I’m sorry, is this a bad subject? Of course, I completely understand — especially when there’s so much to look forward to. Just pretend I never brought it up, OK? We can talk baby names instead. I hear Grover is making a comeback — not sure how I feel about that! And maybe I’m a stickler for tradition, but I’ve always liked William. I know, he’ll be stuck with Bill before his first day in Montessori! These things really are out of our hands, aren’t they?! Or is their a namesake? Have you set up a trust fund? Thought about college? It’s never too early, you know…
It’s better to just move on. No one wants to be told their business, after all. And no one wants to waste time debating such a messy subject. Table talk about circumcision simply isn’t polite.
If decorum is breached, however, and the issue is forced, the predictable refuge will be a vague healthspeak, couched with dubiously informed half-assertions about hygiene or tradition or choice (which is to say, parental choice — the kid doesn’t get a say). And to the extent that some reluctant discussion may be engaged, its course will be framed with carelessly forced platitudes to avoid unseemly surgical details, and to minimize or deny the trauma and violence everyone suspects. Inconvenient facts and ethical concerns will be ignored or dismissed, or, in contemporary fashion, deflected with cheap jokes. Remember that Seinfeld episode — the one where Elaine describes her decidedly unpleasant encounter with an intact boyfriend? It was like a Martian — remember? Or on Sex and the City, when Charlotte can’t get past the "Shar-Pei"-like manhood of her latest lover?
Nervous laughter is so much easier. Because no one wants to hear about the procedure whereby a freshly plucked infant — or neonate, as the medical literature prefers — is to be forcibly restrained spread-eagle on a specially designed plastic board, where he will scream helplessly as the medical professional, in affront to the first axiom of the Western medical ethics, applies a custom-designed instrument to forcibly tear the child’s nerve-enriched foreskin from his glans, which, it bears mentioning, is a highly sensitive mucosal membrane. And most folks will just as soon guard their ignorance where the remaining details are concerned. Maybe those Shar-Pei jokes will mute the screams — quite distinctive screams, as it turns out — that will surely intensify as the health care provider, in a second, arguably more egregious breach of oath, will dutifully proceed to crush and slice the freshly torn prepuce from the boy’s unconsenting body, making waste of on average "one third of the penile skin system," often with little or no anesthesia.
It’s gauche to call it mutilation. After all, we are reliably assured he’ll be spared the future embarrassment of some rare — and easily curable — urological infection. What’s more, if he lives long enough, some experts tell us he may be slightly less likely to be afflicted with a rare case of penile cancer. Besides, he’ll look like daddy now. At least from the waist down. No locker room whispers to confuse our boy. And those shrill agony-drenched screams will pass in short order, even if the pain lingers for days after. And serious complications — gangrene, accidental amputation, hemorrhaging — are rare enough. Almost unheard of these days. Never mind that botched circumcisions still kill between 100 and 200 infants each year, which is more than guns and Pit-bulls combined. Odds are he’ll get over it. We’ll get over it, too. The doctor knows best. Or the parents know best. Or custom dictates. However the excuses are latched, it simply must be done. And if not? Well, just do it anyway. It’s easier not to think about these things. It’s easier to get it over with.
Such is the nature of the collective apprehension and willful ignorance surrounding the practice and meaning of infant circumcision, a needless, irreversible, and ultimately harmful operation that has only recently fallen from ubiquity in the United States, which, it should be emphasized, remains the only modern nation other than Israel where it ever really caught on.
But the tacit acceptance of this dubiously described "parental choice" conceals a more profound unease, a morally burdened disquiet that draws upon deeply rooted sexual anxiety and the atavistic remnants of forgotten religious dicta. This "hypnotizing unease," with its culturally volatile, taboo-laden penumbras, is the overarching concern of Leonard Glick’s well-researched and important book, Marked In Your Flesh, a historical and ethical study of male circumcision.
