If you want to understand just how religious authoritarianism harms children, look no further than the actions of a powerful group of rabbis in New York known as Agudath Israel. AI is a Jewish communal organization that represents the most conservative Jewish believers, the haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews.
These rabbis are seeking to sue the City of New York after the health department announced it would adopt a measure that requires parents to sign a written consent form warning them of the dangers of a circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh. (The policy was just passed.) If you have not heard of metzitzah b’peh, brace yourself: It involves the sucking of the bleeding penis by the circumcising rabbi or mohel.
The practice of metzitzah b’peh is thousands of years old. Originally, it was believed to clean the wound. Fast forward to today and not only do we find that this segment of the Jewish population is allowing rabbis to do what would normally be considered to be sexual abuse, the ritual has led to babies dying or suffering brain damage after contracting the herpes simplex I virus.
Neonatal herpes infections of all kinds are nearly always fatal in infants. An investigation by the New York City Board of Health found that, in the last decade, an average of one baby per year who underwent metzitzah b’peh contracted the virus. Two of the infants died, and two suffered brain damage.
“This is a ritual. . . that’s come down through the ages, and now it has met modern science,” the chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University told ABC News. . “It’s certainly not something any of us recommend in the modern infection-control era,” he said.
Not surprisingly, AI proclaimed that, in passing the parental consent policy, New York health officials are impeding on religious freedom, indicating that the religious leaders know more about infectious diseases than doctors. In a statement signed by 200 haredi rabbis, the group accused the health department of “spreading lies” and that participating in the “evil plans” of the department is forbidden by the Torah.
Most people would be shocked that religious leaders would support such a disgusting—and potentially deadly—practice. In a letter he wrote to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center infectious disease specialist Dr. Jonathan Zenilman wrote that the AI is “doing a terrible disservice to the Jewish Community and the public at large.”
But as I have repeatedly pointed out, such disregard for children’s rights is part and parcel of religious authoritarian cultures like the haredi. Members of this segment of the Jewish population consider their belief system to be the one, true faith, and they are convinced that all other believers, including other Jews, are spiritually inferior. In addition, the haredi manifest the three perfect-storm characteristics of a religious authoritarian culture: They have a strict, social hierarchy; they are unusually fearful; and they are socially separatist.
As I continue to reiterate, the way religious authoritarianism harms children is through the parents—or, rather, through parental impotence. In religious authoritarian cultures, parents lack autonomy in how to raise their children. Instead, they rely on—or are forced to adopt—child-rearing practices that fail to attend to children’s physical and emotional needs. In fact, the New York health department has received numerous complaints from parents whose mohels went so far as to perform metzitzhah b’peh on their babies without their consent.
It stands to reason that the powerful rabbis of Agudath Israel don’t want parents to be informed about the dangers of metzitzah b’peh, even though it puts children at risk for death or being left permanently disabled. Instead, these men prefer to leave mothers and fathers in the dark, where they will remain powerless to make critical decisions in their children’s lives.