Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Government Interference in Bris Milah?

Today, the Albany Times-Union reported that New York had come up with a set of health guidelines for bris milah (circumcisions). Steven I. Weiss and Gil Student are both already covering this subject, but an aside by Steven really hits what I think is a main point in the metzitzah b'peh controversy:
- If the state can impose these kinds of regulations, presumably a wholesale ban wouldn’t have been entirely impossible, so why did the city keep saying that it was?
I think the answer is pretty simple: They actually could have, but for political reasons did not want to admit it. This is very troubling, as it makes for an interesting discussion as to how much the government should be allowed to insert itself into religious rituals - and what, in the future, the government may decide to impose control over.

What's sad is that in this case, some Jews essentially forced this upon themselves. The precautions listed are normal, common sense practices which should have been followed in the first place - but because people did not follow them and there were problems, the government felt it had to mandate the procedure. It's very difficult to fight the government on this, as their requirements are completely normal and fair, but this now allows for future instances where the government can impose control over religious ceremonies.

This case also has interesting parallels with other issues, such as how involved the government should be in other situations versus this one, from national security to homosexuality. Certainly, though, one who agrees that the government should be involved in this case, where very few are affected, would want the same involvement in matters of national security when many more are affected. It will be interesting to see what side people come down on in this case.


  1. I think this case is different, as none of the actions were "illegal". This is setting guidelines for a [real] health risk, but we don't generally force people to be healthy.

    I recall the case you're talking about, but that involved illegal drugs; this case has nothing of the sort.

  2. I left this comment at Canonist but it is equally applicable here:

    - If the state can impose these kinds of regulations, presumably a wholesale ban wouldn’t have been entirely impossible, so why did the city keep saying that it was?

    I followed the link and maybe I am missing something, but where did the NYC health department say that a wholesale ban was impossible? Here is the letter quoted inthe linked post:

    "While some medical professionals and others in the Jewish community have called on the department to completely ban metzitzah b’peh at this time, it is our opinion that educating the community through public health information and warnings is a more realistic approach."

    Unrealistic, maybe. but impossible?

    Also, just because the state can regulate the practice, why does that mean that an outright ban would be legal? There are plenty of practices that the state can regulate (e.g., abortion) but cannot ban.

  3. I was under the impression that Steven was referring to past statements even though the link was to this...

    Honestly, I don't know if it would be legal or not to have an outright ban. I'm concerned because I don't see any reason why they couldn't ban (as opposed to abortion, which there is a SC ruling about).

  4. Under the Federal Constitution they could almost certainly ban it. I don't know enough about the NY Constitution, but I doubt it would be an obstacle. However, politically and pragmatically, it'd be a bad move. The people who believe it's required would do it anyway and the state would have a difficult time enforcing its law. Plus who wants to lose such a large bloc of voters?

  5. It's not such a large bloc, when you think about it... most people don't do MBP.