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Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America
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48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2006
January 12, 1992, I paid a visit to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, where I met Dr. Leila Mehra. I was then preparing a paper, which I developed in a book in Arabic, French and English on male and female circumcision. I asked her: "Why the WHO is concerned only with female circumcision and doesn't consider male circumcision?" She responded: "Male circumcision is mentioned in the Bible. Do you want to create problems for us with the Jews?" The same day, I met Mrs. Berhane Ras-Work, president of the Inter-African committee in her office in Geneva. Strangely enough, she gave me the same answer, illustrating that the two of them undoubtedly consulted each other before meeting with me.

While I am reading this book, UNICEF Switzerland is waging an intensive and aggressive campaign against female excision. UNICEF, as other international and region organisations, refuses to use the term circumcision, because it may produce confusion with male circumcision. Not one single word is said about male circumcision. UNICEF never produced any document on male circumcision, and always refused to open the debate about this subject. Maybe for the same reasons invoked by Leila Mehra and Berhane Ras-Work: "Male circumcision is mentioned in the Bible. Do you want to create problems for us with the Jews?" It is absolutely sure that if UNICEF begins a campaign against male circumcision similar to its campaign against female circumcision, it will be labelled anti-Semitic and many governments will stop financing it. Because of money and fear, UNICEF is violating its mission to protect the children, all the children, regardless of their religion or gender. The same can be said of the United Nations Organization (UNO), which developed many activities and issued many resolutions against female circumcision but refused to take any position against male circumcision, as it has been requested by activists struggling against this practice. Let us remember here a fact that the great majority of people, even intellectuals, ignore: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the rights of the child and other important international texts don't mention the right to physical integrity, most probably to avoid interpreting it as a condemnation of male circumcision.

Leonard B. Glick's book will not be bought or consulted by UNICEF, WHO or UNO, for two reasons: it does not speak about female circumcision and it is opposed to male circumcision. There are two ways to oppose this practice: pamphlet style or a large documented book covering the subject from different point of view: religion, medicine, sociology, law, art, etc. Such a book may necessitate several hundred pages which people will not read, and which may be consulted by some specialists and sleep on dusty shelves of the libraries. The book of Leonard B. Glick is between the two options. The text itself covers 279 pages, followed with 51 pages of footnotes, 25 pages of bibliography and an index of 10 pages.

The book is very well documented, pleasantly written and the subject is presented logically and coherently. It is certainly the result of a passionate and patient investigation through the amount of the quoted documents. And without passion and a feeling to fulfil a mission, one cannot write such a book. In the preface, the author explains what his relation with male circumcision was and how his position changed from indifference to opposition after having circumcised his three sons, act he regrets: "Had I known at their births what I know now, they would never have been circumcised" (p. VIII). Here is the recommendation of the author to his readers: begin reading about circumcision before doing it. He offers them what he learned through his researches as an anthropologist and physician. The last paragraph of the book reads: "I've tried to summarize in these few pages the wealth of information that convinced me that male infant circumcision is medically unnecessary, harmful to normal sexuality, and ethically unjustifiable. When all is said and done, I believe we face a single inescapable question: Are we now prepared to accept the principle 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 alternation?"

The prologue of the book offers another personal experience that transformed Marilyn Fayre Milos into a major activist against male circumcision. She also circumcised her three sons, but was shocked by what she saw in the hospital as a nurse. Her opposition to male circumcision was the reason for which the hospital dismissed her for insubordination. Then she founded NOCIRC, an international organisation struggling against male (and female) circumcision worldwide. The book itself is dedicated to her.