In brave contradistinction to other polemics on the topic, Glick’s treatise wades toward the ultimate source of our discomfiture by addressing the oft-denied but inescapable link between circumcision in its current medical guise and the Jewish rites from which the practice arose in the first instance. Where most scholars and writers take pains to demarcate a careful distinction between medical and religious or traditional arguments, Glick discerns an inextricable socio-historical nexus that he argues has been ignored to the detriment of rational discourse. "Without frank consideration of the historical evidence," he
cautiously emphasizes, "we miss an important part of our story." The usual refrains about anti-Semitism and cultural sensitivity may be inevitable, but until the connection between Abraham’s covenant and modern medical practice is taken into account, our understanding of the controversy remains limited perforce.
Bound as we are by cultural myopia, we aren’t even prepared to ask the right questions. To wit:
How and why did a Jewish ritual operation, rejected and vilified for nearly two millenia, come to be widely accepted as a routine postnatal procedure in American hospitals? What exactly were the connections in physicians’ minds between what Jews had been doing for all those centuries and what they, the physicians, now began to imitate. And they did imitate. Circumcision in American hospitals have no ritual accompaniment, of course, and surgical techniques vary to some extent, as do those of mohels; but — and this is a crucial but — the end result is the same. In short, although I intend this book to be read as a contribution to our understanding of American circumcision, I can accomplish that only by first according extensive attention to Jewish circumcision.
For all its nuance and fascinating historical digression, Glick’s investigation hints that the answer to such questions lies somewhere in crisis of modernism, with nineteenth- and twentieth-century physicians and intellectuals turning to Jewish experience as a model for secular fashion, and with modernized Jews, in turn, embracing extra-religious justifications for long-held custom. In this important dimension, Marked in Your Flesh, begs tangential comparison with Yuri Slezkine’s brilliant book, The Jewish Century, a broadly conceived examination of the role of Jewish influence in shaping the course of modern history.
But before getting ahead of ourselves, it is well to consider Glick’s treatment of the ancient roots of circumcision, because much of the cognitive dissonance infusing contemporary discourse stems from the inherent difficulty in reconciling ancient mandates with our post-Enlightenment ethos.
Unless you are disposed to accept the Mandatem in re turpi of the Book of Genesis as an unquestionable divine edict, the anthropological bases from which ritual circumcision arose remain obscure and a matter of continuing scholarly speculation. In tracing the ancient roots of circumcision, Glick provides an overview of some of the more plausible ideas that have been suggested, none of which need be considered as mutually exclusive. In one respect circumcision probably served to reinforce nascent ethnic particularism
among the ancient Israelites. Within the patriarchal structure of
Judean society, the shorn phallus, according to some scholars, was also viewed as a symbol of tribal identity,
and, somewhat ironically (in view of subsequent apologetics emphasizing the sexually desensitizing "benefits" of circumcision), as a mark of sexual prowess and fecundity.
Most intriguingly — and plausibly — Glick highlights scholarship arguing that circumcision may have originated as a substitute for ritual child sacrifice.
Citing one text from Chapter 4 of the Book of Exodus, described by historian Robert Levenson as "among the most obscure and most disquieting of in the Torah," Glick recounts the story of Moses’ wife Zipporah, who circumcised one of their sons "as a redemptive sacrifice — but on her husband’s behalf, not the child’s." The narrative plays out with Moses and family on their way to Egypt to mix it up with Pharaoh over the usual business, when:
Suddenly, inserted into the text without preamble or explanation, we find a circumcision narrative:
At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!" And when He let him alone, she added, A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision"
In this and other events, we are confronted with the specter of a forgotten deity, wrathful and inscrutable to Old Testament form, lusting to be appeased — with childblood. Just as when Yahweh demands, "You shall give me the first-born among your sons. You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me," the contextual message is difficult to diffuse or ignore; like it or not, we are afforded a glimpse into the atavistic roots from which this very special, blood-infused rite and custom most probably arose. In addition to illustrating the most sanguine edifice of patriarchal social order, cock-snipping was probably a happy compromise.
