A Little off the Top: The Controversy About Circumcision

Nonfiction

By Jay Michaelson

Published September 02, 2005, issue of September 02, 2005.
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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 Internet anymore.

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 proven.

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 Judaism.

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 neu-

rotic 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 today.

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 pleasure.

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.”






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