become a pariah and their children would be unable to get married or get into schools. Would some of these parents choose not to treat an infant infected by a mohel and instead sacrifice a child knowing they’ll face this intense pressure? Maybe.”


    • What the hell are you talking about? It is circumcision and they contact the disease because the rabbi sucks blood from the penis . The rabbis have the herpes simplex virus and pass it on to the baby from sucking his dick. But religion does no harm

      • ‘But religion does no harm’

        How exceedingly ignorant of you to write this. I do suggest, tiger76, to got to your closest library, join and begin reading books by Carl Sagan – a life changing experience. His writings may (or may not) change your faith or beliefs…

        But at least you will then not write such inane and naíve statements.

  1. A man put a infant’s penis in his mouth and gave him a horrible, incurable STD. The part that is missing is ‘and he went to prison where he was traded every night for a half a pack of cigarettes.’. My apologies if that is a tad crass, but I’m horrified.

  2. Anyone outside these insular sects should find the practice of metzitzah b’peh (MBP) bizarre and inexcusably dangerous. I find it shameful that the Board of Health has tried but has been unable to prevent this practice. Neither the mohels, rabbis or the members of these subgroups of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community are interested in the pathophysiology or epidemiology of neonatal herpes infection – just as you may have rolled your eyes when I used that terminology. I am confident that they ascribe infrequent cases of herpes to the will of Ha Shem (God), whose actions are beyond questioning.

    That being said, I was amused when the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel compared the risks of MBP to being “safer than skiing. Or driving. Or crossing a street in Manhattan, for that matter.” Of course, the cited comparisons are invalid. However, I like the image I formed of a Hasidic Jew on a downhill run. He has a point about the risks of skiing for the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, not to mention how at least some of them drive or cross a street.

    • That is a bizarre comparison. The risk of being abused as a child is lower than the risk of being run over therefore child abuse is ok. The risk of being murdered is lower than being killed in a car crash therefore murder is ok.

      Whilst I would not deny any adult the right to practise their religion in any bizarre way they feel necessary, children should be protected from abuse as a basic right. And that should include all unnecessary and harmful procedures. Cutting a baby is barbaric with or without the mouths and herpes. A minimum age of 25 when informed consent can be given should be the norm.

      • ‘…therefore child abuse is ok.’

        I interpreted that as the rabbi was commenting that the practice of metzitzah b’peh and the contracting of associated diseases is acceptable (that the orthodox Jewish philosophy finds it acceptable) rather than OK. In the same way most governments accept the tobacco industry, but never think it is OK. It is, instead, an enormous revenue earner. In the same way the Maimonides hospital may not be reporting all incidents, as their customers are paying cashed up folks.

        Also, why would you not question adults about their religious practices? Richard Dawkins does. And publishes best selling books on this very topic.

  3. metzitzah b’peh

    The name itself sounds like suckling followed by spitting. Yuck!!

    “A person who grows up in a pornographic country is going to have trouble understanding these purity customs. Of course it sounds archaic and disgusting to a pornographic mind. I can’t defend my view to the general public that has been exposed to different ideas.”

    Right. So the reason non-jews find this “purity custom” totally disgusting is …. wait for it… because we goys have a dirty mind. And that’s what we get for allowing all that pornography… Gee, that’s not condescending at all right? Mr Epstein, you may no longer have a foreskin but you sure got some balls.

    Hirsch believes MBP stems from the competition among Hasidic rabbis to “demonstrate one segment is holier than another.” In an arms races to prove they are holier than thou, rabbis add more and more prohibitions and prerequisites.

    Hmmm… now where have I seen that before? And I thought “Quien es mas loco” contests only occurred between the Tea Party and Ultra-Conservative Republicans who do their worst to outdo each other in right-wing batshit-ness. I stand corrected once again.

  4. Here is an idea, how about waiting until they are adults to decide if they choose to be circumcised. How many adult males do you think would subject themselves to having their genitals cut into without an aesthetic followed by having a mohel suck it off the end of his bleeding genitalia. Some people are perfectly happy to inflict same on their sons though.

