New History of Circumcision Says It's Outmoded and Harmful

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A newly published book by Oxford University Press traces the history of circumcision from its Middle Eastern origins to its unlikely reincarnation in modern America.

A newly published book traces the history of circumcision from its Middle Eastern origins to its unlikely reincarnation in modern America. Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America, by Leonard B. Glick, shows that for nearly two millennia circumcision was practiced by Jews as a mark of their covenant with God, while Christians rejected it as spiritually worthless. The book is a forceful critique of a medicalized practice many Americans take for granted.

Few Americans want to talk–or even think–about circumcision. When the subject appears in magazine articles, fiction, and television sitcoms, the dominant themes are nervousness and discomfort. Even a popular book for Jewish parents characterizes the circumcision ceremony (bris) as “something less than joyful.”

In no other Western country is circumcision at all common, and in Europe, Asia, and Latin America it’s virtually unknown. Yet, today more than half of American baby boys are being circumcised. How did this come about?

The story begins in the nineteenth century, when British and American physicians began to promote circumcision as a “miracle cure” for everything from masturbation to paralysis and insanity. In the twentieth century doctors introduced theories that the procedure prevented syphilis and several kinds of cancer. None of these claims held up, but as each was refuted, new ones arose, in what Glick describes as a seemingly endless series of attempts to find something for circumcision to prevent.

Eventually the British abandoned the practice. But in America circumcision lives on, preserved by entrenched custom and unsubstantiated beliefs about “hygiene.”

An 18th century British doggerel verse expressed the majority view in the circumcision debate, calling the foreskin “the best of your property.”

St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians established the time-honored Christian position: “Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.”(Gal. 5:2) But American Christians are more likely to circumcise, rather than follow religious doctrine.

The author concludes with reviews of the most recent medical claims for circumcision and the arguments against it. He points out that infants are persons with full civil rights, and therefore no one has the right to impose circumcision on them, not even their own parents.

Leonard B. Glick is a cultural anthropologist with a medical degree and a doctorate in anthropology. He is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Hampshire College and is the author of Abraham's Heirs: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe (1999).


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