These two personal experiences lead the author to investigate the religious reasons behind male circumcision in the Jewish community. He presents in the first chapter the basic texts of the Jewish faith relating to this practice (Old Testament, Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, etc.). Then in chapter 2 he explains what was the position of Jesus' apostles who were circumcised but had the mission to evangelise pagans (Gentiles) opposed to this practice. Pagans did not appreciate circumcision but tolerated it as long as it was practiced by Jews on themselves. They did nothing to eradicate it. The main opposition to male circumcision came from inside the Jewish people, through Apostle Paul, a highly educated Jew. From persecutor of the new faith, he became its major propagator, offering the religious arguments against male circumcision, which were used by the Fathers of the Church and major Christian theologians. Chapter 4 shows how Jewish intellectuals and physicians, mainly in German-speaking countries, but also in Italy and France, began opposing circumcision in the nineteenth century, despite the fierce opposition of the rabbis and conservative Jews. Chapters 5 to 7 explain how suddenly the Christian Western physicians rehabilitated circumcision for medical reasons, giving new arguments to Jewish physicians who helped in spreading this practice, mainly in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Nevertheless, male circumcision continues to question the Jewish community, as indicated in chapters 8 and 9.

These are some of the elements developed in this book. One thing more is to be mentioned. The author of this book is a Jewish scholar. To tackle male circumcision among Jews, only Jews have the full capacity to do it. A non-Jewish author will not be taken seriously by Jews if he opposes male circumcision, and may be labelled anti-Semitic. Despite the small number of the Jews and the fact that they represent the minority among circumcised people (compared to one billion Muslims and the large percentage of Americans who are circumcised), male circumcision cannot be abolished among Muslims and Christians if it is not first abolished among Jews. Both Christians and Muslims rely on Jewish religious arguments, and as long as Jews consider male circumcision as part of their religion, it would be difficult to oppose it, either on the international or on the national level. Non-Jewish activists opposed to circumcision in the USA agree that they should avoid criticizing the Jewish circumcision, leaving it to Jewish scholars. The same with Muslim male circumcision which should be left to Muslim scholars. This is not the case with female circumcision, mainly African custom. Western intellectuals, activists and politicians do not hesitate to attack the Africans without any restraint or respect for their feelings, probably to show their "moral" superiority. Instead of attacking female circumcision, they should first clean their own house by abolishing male circumcision. They forget one important principle: without abolishing male circumcision, it is impossible to abolish female circumcision. This book is a step in this direction and, for this reason, the author should be congratulated for his courage in writing on this highly sensitive subject.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Sami Aldeeb
[...]
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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2005
Jewish physician turned anthropologist Leonard Glick explores a subject for which his background is perfect preparation: an analysis of how cultural circumcision came from eons ago to become embedded in U.S. medicine. At turns wise and witty and but always compassionate, he painstakingly traces the path that Jewish brit milah took until it inspired a late 19th-century Anglo-American health fad which predated germ theory, has been abandoned by most Anglophone countries, and now survives mostly in the USA.

Glick even touches the third-rail of the historical debate-exposing how a handful of prominent Jewish physicians in the 20th century used tissue-thin guesswork to promote medical circumcision while they missed the irony that circumcising 100 million Americans could hardly serve to keep Jewish males unique.

For those interested in cultural history at the interface of religion and science, and especially those tracking the growing bioethical recognition of non-therapeutic circumcision as human rights' abuse, Professor Glick's account is a must-read.

John Geisheker

Attorney at Law
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2006
If this book has a fault, it is its sustained, even tone. Glick answers the Orthodox with rabbinical wisdom and the Reform with humane logic, chides feminists for failing to address the rampant sexism of cutting only male babies and answers medical arguments with epidemiological statistics. Like everyone else (myself included), he tiptoes around the extraordinary practice of metzitzah (sucking the blood from the baby's wounded penis) that would be called by a grosser name if anyone else did it.

He makes no pretense of being even-handed, as so many committee-generated policy statements and encyclopaedia entries do - which merely serves to conceal their bias - and his openness strengthens his case, because in fact he is more balanced than many. As a medically-trained Jewish anthropologist who has performed circumcision, Glick is excellently placed to condemn the practice, and he does so with a moderation that is more effective than any intemperate attack would be.