While ritual circumcision existed as a peculiar and seldom-questioned institution among Jews of the ancient diaspora, the practice would become further entrenched as Christian challenges and Roman injunctions led Temple priests to set about formulating complex arguments defending the covenant and ceremonializing the protocols under which the rite was to be performed. With the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and founding of Palestine in around 70 C.E., the first formally appellated rabbis began firming up an extensive — some would say obsessive — exegetical literature on the finer points of baby dick mutilation. "Until then," Glick recounts,
a circumcision (milah) had only required severing of the front part of the foreskin; in the infant penis this is tissue that is not attached to the to the delicate mucosal lining of the glans. Now there was to be a second procedure, called peri’ah ("opening" or "uncovering"): grasping the remaining foreskin and underlying mucosal tissue, forcibly separating this from the glans (using sharpened thumbnails), and tearing it away. Failure to remove all "shreds" of foreskin tissue, the rabbis ruled, rendered the circumcision invalid. Probably at about the same time they added yet a third mandatory procedure: mestisah ("sucking"), sucking blood from the wound, perhaps in response to the abundant blood flow caused by peri’ah.
Most of the dirty thumbnail shredding and tearing has since been traded for somewhat more sanitary knifework, but all three components of the milah survive into modern times. Even the wince-inducing mestisah (also known as metzitzah b’peh), which has been abandoned or toned down in many a modern bris milah, continues to lure present day Orthodox mohel lips to slurp and suck an estimated 2000 bloody baby dicks per annum in New York City alone. Recall that the perils of mestisah made national news just last year when several hapless infants died from type-1 herpes after receiving their first and last Hasidic blow job. The annals are full of such stories.
Glick goes on at numbing length, detailing the vicissitudes of early rabbinical texts extolling and systematizing the art of child abuse. And some of the vagaries can be morbidly entertaining in their fetishistic excess. The scratch-and-sniff putrescence achieves a memorable standard of emetic charm, for example, as Glick describes one commentary from a body of rabbinical commentary known as the Midrash, featuring extrapolative riffs on the the Genesis narrative where Abraham circumcises Ishmael and the other uncut menfolk in his residence:
R. Aibu said: When Abraham circumcised those that were born in his house, he set up a hillock of foreskins; the sun shone upon them and they putrefied, and their odor ascended to the Lord like sweet incense. God then said: "When my children lapse into sinful ways, I will remember that odor in their favor and be filled with compassion for them."
So Glory be to G-d. You’ll forgive me if I pass on the Gefilte fish tonight.
But lest anyone get the impression that those ingenious rabbis had a lock on pervy foreskin fantasies, Glick turns our attention to a comparative body of Christian literature that emerged among medieval scholars venerating the Carne Vera Sancta, which is to say, the sacred foreskin of the one and only J-Man. Here, the Jewish emphasis on uncleanliness and spiritual pollution is traded for refrains of mystic exaltation as sacred foreskins — each claiming provenance as the one and only true slice of Christ — began turning up as an increasingly common display among reliquaries across Europe during the middle ages. The most famous such specimen was displayed in the Vatican basilica where the ostensible holy remnant could be observed "floating in oil along with Jesus’s umbilical cord."
Not surprisingly, the cult of Christ cock provided a blank slate upon which mystically inclined nuns could sublimate all that bound up libidinal energy in ever more imaginative necro-erotic visions. Glick cites several documents in the genre, but top honors must go Agnes Blannbekin, a thirteenth-century Austrian mystic, who, despite her vegetarian sensibilities, was given to wax rhapsodical about the esculent elixir to be savored in the choicest cut of sweet Jesus meat. Describing her "vision in which she swallowed Jesus’s foreskin," one scholar provides a mouth-watering account of Agnes’s brush with delicacious divinity:
She feels a small membrane on her tongue, like the membrane of an egg, full of exquisite sweetness…. so great was the sweetness at the swallowing of this membrane that she sensed a sweet transmutation through the muscles and organs of her whole body.
Unfortunately, just as the old-school Jesus Freaks were beginning to get carried away with their orgasmic visions of sacred foreskin munching, some killjoys among the Vatican hierarchy were coming to regard the whole business as bad PR. And by 1900 foreskin veneration had become enough of a sore spot that a Papal decree was issued threatening excommunication for anyone who persisted in going on about "True Sacred Flesh." One can only assume the forbidden relics are now gathering dust alongside that super secret porn stash we always hear about. Maybe if you ask nicely.
