|An American obsession|
Why I wrote a book about circumcision
Dr Leonard Glick explains how he came to write Marked In Your Flesh
A number of years ago I learned that infants undergoing circumcision cry – in fact, scream – in an entirely distinctive manner. That ought to have rung an alarm bell in my mind; instead it just left me feeling vaguely uneasy. Yet if anyone should have understood what I now call “the circumcision dilemma,” it was me. I’m a cultural anthropologist with a medical background, and I taught European Jewish history to college students. In an earlier book, Abraham’s Heirs: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe, I mentioned circumcision incidentally a few times. But its real importance only dawned on me when I came across a historian’s statement that European Christians thought of the “typical Jew” as a circumcised male – a genitally depleted half-man, weakened and “feminized” by this most mysterious of all Jewish practices. Had I really studied the history of Jewish-Christians relations all those years and never realized something so fundamental?
Soon came another surprise: I learned that in the United States circumcision was by no means a Jewish practice alone – that today a substantial majority of male American newborns are being circumcised. The practice had become popular in the early to mid-twentieth century, just at the time when childbirth was medicalized – moved from home to hospital, managed by physicians, and accompanied by such now discredited practices as episiotomy, isolation of newborns from mothers, artificial feeding, and rigidly defined feeding schedules.
There was more. I found that the practice had never been accepted in Continental Europe, Asia, or Latin America; that in other Anglophone nations (England, Canada, Australia) it had been adopted for a time, then largely discontinued. Finally, the clincher: I came to understand that not only is circumcision medically unnecessary, it removes the most sensitive tissue in the male genitals. Mothers don’t have to be told that a normal newborn infant, male or female, is a perfectly formed little person, with nothing useless, nothing designed by nature for removal! If there can be no good reason for removal of a body part from any normal, non-consenting person, circumcision raises a serious ethical issue.
Why then has the practice continued? Why are nearly 60 per cent of male infants still routinely circumcised in our hospitals, despite statements by leading medical organizations that there is no need to do this? For one thing, despite oceans of articles in the medical literature and efforts by opponents to raise public awareness, many parents take it for granted that circumcision of newborn boys is the American thing to do. It’s a “social norm” – a practice that’s widely accepted because people know that it’s widely accepted. So physicians, whether they approve or not, let parents decide on such a sensitive issue as the medically unnecessary, irreversible removal of a normal body part – surely the only situation in which anyone is permitted to make such a decision for another person.
I think that’s unjust, and I wrote this book to try to explain why. Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America was published by Oxford University Press in June 2005. I hope it will help to show why routine circumcision should have no place in American society.
Originally published in Compleat Mother Magazine, No. 79, Fall 2005, p. 25
Dr Leonard Glick, MA, MD, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Hampshire College, and lives in New Salem, Massachussetts. Marked in your flesh is available from Amazon by clicking on the image to the left.
A thoughtful and troubled reviewThe following review was pubished in the Jewish American magazine Forward in September 2005.
A Little off the Top
The Controversy About Circumcision
By Jay Michaelson
September 2, 2005
Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision From Ancient Judea to Modern America
By Leonard B. Glick
Oxford University Press, 384 pages, $30.
To put it mildly, circumcision is a delicate subject. It's almost
impossible to discuss the matter without cracking a joke, probably because
the ritual makes at least 49% of the population wince and cross its legs.
And yet, as a quick Google search will easily reveal, in the past two
decades there has been a trove of writing about circumcision — most of it
negative, and a lot of it generated by cranks.
Lately, however, the debate has moved into the mainstream. That
circumcision reduces sexual pleasure, and that it is fully experienced by
the traumatized infant, is now well established. Jewish intellectuals have
debated the practice's merits in magazines and at conferences, and even
bloodless "brit shalom" ("covenant of peace") rituals have been developed
to replace circumcision surgery. Meanwhile, medical professionals have
cast doubt on the supposed hygienic and salutary benefits of the practice,
causing the rate of circumcision to fall in America from 80% of newborn
males in 1980 to fewer than 60% today (circumcision is only practiced
rarely among gentiles in Continental Europe and Asia), although recent
data suggesting that circumcision reduces the threat of contracting HIV
may reverse that trend. Finally, Jewish ritual circumcision has even
become the center of a small controversy in New York City, with Mayor
Michael Bloomberg publicly urging Orthodox Jews to change the way they
carry out the rite after a single mohel allegedly spread herpes to three
babies he had circumcised.
"Marked in Your Flesh," the new book by Leonard Glick, professor emeritus
of anthropology at Hampshire College, does not add considerably to the
substantive debate; it is at times insightful, and other times intensely
biased. Yet a book published by Oxford University Press, by a noted Jewish
anthropologist, has at least one unambiguous effect: It raises the stakes
of the conversation. The anti-circumcision crowd is not just on the
To those who take brit milah — the covenant of circumcision — for granted,
the contemporary debate around the practice may come as a surprise. Isn't
this one of the foundations of the Jewish religion? And what's all the
fuss about "a little off the top," as one of the multitude of circumcision
jokes puts it?