    • @RecklessMonkey
      That would really test the faithful! I imagine the practice would die out immediately!
      I’ve delayed responding to this article because I find the idea so repugnant. How could the adults present, look at this and not be appalled? There must be a good deal of contorted thinking taking place. Are they aware of the number of babies infected?
      Like the method of animal slaughter, this is one tradition that needs to be turfed. The practice of wearing sidecurls is a little weird, but no one is hurt in the process. Any custom causing harm should be dropped (even to the extent of being made a criminal offense).

      • Indeed, makes you wonder what Abraham’s servants though when he came back down off the mountain thinking he was going to have to obey the commandment to slaughter his son. Instead God tells him you don’t have to kill the boy just cut off the end of your member, his member and all of your peoples. So down he trots from the mountain a spring in his step up to the servants “this next bit isn’t gone into detail but I’m imagining it went down something like this ‘Hey guys guess what I didn’t have to gut my son after all!’ ,”Hurrah!” they all exclaim in unison overjoyed at the news “Instead I need you to line up by this bench while I cut off the end of your dicks”. The servants giggle nervously thinking this must be some sort of eccentric joke. Look I’ve already done mine!” Abraham proudly exclaims has he lifts up his robe to reveal the bloodly member…..

      • Agreed. Religion should be the free informed choice of adults only. Children and babies cannot make those decisions and adults should not be allowed to harm them in the name of any belief.

        Protecting children from abuse, be it physical or emotional, should be the priority of Govts.

    • Damn you Monkey, Now I’ve got this image burned into my mind: An ultra-orthodox man, complete with big hat, long-strings undershirt and Shirley Temple ear-curls (sorry, gentile here who does not know the correct words) dropping his drawers to be sucked off by an old man in a shawl.

  5. I can imagine some manipulative con-artist control freak ‘prophet’ telling people that they need to do this weird stuff, and then when they’ve actually done it, leaving the room and standing outside sniggering to themselves at peoples credulousness and stupidity; thus, legends and myths are born, the principal modern incarnation among them being Mormonism.

    But I think that those who’ve been conned into a religious tradition have for the most part had the power to think for themselves knocked out of them at a very early age.

    I presume that they imagine they’re of one mind with their particular God, and will reap benefits in the after-life if they hack bits off of their babies on the eighth day of the poor mite’s life.

    I have a sometimes quite alarming imagination, it can frighten me, but this kind of stuff is all far too weird, even for yours truly.

    • Hi Stafford Gordon,

      I agree, I suspect it may have something to do with making people commit to something that is otherwise hard to believe. If some guy has just forked out $800 for some magnetic device designed to save 25% off his fuel bit on his car, he is unlikely to easily admit he’s been suckered. The more ridiculous nonsense they get people to do the more emotional commitment to their beliefs they have. This I think is the reason for the control of sexuality, you don’t see many long lasting religions in which any but the leaders are permitted to have sex for the pure pleasure of it. Let’s face it, if some teenager has a choice go to church of have sex what would they choose? If on the other hand you say you may not have sex outside of marriage then you have set them up to need to meet a suitable wife (in the church) and get married as soon as possible. Control.

  6. “Circumcisions are a standard—even beneficial—health practice.”

    Circumcisions are neither standard nor beneficial nor a “health practice”
    where the latter is meant to create the false image of routine universal standard best practice.

    The US where medicine is a business (I urge you to read up on the history of the continually reinvented justifications of the practice – HIV AIDS prevention! in its newest shameless incarnation ) is the only area in the world where they are (decreasingly) routinely carried out though now usually -one hopes- only after getting approval from the parents who if they do elect to have it done do it out of custom or religion.

    The preventative “benefits” are a minute fraction of what would be obtained from, say, carrying out radical mastectomies on girls in order to prevent breast cancer. For example, occurrence of penile cancer in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Japan, where less than 1.5% of men are circumcised, are lower than in the United States, where the majority of men are still circumcised.

    The only instance where circumcision is medically justified is in extremely rare circumstances to correct a condition which is increasingly found to be remediable with treatment that is not destructive, permanent and traumatizing.