While Vatican trend-spotters sought to discourage such "irreverent curiosity" among the laity, most Jews were keeping the faith, continuing to slice and dice babydick more or less in accordance with traditional dictates. Well before the fin de siecle would kick up modernist sensibilities in earnest, however, some curious wrinkles began to stir up a nascent discourse. And as the influence of Enlightenment thought and Reform Judaism did its usual business on hearts and minds, circumcision came in for critical appraisal — with decidedly mixed results. On the one hand, the mid-nineteenth century saw a few Reformist skeptics questioning the practice outright. In keeping with their declared mission to abandon "allegiance to all objectionable commands and to all antiquated customs," one outspoken German assembly, the Society of the Friends of Reform, went so far as to denounce the rite altogether. Turned out to be a bad move. Not only did the FoR gang fail in their efforts to encourage an end to the customary milah, but their rationalist rhetoric had the decidedly opposite effect of fomenting passionate opposition among rabbinical councils, who maintained a Jewish man’s "civic identity was predicated on his being circumcised" (which wasn’t a bad argument, considering that German Jews of the era were officially classified by their ethno-religious identity), and who condemned anti-circumcision Reform factions as a dangerous threat to traditional Jewry.
On the other hand, less openly radical voices began to exact some influence over the methods — if not the institution — of ritual circumcision. Describing a series of conferences and synods during which Reform rabbis discussed emerging medical concerns about the practice (children were dying of hemorrhage and infectious disease, as they always had, but by this time there was documentation), Glick notes that while the prospect of abandoning circumcision was routinely and unambiguously rejected, controls were instituted to curb dangerous and unsanitary conduct then common among mohels. Before being turned loose to cut and tear at eight-day-old genitalia, mohels would now be required to receive medical counsel and formal licensure. Moreover, a physician was to be present during the circumcision to ensure the rudiments of safety and cleanliness were observed. And perhaps most significantly, there would be no more mestisah. Circumcision would remain a mainstay of Jewish identity, the conferees held, but bloody baby blow jobs were out (though not entirely, Q.E.D.).
Such is progress. But as Glick observes, the salient feature of all this moderately parsed soul searching was a steadfast cathexis to circumcision as an essential and ultimately unquestionable feature of Jewish identity. Reform Jews, who readily embraced radical change in practically every other dimension of established tradition, who boldly eschewed antiquated dietary laws and Talmudic dicta in every other realm of life, remained curiously beholden to custom when the subject turned to genital disfigurement. Somehow, "the supreme importance of circumcision" had achieved an extra-rational hold on the Jewish imagination, entrenched by deeply rooted orthodoxy and the mystic aura of taboo. As the modernist zeitgeist set in, there was only one way to go.
At the turn of the twentieth century, circumcision in Europe remained a peculiar, if increasingly controversial, bedrock of Jewish life. Then, an ironic twist: just as physicians — with many prominent Jews among their ranks — were beginning to agitate the rabbinate with more forceful arguments outlining the widespread health risks associated with circumcision, a countervailing body of secular scholarship began to work its way into the discourse. In a spate of articles and publications, these new voices advanced a novel and ultimately revolutionary secular defense of circumcision. In describing this schism, Glick points to the influence of "German-Jewish physicians, reflecting parallel developments in England and the United States," who argued that:
far from being harmful, circumcision was in fact a beneficial medical procedure that protected against a number of afflictions and even cured some. So while physicians on one side continued to stress the danger of infection, hemorrhage, and the like, others became advocates arguing that circumcision was not only a religious imperative but also was advisable on "hygienic" grounds
This is where matters become, um, sensitive, as the question of Jewish influence necessarily arises with new and unforeseen implications. With scientific insights re-framing old debates in every sphere of life, circumcision had long remained a rite in search of a rationale. Having rejected the skeptics in the wings, Jewish proponents of circumcision were left with one clear-cut recourse. "The modern age," as Yuri Slezkine asserts in the opening sentence of The Jewish Century, "is the Jewish age." And while while Glick and Slezkine frame their arguments independently, the catholic reach of the modern Jewish worldview is nowhere more acutely evinced than in the secular embrace of circumcision. Step back and watch the story unfold.