Well, for starters, there's the nature of the act itself. Glick is not the
first to narrate the gruesome details of circumcision — but that doesn't
stop him from piling on plenty of stretching, cutting and bloodletting
detail. The first page alone includes phrases such as "piercing scream,"
"his foreskin pinched and crushed," "tugging, whimpering, and then crying
helplessly." Few of the remaining 359 pages are any different. At least we
know what we're in for: The book lets us know that it will be a polemic,
and an NC-17 one at that.
Still, the details of circumcision really are unsettling. It's no mere
"snip, snip," as I was taught back at summer camp; as every new parent
knows, it's a brutal, bloody operation that, neonatal science now tells
us, is fully experienced by the newborn infant. It's trauma, it's
mutilation and it's done without consent.
Of course, it also may be commanded by God. What Glick tries to show in
"Marked in Your Flesh" is that all the original reasons for circumcision
are dubious. Religiously, he argues that Jewish circumcision "was
instituted by priests as a religious practice in the 5th century BCE" as
"the rite of initiation into their male-centered society." And medically,
he convincingly shows how the original 19th-century introduction of
circumcision — after centuries of contempt for the practice in Christian
literature — was tied to outmoded concerns about fecundity and sexual
expression, and how so many successive medical rationales have been
adopted and discarded, in so curious and cavalier a way, one wonders about
the real purpose of the practice. From controlling masturbation to healing
paralysis, reducing the threat of syphilis to curbing AIDS, doctors have
proposed dozens of benefits of circumcision — none of them scientifically
The trouble with Glick's book is that its author is so blinded by his own
particular bias — a rationalistic, ethically oriented ideology reminiscent
of the early Reform movement — that he simply dismisses the primal,
nonrational and ultimately emotional reasons that many people today cling
to religiously motivated circumcision. At the outset, Glick's reading of
the biblical text is really more a midrash than biblical criticism; it is
good speculation, but only that. Yet he takes it as fact that "P," the
priestly writer of parts of the Torah, inserted the requirements for
circumcision as a way of solidifying the priests' hold on ancient
Israelite religion. Maybe, but that kind of argument can be applied to all
sorts of practices that nonetheless became cornerstones of traditional
Jewish religion, from the incest taboo to the dietary laws.
Even if Glick's analysis is correct, however, his normative program
requires an overly narrow view of what religion is and does. Of course
circumcision is a "barbaric" ritual — if by "barbaric" we mean rooted in
instinct and emotion — but since when is religion only about that which is
civilized? Glick writes that "deepest significance of circumcision resides
not in abstract spiritual realms but in the basic facts of social life:
sexuality and masculinity, power and weakness, dominance and submission."
This is a false dichotomy. True spiritual realms are never "abstract."
They are, historically, exactly about the basic facts, fears and energies
of human life. For better or for worse, altering the flesh of male babies'
penises goes to the deepest heart of those primal fears. As an
anthropologist, Glick offers insightful readings of how circumcision might
have functioned in different Jewish cultures. Yet as a psychologist of
religion, his analysis is impoverished.
Glick offers an excellent analysis of Paul's critique of circumcision —
it's all about the flesh, not about the spirit — but ironically, he
repeats the same critique in his book. He seems unable to accept, despite
capable readings of Lawrence Hoffman, Sander Gilman and Harold
Eilberg-Schwartz, that ancient Jewish religion was about the body, not
just the "soul." Notably, Glick finds himself agreeing with Martin
Luther's notorious pamphlet, "On the Jews and Their Lies," which, he says,
"includes a telling critique of ritual circumcision." Yes, circumcision is
about the body, and it is particularistic, and patriarchal. So is much of
Occasionally, Glick's bias even leads him to historical error or lapses in
reasoning — not to mention extreme rhetoric that is surprising to find in
a book published by Oxford. For example, Glick claims that no Orthodox
Jews "care much about secular rationales for circumcision.... Mystical and
numerological interpretations fully satisfy their desire for explanation."
Really — Orthodox Jews are satisfied with numerology? Glick also labels as
"Orthodox" the opponents of early Reform, who did not identify in that way
and who were not identified that way until decades later — and only then,
in a derogatory fashion, by the Reformers themselves.