His analysis of the extraordinary change in Jewish and medical attitudes towards circumcision in the US in the late 19th century, when Jews medicalised the ritual, and doctors, to prevent the supposed medical consequences of masturbation, adopted and promoted the most extreme Jewish form (but without metzitzah), by the mid-20th century doing it without asking, is excellent, and his treatment of Jewish doctors' role in the medicalisation is sensitive. Glick is no conspiracy theorist, nor "self-hating".

He is especially good at pointing out what supporters of circumcision leave out (such as that "Mohel to the Stars" Fred R. Kogen makes no mention of Abraham's covenant in the instructions for his lavishly catered cutting parties), and at finding the subtext in peripheral material, such as the sustained unease and disquiet surrounding reference to circumcision in TV sitcoms such as "Seinfeld" and "Sex and the City".

The only shortcoming is inevitable: the campaign to circumcise male babies - currently, to protect them against HIV/AIDS decades hence - has moved on apace since "Marked in Your Flesh" was published, and new studies have come out, with new flaws which Glick was not in time to address.

Anyone, Jewish or gentile, who anticipates having children in the US in the foreseeable future (unless they have already decided to leave their sons intact) should read this book.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2005
Leonard Glick is in a unique position to comment on circumcision. A knowledgeable Jew who was both a practicing medical doctor and professor of cultural anthropology, he puts both his MD and PhD to remarkable use in this very scholarly, engaging book. Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America is an historical and social tour-de-force that traces this arcane blood ritual from its origins at the dawn of Judaism to its current position in American medical malpractice. This book is a must read for anyone who thinks circumcision is necessary for Jewish identity; for any medical student or doctor who thinks circumcising infant males is good, ethical medical practice; for any parent contemplating the amputation of his or her baby's natural genital arrangement; or for anyone curious to know how circumcision came to be and why it shouldn't be.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2005
Glick brings an open writing style to understanding more about this traumatic practice, and the reasons it came to be so ensconced in American culture.

Thoroughly researched and skillfully presented, Glick effectively makes the argument that circumcision isn't about good medicine, but merely a cultural artifact, a rite gone wrong.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2006
Finally a concise history of a procedure that should have died out in the bronze age.. revealing it to be a procedure surrounded by superstition, illogic, and twisted menatl gynastics.

The author has handled the subject in an even-handed fashion and still shown the absurdity of this procedure and the excuses, both religious and medical still being used to try to justify that which is not justifiable,
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
This is the most definitive book on the subject--I can not foresee a book in the future that can surpass this fantastic read. Even today, in the United States one baby every 2 days dies from modern circumcision. During ancient times as high as 10% of Jewish babies died from unsanitary circumcision--which led to a shortage of men of the same faith for Jewish women to marry.

The first paragraph sets the tone of the book:

"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-honoured 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 anti- Semites."

Later in this fantastic book he quotes the well known pediatrician who is Jewish, Dr. Fleiss continues with the theme of this work:

"There is no reason for parents, physicians, or other caregivers to manipulate a child's penis. The only person to retract a child's foreskin should be the child himself, when he has discovered that his foreskin is ready to retract.

And here's something you should tell to your rabbi, or whatever "educated" doctor might recommend this profound act of medical mutilation for your son or daughter.

"Parents should be wary of anyone who tries to retract their child's foreskin, and especially wary of anyone who wants to cut it off. Human foreskins are in great demand for any number of commercial enterprises, and the marketing of purloined baby foreskins is a multi million-dollar-a-year industry. Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies use human foreskins as research material. Corporations such as Advanced Tissue Sciences, Organo genesis, and BioSurface Technology use human foreskins as the raw materials for a type of breath able bandage."

Fleiss also added:

"Researchers at the University of Manchester found that the human foreskin has apocrine glands. These specialized glands produce pheromones, nature's chemical messengers."

So, circumcision actually diminishes communication of a physical nature between the sexes. In addition, in greatly increases the incidence of physical injury and disease to both partners.