As the medical arguments were adopted and adapted by English-speaking physicians (most notably in England and America), the discourse that emerged would quickly develop into a curious orthodoxy combining hyperbolic health claims with sexually repressive currents of Victorian morality. On one front, circumcision was touted as a virtual panacea, a preemptive cure not only for countless infections but for such disparate afflictions as "spinal anemia… hernia, bladder inflammation, tuberculosis of the pelvic joint, spinal curvature, epilepsy, and insanity." Meanwhile, by training their attention on the experience of Jewish men "who offered ideal possibilities for the comparative study of disease incidence and distribution," many Anglophonic medical practitioners began to emphasize the prophylactic benefits of circumcision, particularly in curbing venereal disease — a point which dovetailed nicely with prevailing medical perspectives on masturbation, then widely viewed in pathological terms as a source of mental and physical pollution. (It is no small irony that while contemporary defenders of foreskin snipping take pains to dismiss or minimize the loss of sexual sensation associated with intact foreskins, the reduction of libidinal "irritation" was once a major selling point for routine circumcision.)
While Glick displays requisite delicacy in his discussion of the question of Jewish influence, it is to his credit that he confronts the underlying questions without flinching. Among the German physicians who initiated the medical defense of circumcision, most were in fact Jewish. And as the literature grew and Gentile voices entered the fray, the most vocal and prolific advocates rising to defend medical circumcision were Jewish scholars and physicians, who "beheld new vistas" in the prospect of a widespread medically sanctioned vindication of ancient Judaic custom. This was particularly true in America, where the demands of assimilation flavored medical arguments with special urgency. Glick summarizes the prevailing mood:
If it was turning out that the ancient practice was not just the sign of Abraham’s covenant but also a nearly miraculous treatment for everything from paralysis to insanity, wasn’t it reasonable to welcome its acceptance by the general community? At a time when Jews were intent on becoming full-fledged Americans, what could have been so gratifying as the prospect of everyone’s adopting the most problematic sign of Jewish difference?
And indeed the campaign, if it may be thus characterized, was a resounding success in America alone. While routine medical circumcision enjoyed fleeting and limited popularity in England, the fashion proved short-lived, waning as more sophisticated studies gradually began to call initial health claims into question. But in the U.S., it stuck, becoming an little-questioned fixture of obstetric and pediatric practice. "[B]y the 1940s," Glick notes, "[circumcision] had become as routine as the tonsillectomies [remember those] that had also become ubiquitous in American medical practice." There are lots of reasons. Medical fads can simply become entrenched, for one. And we shouldn’t dismiss the profit-incentive; circumcision is a billable procedure, after all, and relatively easy to knock off and tack on to an itemized hospital tab. But there is another point that is often overlooked. While Glick notes that most American physicians, "Gentile and Jewish alike, simply accepted circumcision without much consideration one way or the other," there were also those who continued to engage
in active debate over the medical value of the procedure. Some were dedicated advocates and promoters who campaigned passionately for "universal circumcision" and advanced numerous justifications for its continuation.
Of course, they weren’t all Jews. But by analyzing the proportionate representation of Jewish voices among the cacophony of circumcision advocates and opponents in the relevant literature, Glick arrives at a telling, if unsurprising, illustration of the conspicuous role of Jewish bias in promoting and defending what had by this time become a uniquely American medical institution. Again, his conclusions are delicately parsed, but the conclusion is unambiguous. A somewhat lengthy excerpt may be best to preserve the contextual sensitivity with which Glick frames his discussion:
As for Gentile physicians, many believed circumcision to be wise medical practice, and some recommended it earnestly. But only a very few became consistent advocates, while a significant number published articles critical of the practice. In contrast, it seems beyond question that Jewish physicians have been disproportionately prominent as advocates. In particular, they were largely responsible for promoting claims for circumcision as a cancer preventative. Admittedly, we’re looking at a mixed picture here — noteworthy patterns, not absolute differences. But although all these men surely acted with what they considered to be sound medical judgment, some Jewish physicians may have been influenced also by nonmedical consideration.
