Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America

Author: Leonard B. Glick

Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America. Leonard B. Glick. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005. 370 pages. No stated cover price; currently priced at $30.00. Available postpaid in the US for $20 directly from Quabbin Books, P.O. Box 14, New Salem, MA 01355.   978-544-7141. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Leonard B. Glick, who is both a retired anthropology professor and a physician, has created a unique, fascinating study of male circumcision and Jewish history. (Full disclosure: I commented on drafts of Marked in Your Flesh [for which I am mentioned in the acknowledgements], authored a quote on the back cover, and am cited in the bibliography.) Glick makes no secret of his opposition to circumcision, yet engagingly sketches for us the tangled historical, cultural, and religious web that led to a non-therapeutic, painful, harmful surgery becoming this country’s most common medical procedure.

I greatly enjoyed Glick’s authoritative yet accessible distillations of Biblical verse and history, as with the tale of revenge and circumcision contained in Genesis Chapter 34, and as with the history of Christian condemnation and Jewish veneration of circumcision in the early years of the Christian era. The author reminds us that as early as the fifteenth century, women were effectively eliminated from participation in the circumcision ritual when the mother’s role holding her child was eliminated through a rabbinical ruling.

Glick follows upon and extends author Lawrence Hoffman’s work (in the excellent Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1996) crystallizing the strange, critical role of blood in the Jewish symbolism of circumcision. The author deftly sketches the important role of Moses Maimonides, the twelfth century physician-philosopher who believed that bodily pain was the real purpose of circumcision and whose justifications for circumcision were fundamentally sociological, not theological. Glick also shows that Isaac ben Yedaiah, a follower of Maimonides, went even further in arguing that one of the operation’s most beneficial results is repression of sexual energy! The author shows that, bizarrely, for medieval Jewish mystics, circumcision came to mean that one was physically imprinted with the Hebrew characters representing YHWH (Yahweh), the name of the Lord.

Later, circumcision became a focus of Christian condemnation of the Jews. The year 1753 saw the passage in Britain of the “Jew Bill,” permitting residents for at least three years to become naturalized citizens “without receiving the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,” but the ensuing uproar soon forced the repeal of the Jew Bill.

Chapter 5 of Marked in Your Flesh provides an enthralling tale of Jews attempting to blend into the larger society. Glick’s professorial skills are nowhere more evident than here, as he shows us the roots of and ultimate demise of nineteenth century rabbinical questioning of circumcision in a number of European countries.

Professor Glick traces for us some of the earliest nineteenth century examples of the now familiar discourse conflating religious and medical considerations to justify circumcision. The author shows us how an unfortunate chain of events led to employment of the more drastic procedure commonly practiced today. Starting in 1870, physician Lewis Sayre advocated the cure of a broad range of conditions by what he called “circumcision,” meaning removal of part of the foreskin. By 1887, it was clear enough to Sayre that other physicians were removing the complete foreskin that Sayre authored another paper declaring his unease that these doctors were going much too far. By that point, of course, the cat was well out of the bag. As Glick shows, it was not long before the very presence of a foreskin came to be seen as pathological!

I enjoyed Glick’s adroit commentary on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ hopelessly contradictory 1999 position statement on circumcision. “If until now anyone has doubted that male infant circumcision is a procedure like no other in the minds of the very physicians who perform it, surely the American Academy of Pediatrics has provided an answer.” In contrast to all other medical decisions, parents are to determine a child’s best interests. “This extraordinary statement is the only instance of physicians explicitly delegating responsibility for irreversible surgery to persons with no medical credentials.” Glick skillfully reads and places in context commentary on bris milah by a range of Jewish institutions and individuals. What we notice most of all is the difficulties encountered by rabbis and laypeople alike in trying to explain this most “mysterious rite.”

In a large book packed with facts and footnotes, Glick’s errors are vanishingly few and far between (most notably, he repeatedly neglects the anomalous case of South Korea when discussing countries with high circumcision rates). Leonard Glick has crafted a unique and invaluable study connecting religious and historical roots of the practice with its current (ultimately untenable yet surprisingly tenacious) position in our culture. As he notes with reference to the widespread medicalization of circumcision as performed even by Jewish families, “the great majority of Jewish Americans have already decided against ritual circumcision.” At least with regard to Judaism, asserted “religious” justifications for violations of genital integrity have already crumbled; what remains to be done (though obviously it isn’t easy!) is outreach and advocacy. Marked in Your Flesh should instruct and inspire activists as we work toward the day when no infants or children will be circumcised.