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

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

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

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


The book of Genesis tells us that God made a covenant with Abraham, promising him a glorious posterity on the condition that he and all his male descendents must be circumcised. For thousands of years thereafter, the distinctive practice of circumcision served to set the Jews apart from theirneighbors. The apostle Paul rejected it as a worthless practice, emblematic of Judaism's fixation on physical matters. Christian theologians followed his lead, arguing that whereas Christians sought spiritual fulfillment, Jews remained mired in such pointless concerns as diet and circumcision. Astime went on, Europeans developed folklore about malicious Jews who performed sacrificial murders of Christian children and delighted in genital mutilation. But Jews held unwaveringly to the belief that being a Jewish male meant being physically circumcised and to this day even most non-observantJews continue to follow this practice. In this book, Leonard B. Glick offers a history of Jewish and Christian beliefs about circumcision from its ancient origins to the current controversy. By the turn of the century, more and more physicians in America and England--but not, interestingly, incontinental Europe--were performing the procedure routinely. Glick shows that Jewish American physicians were and continue to be especially vocal and influential champions of the practice which, he notes, serves to erase the visible difference between Jewish and gentile males. Informed medicalopinion is now unanimous that circumcision confers no benefit and the practice has declined. In Jewish circles it is virtually taboo to question circumcision, but Glick does not flinch from asking whether this procedure should continue to be the defining feature of modern Jewish identity.


Several years ago, when I told Jewish family and friends that I was writing a book on circumcision, some responded with a mixture of puzzlement and rejection. What was there to write about? It was a simple snip that made the penis cleaner and prevented all kinds of diseases, even cancer. A few reacted with anger. Why would I want to stir up trouble over such a time-honored ceremony, they wanted to know. Wasn't a bris one of the most sacred Jewish customs? And wouldn't criticizing circumcision play into the hands of antisemites?

Not everyone reacted along those lines, though. Others were not only interested but even eager to learn more; they admitted that they had always wondered why Jews had to perform such a disturbing ceremony. Yes, circumcision was supposed to ensure Jewish survival—but how, and why?

Although I'd like to claim that I had long asked such questions myself, the truth is that I had not. Until a few years ago, I took circumcision more or less for granted, like nearly everyone else. I never thought of it as an attractive practice, and although to the best of my recollection I have attended two ritual circumcisions, I tried not to see the surgery or even to think about it. I should add here that although my professional career has been as a cultural anthropologist and college professor, I have a medical degree and completed a general internship, in the course of which (again to the best of my recollection) I myself performed one circumcision.

To speak on an even more personal level, our own three sons were circumcised—not ritually but in hospitals soon after birth.

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