Since this topic, perhaps more than any other, lends itself to misunderstanding or misinterpretation, I want to explain the essential argument as clearly as possible. Jewish names — Wolbarst, Ravich, Weiss, Fink, Schoen, and others — will appear disproportionately … not because I’ve chosen arbitrarily to focus on them but because Jewish physicians have been disproportionately prominent in circumcision advocacy. Nevertheless, I do not maintain that these few men were personally responsible for the widespread adoption of circumcision in this country; nor can I or anyone be certain about their motives. The fact that many Gentile physicians initiated and participated actively in the campaign for routine circumcision is enough to refute simplistic explanations or conclusions. Moreover, Jewish physicians have also been among the most outspoken opponents of circumcision. I do propose, however, that the cultural background of many Jewish circumcision advocates predisposed them to view the practice in a positive light, to welcome evidence that the most problematic custom of their people was was proving (in their view) to be medically beneficial, and to dismiss arguments to the contrary. The presence of a large and influential population of Jewish physicians in this country, their concentration in leading centers of research and publication, and their remarkably active participation in the century-long debate on circumcision seems too obvious and too significant to be rejected out of hand, or, worse, to be avoided because it might be wrongly interpreted as gratuitous defamation.
Emphasis mine. For all the sincerely interjected caveats and decorous parsing, the picture that emerges is simple enough, and the ineluctable conclusion follows apace. Circumcision, even in its contemporary medical guise, is a matter imbued with distinctively Jewish significance. Deconstruct the chorus, and those coveted distinctions between science and spirit become difficult to sustain. Through its circuitous skein, history has burdened Abraham’s "Hillock of foreskins" with the putrefying flesh of millions of gentile boys, but the specter of a wrathful God never lurked far away.
At this point, you may wonder if I am ignoring some legitimate issues of scientific fact. Notwithstanding the easily refuted quackery churned out during centuries past, isn’t it true, after all, that circumcision confers hygienic as well as preventative health benefits? Doesn’t it help to prevent infection, or certain types of cancer, or even AIDS? While such claims are the subject of frequent and often credulous media attention, a cursory review of consensus medical opinion shows that such purported benefits remain unproven and that concerns over the harmful effects of circumcision cannot be discounted. In a thoughtful epilogue, Glick addresses the fundamental failure of the familiar arguments:
…no one has ever claimed that large numbers of intact boys or men would ever develop any problem simply because they retained normal genitals. The claim has always been that mass circumcision would protect a few individuals in later life. Thus, even if circumcision might eventually protect someone from a particular illness, we should ask whether that justifies circumcising millions of others who stand to gain nothing.
Unlike, say, vaccination, which is a relatively harmless and minor
intervention known to save millions of lives, circumcision is
a literally disfiguring and at least arguably harmful surgery, which impedes sexual pleasure as well as function and which entails well documented risks. Such
ostensible benefits as have been claimed in its defense invariably apply only in rare instances, almost always after a child will have reached
a sufficient level of maturity to decide for himself whether the
pleasure of having a foreskin is worth some hypothetical and
statistically infinitesimal risk. By emphasizing dubious benefits to the exclusion of costs (and ethical concerns, to which we shall return), modern circumcision advocates reveal the inherent bias of their position.
Consider urinary tract infections. While there is some — by no means dispositive — evidence to suggest that circumcision may slightly reduce the risk of UTI, the case for preventative surgery can only be maintained at the expense of all rational perspective. "The first point to note," as Glick observes, "is that although girls are far more likely than boys to develop UTI, no one proposes ‘corrective’ surgery to protect them." But notwithstanding this ubiquitous double-standard, a bare modicum of statistical context will suffice to illustrate the inherent weakness of the best argument the pro-circumcisionists have to offer. As Glick points out, "advocates themselves acknowledge that only about 2.2 percent of intact boys will develop a UTI during the crucial first year of life, while a smaller number of circumcised boys will also have the problem."
In other words, of every 1,000 circumcised boys, about 980 receive no preventative benefit. Moreover, very few of the other twenty are in serious trouble; most UTIs are readily treatable with antibiotics and, in boys as well as girls, usually resolve within a few days without complication.
Some physicians have also proposed that a number of confounding elements — for example, previous maternal infection, premature birth, parental education and hygiene — may influence UTI rates more than circumcision advocates have recognized.
