One of the key lessons I learned from a young age was not to insult others’ cultures. Which, let’s be honest, is a pretty vital lesson, and was especially useful growing up in post-94 South Africa. One learns quickly that culture is an untouchable, and if you don’t understand it, the problem lies with you and not with the subject.
The problem with this approach is that one forgets to be critical – and an uncritical world is a stagnant world.
In any case, male circumcision is one of those things that is pretty well-known in South Africa, because of “initiation” in many of our cultures. Infantile circumcision in the Jewish and Muslim communities also exists, but I feel that South Africans know less about that. I think for a long time, circumcision was one of those “untouchables”, because the ritual is so old – until we started hearing how many young men were mutilated or killed by their experience.
I started reading Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America while I was rotating through Urology. I should start by saying that I misunderstood the title a little. I was under the impression that it referred to investigating circumcision around the world and through the ages. Actually, the book is mostly about Jewish circumcision around the world, and how it morphed into becoming a generalised tradition in the USA – decidedly less relevant to my milieu.
Glick is a Jewish physician who attempts to write a non-biased account despite his opposition to neonatal circumcision. I think he fails in that attempt pretty early on in the book, by starting his first chapter with an overly-dramatised account of neonatal circumcision in the 70’s (the book was published in 2005).
Glick does a good job of delving into Jewish circumcision history, but this takes up more than half of the book and matters of modern health and ethics are rather rushed. This is strange, because by Glick’s own admission, most of American circumcision is not really done for religious cultural reasons, but because parents are made to believe that it provides a health benefits. I thought a lot more could have been done in discussing this.
Because I am not Jewish and not particularly interested in religious history, a lot of this book probably went over my head. I did enjoy the discussions on why circumcision, of all Jewish rites, has remained steadfast throughout the centuries, and also why the practice began in the first place (far beyond “because God decreed it so”). The sexual theory is certainly interesting, relating to the idea of circumcision leading to reduced promiscuity (which is quite a slippery slope, but you should check out the Foreskin IQ if you haven’t yet done so).
The historical accounts of how circumcision became a way of maintaining Jewish communities, and later of maintaining the separation of Christians and Jews, is very well done and interesting, as is Glick’s chapter on how circumcision is portrayed in modern media.
What bothered me about the fact that so much of the book was dedicated to religion, is that Glick claims that opposition to circumcision is not based on antisemitism, but on medical and ethical grounds. Yet, his whole approach to explaining why Jewish culture is “wrong” and inaccurate to insist on circumcision, certainly does give an antisemitic appearance.
While this book did teach me a few new things, I don’t think it is written in such a way as to be groundbreaking in the circumcision debate. It may certainly be very scholarly, but its structure and approach are lacking. A worthwhile read in the American context, but I am still awaiting a book that addresses this topic in a truly multicultural and more open-minded fashion.