The oddest parts of the book are toward the end, where Glick launches a
combined survey of, and rant against, present-day Jewish discourse on
circumcision. Glick seems outraged that contemporary Jews maintain the
practice for such reasons as Jewish community, spiritual practice or
Jewish continuity, since those reasons are very different from the
priestly interests that Glick theorizes are behind the Torah's
injunctions. Yet Judaism is all about new reasons for old practices, as
Glick surely knows. Why, then, the harsh derogation of Daniel Gordis, Jon
Levenson, David Zaslow and other figures who seek contemporary meaning in
this ancient rite? Simply because they do not agree with Glick's reckoning
of the practice's costs and benefits?
Glick is no more objective when it comes to the medical evidence.
Certainly, anyone who believes circumcision is harmless should read this
book. Its grisly details will make most readers cringe, and the evidence
of the damage done by circumcision is sound. Yet few today really claim
there is no harm done; the claim is that the harm is justified by various
benefits. Reading through Glick's analysis of these medical claims is
intensely frustrating. Certainly, he is right that the original rationales
for circumcision lie in the same neurotic literature that taught us that
masturbation makes one go blind, and that oral sex leads to perdition.
Glick is also quite right to observe that European males, most of whom are
uncircumcised, seem to lead quite healthy sexual lives — and that
circumcision undoubtedly causes a reduction in sensitivity. Yet Glick
never quite refutes the statistical evidence that circumcision reduces the
threat of certain kinds of cancer and venereal diseases; the best I could
tell, from both his book and other sources, is that the jury is still out
on the subject. What's more, new data corroborates the claims that
circumcision reduces the risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes
AIDS. In a study whose results were released this summer (after "Marked in
Your Flesh" went to press), of 3,000 South African men, those who were
circumcised were 70% less likely to contract HIV from infected women than
uncircumcised men. This is serious, sound evidence, and, to be fair, it
was unavailable to Glick. Still, the book acts as though the impure
motives of circumcision's original advocates contaminate the practice
The most controversial part of the book is where Glick claims that Jewish
doctors, and some doctors who are Christian, were swayed by their
religious opinions to color the evidence in favor of circumcision. As
Glick admits, he has not a shred of evidence to support this claim, other
than the curious fact that, even as one rationale after another fell into
discredit, the same doctors kept finding new ones. Yet the advocates of
circumcision are both Jew and gentile, and so are its foes: For every
Jewish doctor praising the practice, there is another one opposing it.
Once again, Glick's own bias colors his analysis. Convinced that there is
no rational basis for this practice, he imputes religious bias onto those
who believe that there is.
Even with these flaws, though, "Marked in Your Flesh" is a fascinating
read. Glick has unearthed little-known Reform movement documents from the
19th century, proposing to alter or abolish circumcision — and similarly
interesting documents, from the same movement, defending it. Equally
absorbing are the 19th-century Christian documents praising Moses as a
"brilliant sanitarian," and finding in the Jewish religious law — which,
like the Jewish dietary laws, had nothing to say about health or hygiene
in the Biblical sources — a proto-scientific worldview.
Perhaps most importantly, "Marked in Your Flesh" brings together the
scientific consensus that, despite the claims of some, circumcision does
diminish sexual pleasure. The foreskin is itself full of sensitive nerve
endings, which never can be replaced. The movement of the foreskin
generates naturally lubricated sexual pleasure. And without the foreskin's
protection, the glans of the penis is chafed and toughened, reducing
sensitivity still more. Maimonides, as well the kabbalists and many other
Jewish figures, recognized this effect of circumcision and praised it for
curbing sexual desire. So did the initial proponents of medical
circumcision in Britain and America. We may debate the benefits for many
years to come, but at least one cost is clear: Circumcision diminishes
As these facts about circumcision become known, the practice may well
become a source of controversy within the Jewish community. Every day,
Jewish boys are having their sexual organs damaged without their consent —
and even without the knowing consent of their parents, who, if they knew
the costs, might well agree with Glick that the spiritual and possible
health benefits do not justify them. For generations, circumcision has
been seen as making a male body Jewish — and it has been the body, not the
mind or the "soul," that is the site of holiness. But one wonders if the
current wave of anti-circumcision backlash, formerly the domain of
marginal eccentrics but now the purview of Oxford University Press, might
cause the practice to diminish in importance.
On the other hand, maybe not. Philip Roth, in a letter quoted toward the
end of "Marked in Your Flesh," makes a point that Glick himself seems to
miss, and that says much about the perverse appeal of a practice that is
so violent, painful and irreversible. It's hard to understand, Roth
writes, "how serious this circumcision business is to Jews. I am still
hypnotized by uncircumcised men when I see them at my swimming pool locker
room... I asked several of my equally secular Jewish male friends if they
could have an uncircumcised son, and they all said no, sometimes without
having to think about it and sometimes after the nice long pause that any
rationalist takes before opting for the irrational."
Jay Michaelson's next book is God in Your Body (Jewish Lights, 2006). He
is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.