Review – Marked in Your Flesh by Leonard Glick

Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America is Leonard Glick’s fresh and provocative study of infant male circumcision. Glick, a cultural anthropology professor who also holds a medical degree, is an outspoken opponent of circumcision. Marked in Your Flesh, then, is both an anthropological examination of a controversial practice and a personal appeal to readers to resolve themselves against it. Glick’s work, however, is a bit more restricted than the title suggests. He follows the history of circumcision only as it relates to contemporary Jewish Americans (or American Jews; as Glick points out, there is a difference). Circumcision among Muslim or tribal peoples is noted but not discussed. The current attitudes of non-American Jews are likewise absent. Gentiles are featured only when their absence would leave gaping holes in the narrative. So, it may be more accurate to say that Marked in Your Flesh is an extended historical reflection on how circumcision impinges on Jewish American identity.

Glick’s narration of the origins of circumcision will not win him any friends among evangelical Christians or Orthodox Jews. His higher critical approach to Scripture and snide remarks toward God in general are likely to alienate part of his target audience. However, Glick seems to regard faith (at least the kind of faith that would express itself in acts of physical sacrifice) as irrational and anachronistic, so perhaps he intends to persuade only the rational agnostic or lapsed Jew. He denies that Abraham or Moses (if they were real at all) instituted circumcision as a mandatory ritual for all Jews. Instead he asserts that it was the invention of an authoritarian and paternalistic priestly class around 500 BC. Circumcision was one piece of their larger effort to centralize authority in Jerusalem and maintain a distinctively Jewish identity. Glick speculates on the symbolic and sociological meanings of circumcision, but I will not reproduce them here.

In Rabbinic Judaism, circumcision underwent a radical transformation roughly opposite to the one proposed by the Apostle Paul. Whereas for Paul circumcision was only ever an outward symbol, and an obsolete one now that Christ had come, for the rabbis it became the most sacred ceremony in Judaism, surpassing even the Sabbath. Readers should note especially that in the rabbinic period a more extensive and (mostly) irreversible surgical procedure, peri’ah, was added to the milah cut of the Old Testament. In short, the circumcision performed on American boys today is that of the post-Christian rabbis, not that of the Mosaic Law. Throughout the Middle Ages Jewish rabbis continued to inflate the importance of circumcision, understanding it as a redemptive blood sacrifice. The literature moves in an increasingly bizarre and misogynistic direction. Glick may not be the most impartial storyteller, but his extensive primary-source quotations speak for themselves.

For most of their history, Christians feared and reviled circumcision. In contrast to the rabbis, the Church taught that the foreskin, created by God, was a blessing. The Lord’s circumcision was a foreshadowing of his passion to come. Antisemitism often took the form of outlandish accusations that Jews had kidnapped and circumcised Christian boys, purportedly to use their blood in dark rituals. The foreskin was widely recognized by both Jews and Gentiles as being the primary seat of sexual sensation. The Gentiles couldn’t understand why the Jews would give that up. Jewish teaching interpreted passionate sexual desires as imperfections and judged the relative freedom from lust a positive argument for circumcising.

Modernity overturned the medieval hierarchical society, replacing it with one in which people interact primarily as individuals. Jews were now faced with a new opportunity. When Europe was explicitly Christian, Jews could never be more than a peripheral group, resident aliens. Wherever a Jew was, he was a member of the Jewish nation in diaspora. Modern political changes opened the door for Jews to be “Jewish Germans” rather than “German Jews.” The ethnic and national aspects of Judaism began to be seen as separable. Yet, circumcision remained as an all too visible reminder of the unbridgeable divide between Jew and Gentile. New explanations for and attitudes toward circumcision arose as many Jews distanced themselves from their nationalist or religious roots. Glick mines a wealth of sources – personal, popular, and academic – to show how varied Jewish perspectives on circumcision have become.

The most significant change for British and American Gentiles was a new view of Moses. Beginning in the eighteenth century, many Jewish physicians began to revere Moses not as a prophet or religious founder, but as a shrewd hygienist and social engineer.  Even Jews who had given up most Mosaic rules still continued to practice circumcision, but many felt embarassment at a practice held in ridicule by the majority of their countrymen. Instead of giving up circumcision, they launched an audacious (and surprisingly successful) counter-campaign. Abraham and Moses, ahead of their times, instituted circumcision as a hygienic practice. Circumcision was thus the beneficial and rational option, good for Jew and Gentile alike. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries circumcision became, even for most Jews, more of a medical or cultural practice than a religious one. His presentation of contemporary Jewish anxiety and controversy concerning circumcision is eye-opening. I have not found such an extensive presentation in any other works on the topic.

Glick is not persuaded that circumcision confers medical benefits. The history of medical circumcision is a sickening tale of quackery and unsupported claims, culminating in the discontinuance of the practice everywhere except in the United States and Israel. Cultural and aesthetic justifications are no more appealing to Glick. Beliefs concerning the aesthetic quality of circumcised vs. intact males are almost entirely socially constructed. Glick opposes circumcision for several reasons, the foremost being that “from the moment of birth, every child has all the human rights of any other person—including the inviolable right to freedom from nonconsensual, nontherapeutic bodily alteration” (281).

Whether relating rabbinic tractates or parsing Seinfeld, Glick is a fresh and intriguing author. His disdainful attitude toward strong religious commitments does inhibit his ability to sympathize with many of the characters in his book, and some readers may regard him as a hostile witness. Nevertheless, I believe that Marked in Your Flesh is a valuable contribution to the literature on (read: against) circumcision. For those who are unsure whether they wish to commit to reading a work like this, I would recommend reading the epilogue, in which the author’s main themes are skillfully summarized. If you find it interesting, I’d encourage you to dive in.

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Published in: on May 15, 2010 at 9:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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