Those "confounding elements" are an important part of the story. Simply put, studies that have purported to demonstrate some prophylactic gains favoring circumcision have a terrible track record. As with many scientific controversies, the recurring problem arises from confusing correlation with cause; once any number of counter-explanatory variables are taken into account, the imputed benefits have a tendency to vanish into warmed over rhetoric. When you hear that circumcision aids in the prevention of STDs or cancer or urinary infections, just keep your eye on the big picture. Almost without exception, such imputed afflictions turn out to be markedly lower in incidence among European boys and men, the vast majority of whom spend their long lives happily intact. And even if it turns out that in some rare instance a marginal benefit can be conclusively demonstrated — and with certain exceedingly rare diseases, this seems likely — such occasion will not be sufficient to seal the inquiry. There is yet the inconvenient matter of ethics to be taken into account.
Only occasionally does Glick make the point, but it bears repeating that that the medical logic marshaled in defense of male circumcision could apply equally — and perhaps more forcefully — to promote similarly "corrective" surgical interventions in females. If physicians, operating under fully modern and antiseptic conditions, were to surgically remove the hymeneal membrane and labia of infant girls, the incidence of female urinary tract infections might be reduced dramatically. By the same account, excising nascent breast tissue from baby girls could prevent countless cases of breast cancer, an affliction that is far more common and far more deadly than penile cancer.
Of course, such proposals will (rightly) be received with reflexive and visceral opposition, but this is not because we have been persuaded by some disinterested analysis of the relative costs and benefits at issue; no, our rejection is rooted in the simple recognition that such procedures, whatever their potential benefits, would be violative of human rights. With respect to girls, the point seems obvious enough. It doesn’t matter what scientific evidence is on the table. It doesn’t matter what some archaic religious covenant dictates. It doesn’t even matter what the parents prefer. After all, she has rights.
And so, shall I insist, does he. While circumcision advocates often go on as if parents and physicians and religious authorities were the only players in the debate, it is a defenseless and voiceless infant whose genitals are subject to disfiguring violence. And it is his opinion — invariably expressed in those distinctive screams — that is seldom considered. There can be no question that circumcision causes pain, probably of an excruciating order. Nor is there any question that circumcision entails risks, including the risk of death, which the child is constitutionally incapable of assessing. And while religious "rights" receive a great deal of uncritical attention in this discussion, such rights are properly viewed as individual rights to which a strapped down infant assuredly does not consent. Moreover, as previously noted, there is no question that removing the foreskin results in a significant loss of sexual sensation and anatomical function. Far from being some useless vestigial remnant, as some advocates would prefer, the foreskin is a functioning feature of male anatomy; it facilitates sexual intercourse and protects the glans, which, absent the "benefit" of circumcision, will remain a nerve-laden mucous membrane (with circumcision, the glans is radically desensitized, essentially becoming a callus). Surgical removal of the foreskin is thus no more a "neutral" act, than the surgical removal of an analogous slice of female genitalia. Period. Tune out the medical obfuscation and religious noise, and you will see the act of circumcision for what it is: a willful assault on a helpless victim. Its practice can be sustained only by appeal to antiquated moral codes ascribing children the status of chattel property.
On some level, people must recognize this. In nearly every contemporary article addressing the controversy, there is a subtext of abiding discomfiture. Read closely, and the cognitive dissonance becomes palpable. When secular arguments prove wanting, defenders of circumcision return to quasi-mystical justifications, with references to "ethnic continuity," or "gainful pain," or, to cite Jewish advice writer, Anita Diamant, with cryptic refrains on the "elemental, mysterious, incomprehensible, and awe-ful" significance of a rite meant to remind us of the "danger, dread, and death as well as spiritual aspirations" that make life worth living. As Glick amply documents in the closing chapters of Marked in Your Flesh, contemporary Jewish literature on circumcision is replete with references to "anxiety" and "dread" and "deep feelings of nervousness." Whether in Philip Roth’s grim depiction of a mohel who likens his work to that of a common butcher, or in Leslie Fiedler’s open exaltation, celebrating the "meaning of Sacrifice and the required shedding of blood, beyond all rational talk of ‘symbolic wounds’ or liberal horror at the persistence of cruel and archaic rites," the tone and content bespeak a common disquiet, and there is a resigned intimation of horror.
And in the absence of reassurance, there will always be jokes. I remember one from grade school:
What do rabbis do with all those foreskins?
They sell them to fags as chewing gum!
I know, it’s not funny. But then neither is the sexual mutilation of millions of boys.