  7. It is a disgusting practice. I’m sure that last time I looked it was illegal for a man to suck a child’s dick. But it isn’t just the practitioner who is sick, it is the parents as well. These rabbis should produce a medical certificate that proves themselves STD free for a start but the parents are just as much to blame by hanging onto traditions that put the life of their child in danger. And what about the legacy of this when the child gets older? Explaining to his new girlfriend or wife that he has herpes that he contracted when an old man gave him a bj – oh and by the way my love do you want sex with me now that I’ve confessed to having herpes? Bet they don’t confess that to their partners and spread it to them as well…

    • What I do not understand is how the parents can do it. I guess they’ve been brainwashed into a) it is necessary and b) harmless or even beneficial.

      You can’t do much about a) as that is religion, but you sure as hell can educate about b). Harmful, painful and with no health benefits. Surely that would make them think twice?

      If not what about the law? Without religious protection what they’re doing is illegal surely?

  8. It is absolutely horrendous that secular governments grant special child abuse exemptions to religious organizations and individuals. The general practice of circumcision is questionable enough, as one cannot really make an incredibly strong case for the health benefits of the practice, relative to the potential risks, but to perform what these Jewish religious leaders do to newborns is sick and twisted. Moreover, due to a lack of education and the need to be accepted in a tightly-knitted community, many parents forgo their children’s bodily rights and allow these individuals to abuse them.

    More needs to be done to educate our young people to ensure that these barbaric, anachronistic procedures and “traditions” are banned by the time the youngest generation start producing children of their own. Also, if we can ensure that everyone, or nearly everyone, achieves a level of economic independence and opportunity, Jewish parents may not be so dependent on tightly-knit communities, whereby removing the disincentive for them to not bring their babies to the hospital if they have herpes and report the perpetrator.

  9. Circumcision is needless mutilation–period. There are no health benefits whatsoever, and even the WHO is now backing down from its former advocacy for it in Third World countries to prevent the spread of HIV. It originated as a religious procedure to separate the preferred “we” (Jews, Muslims, etc.) against the subhuman “others.” The only way not being circumcised can be unhygienic is if the boy/man never washes his penis properly. Of course, that will be a problem in countries that lack proper access to what we in the First World consider basic necessities like electricity and clean running water, but otherwise men who are not circumcised are not at greater risk of any kind of STD or other malady affecting that region. Support for male genital mutilation indirectly legitimizes female genital mutilation, the latter of which is roundly condemned in the most vociferous terms. Such hypocrisy!

  10. The link to beneficial effects of circumcision asserts that circumcision helps prevent penile cancer. I’ve checked that the rate of penile cancer is 8 per million in Denmark, 4 per million in Australia, and 10 per million in the US. The rate of circumcision is 2% in Denmark, 13% in Australia, and 79% in the US. Good luck giving your children herpes on the chance that it doesn’t actually increase the risk of penile cancer.

    Also, the photo at the top of article is quite disturbing.

    • photo is quite disturbing

      Take away all the religious garb, and the photo could come from the files of sting operations for child assault/pornography/abuse. To wit, open it to prosecution (preferably retroactive and with no statute of limitations).

      Note the lack of the mother and other females, so they don’t “upset” the procedure.

    • Yes, you find the reporting is often wildly misleading on these things. Often risk is reported in terms of 50% additional risk. If the actual risk for example is 2 in say 250 000 then a 50% increase is not a very high risk at all. Especially when they almost never publish the contrary risks. In fact when the incidence of risk is so minimal then I’d question a studies ability to measure accurately risk at all.

