It is a measure of the multicultural finesse it takes to run for mayor in New York City that seven Democratic candidates — including men and women of Chinese, Latino, Irish and Italian backgrounds — have staked out positions on an Orthodox Jewish circumcision ritual that is obscure even to most Jews.
On Wednesday night, the candidates took part in a forum at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center sponsored by The Jewish Press, a weekly publication geared toward the Orthodox community, and the very first question thrown at them concerned metzitzah b’peh, an ancient practice common in ultra-Orthodox communities in which the circumciser uses his mouth to suck blood from the wound.
Since September, New York City health officials, noting that 12 cases of herpes simplex virus have most likely resulted from the procedure since 2000, have required parents to fill out a consent form that acknowledges they are aware of the risks. Orthodox groups have shrugged off the risks and sued the city to block the consent requirement, but a federal judge ruled in January that the city may temporarily proceed.
Though some of the candidates at a forum heavily attended by Orthodox Jews mangled the pronunciation of the Hebrew term, they took subtly contrasting positions.
John C. Liu, the city comptroller, said he would abandon the requirement for consent forms, pointing out that the procedure had been used for “thousands of years” and “for some reason a billionaire mayor decided he knows better than anyone else.”
The Rev. Erick Salgado, the pastor of the Church of Iglesia Jovenes Cristianos, said he saw the consent requirement as an example of interference from City Hall in religious matters and an “attack against a community of faith,” just like restrictions on the use of well water for making matzos before Passover.
However, Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, defended the consent forms, saying they offer “a balance” between the needs of Jewish tradition and health concerns.
Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, used the question to attack Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for trying “to impose his will” without sensitivity to religious traditions and urged officials to join with religious leaders to work out a plan that indicates “respect for religious tradition.”
Sal F. Albanese, a former councilman, said that if he was elected mayor he, too, would call in all parties to the dispute and hammer out a consensus.
William C. Thompson Jr., a former comptroller, arrived too late to answer the question directly, but in March he told ultra-Orthodox leaders that one thing he had heard was “there was no conversation — it was this is the way it’s going to be, my way or the highway.” He also said he would bring the parties together to work out a protocol that “balances safety and religious practice.”
Anthony D. Weiner, the only Jewish candidate and one who sprinkled all of his responses with Yiddish terms, noted that he had stated his support for metzitzah b’peh in a 2005 article in The Forward about the practice. He did not, however, address the specific question of consent forms.