      When my wife was pregnant with my son we were in a stream of care leading to the birth where the local public hospital where two midwives were allocated to patients for the duration of measurements, classes, birthing and after home visits. First let me say it was excellent care and I am very grateful to all involved. However as it was sort of fringe at the hospital (program was developed by the midwives who were more progressive than the establishment) the midwives involved were susceptible to some nonsense like raspberry leaf tea and similar alternative remedies. They always gave the standard treatment options but would say something like some of our patents have had success with this or that. My confirmation bias radar went zapping off and we asked for details about risk we couldn’t get anything from them. It came to a head when my son was breach and wouldn’t turn. This stream of care’s philosophy was very much linked to the idea that natural child birth was generally more beneficial than C section and in this case they were able to direct me to medical papers that backed this up. They were for genuine or ‘Earth Mother’ reasons encouraging patients if at all possible to follow through with child birth naturally – at hospital (they weren’t completely Earth Mother). So it was about a week before my son was due, and he was breach, the midwife was trying to encourage my wife to try to get the boy turned using physical manipulation by the doctor. I inquired as to the risks, she outlined the possible consequences if things went wrong (I recall detached placenta as one possible consequences) she reassured us that in the event of this an emergency C section would be preformed. I then asked the question I thought was obvious, how often does a complication occur? She couldn’t give me an answer, I said well we can’t make an informed decision until we can weigh the risks the alternative is C section so we need to do the maths. I got the distinct impression that no-one had ever asked this question before. She managed to get a paediatrician to answer the question for us and it was obviously more risky for all involved getting a C section which we did. Don’t get me wrong I sure they are right that generally it is better to give birth naturally but when things aren’t going right you need to actual figures in the context of you actual situation.

      The circumcision debate seems rarely to report accurately (well, clearly I have no reason to doubt the figures however the figures are rarely put into context) on the actual risks and say do something simple like compare the risks with the alternatives are we really happy with a few percent decrease in risk as opposed to the massive benefits gained by safe sex? So for example does the small drop in contraction in HIV due to circumcision really mean that much, for example a small decreased risk may just slightly delay inevitably contracting the disease whereas safe sex practices may eliminate the disease entirely.

  11. Another factor to consider in the circumcision debate is the fact that in Africa many tribes for example the Massai conduct circumcision as a right of passage upon reaching manhood (in late teens). Also circumcision in these cases is also not always the same as a western doctor would do. In Massai my understanding is the foreskin is cut vertically then horizontally on either side leaving the foreskin hanging on either side. Now I have heard this only once, from the European wife of a Massai, she may have described it poorly or I may have misunderstood so take exactly what I say with some scepticism (I thought it rude to ask to look at the guys dick-but I remember suggesting to him at the time he should have a press stud fitted and he’d have a handy key ring – got a laugh – tingle tingle, but his English wasn’t so good at the time and he may have been humouring me) but it was apparent from the conversation that the circumcision was a) not like a western circumcision and b)The wife in question had had other sexual partners prior, so chances are she knew the difference.

    Anyway point being, if other tribes have similar styles of circumcision it strikes me they might a) be as unwilling to give up circumcision in adulthood as Ultra Orthodox Jews are. b) If they have been sexually active the adult circumcision might due to bleeding result in higher infection if sex is indulged in before healing. c) the incomplete removal of foreskin may result in no net benefit at all or even potentially increased risk.

    So you have a procedure that is not without risk, a procedure that may make many feel they are immune to HIV and hence further the spread of other STD’s (remember the education in some African countries combined with superstitions leads to some raping virgins in an attempt to cure aids) due to decreased safe sex practices, a procedure that has scientific papers claiming significant decrease and other showing increase in circumcised parties. All of this when we know exactly how to stop the spread of HIV and all other STD’s. why are we inflicting mutilation on the newly born, sexually inactive males? Seems a distraction to me.

  12. How is it that Rolf Harris is convicted of sexual abuse, and these pedophiles can still walk the streets? Not that I am defending Rolf Harris, au contraire, but to be able to legally mutilate an infant?
    What possible excuse, other than, of course, religion, can justify this abominable behaviour.
    Welcome to the world little boy, now, just to show you whose in charge, we are going to cut the end of your dick off!

    It is noteworthy though, how widespread the practise is. Traditional (pre European) tribal ritual in Aboriginal Australia involve a manhood initiation of circumcision, done with an approximately sharp rock. Of course, now, attempting such a thing would land you straight in jail, and for all the right reasons.

    The same of course should apply to those who delight in chopping bits off little girls.

    PS: IT Department, ticking the followup boxes at the bottom does nothing. A bit like the big button on the lights at a cross walk. It gives you something to do while waiting for the light to change, but your feeling is that it is not connected to anything.

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