Here's the most important part for parents. Fleiss writes:

"Care of the Foreskin

"The natural penis requires no special care. A child's foreskin, like his eyelids, is self-cleansing. For the same reason it is inadvisable to lift the eyelids and wash the eyeballs, it is inadvisable to retract a child's foreskin and wash the glans. Immersion in plain water during the bath is all that is needed to keep the intact penis clean.

"The white emollient under the child's foreskin is called smegma. Smegma is probably the most misunderstood, most unjustifiably maligned substance in nature. Smegma is clean, not dirty, and is beneficial and necessary. It moisturizes the glans and keeps it smooth, soft, and supple. Its antibacterial and antiviral properties keep the penis clean and healthy. All mammals produce smegma. Thomas J. Ritter, MD, underscored its importance when he commented, "The animal kingdom would probably cease to exist without smegma."

"Studies suggest that it is best not to use soap on the glans or foreskin's inner fold. Forcibly retracting and washing a baby's foreskin destroys the beneficial bacterial flora that protect the penis from harmful germs and can lead to irritation and infection. The best way to care for a child's intact penis is to leave it alone. After puberty, males can gently rinse their glans and foreskin with warm water, according to their own self-determined needs.

Buy as many copies as you can afford and give it away as gifts.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Professor Glick, an anthropologist and medical doctor, has done a magnificent job of revealing the history, Biblical, Talmudic, and medieval, behind Judaic circumcision and of discussing the hold which brit milah exerts on most Jewish clergy, physicians, and parents of today. Both Jews and Gentiles will benefit from his trenchant analysis.

He adeptly summarizes what might be said of all genital modifications: "[T]he deepest significance of circumcision resides not in abstract spiritual realms but in the basic facts of social life: sexuality and masculinity, power and weakness, dominance and submission." (Page 26).

Glick illuminates the psychological power of an entrenched religious, and now social, custom and its effect upon modern medical practice in the United States by stating the facts and allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. He is never accusatory.

His recitation of the treatment of circumcision in the modern media is food for serious thought. If circumcision is a positive good, how can we be so nervous about it; and why must it always be discussed with the levity he describes?

He briefly sets forth the medical arguments against neonatal circumcision and counters pro-circumcision errors in interpretation.

Every prospective parent should read this book.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2006
This is excelent book which offers a current scholarly review of the history of circumcision thru the ages. Any parent considering an elective surgery for newborn just hours to days after birth must first read this.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2012
Wow, all five-star reviews. Here's another one:

Leonard B. Glick, who is both a retired anthropology professor and a physician, has created a unique, fascinating study of male circumcision and Jewish history. (Full disclosure: I commented on drafts of "Marked in Your Flesh" [for which I am mentioned in the acknowledgements], authored a quote on the back cover, and am cited in the bibliography.) Glick makes no secret of his opposition to circumcision, yet engagingly sketches for us the tangled historical, cultural, and religious web that led to a non-therapeutic, painful, harmful surgery becoming this country's most common medical procedure.

I greatly enjoyed Glick's authoritative yet accessible distillations of Biblical verse and history, as with the tale of revenge and circumcision contained in Genesis Chapter 34, and as with the history of Christian condemnation and Jewish veneration of circumcision in the early years of the Christian era. The author reminds us that as early as the fifteenth century, women were effectively eliminated from participation in the circumcision ritual when the mother's role holding her child was eliminated through a rabbinical ruling.

Glick follows upon and extends author Lawrence Hoffman's work (in the excellent Covenant of Blood: Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1996) crystallizing the strange, critical role of blood in the Jewish symbolism of circumcision. The author deftly sketches the important role of Moses Maimonides, the twelfth century physician-philosopher who believed that bodily pain was the real purpose of circumcision and whose justifications for circumcision were fundamentally sociological, not theological. Glick also shows that Isaac ben Yedaiah, a follower of Maimonides, went even further in arguing that one of the operation's most beneficial results is repression of sexual energy! The author shows that, bizarrely, for medieval Jewish mystics, circumcision came to mean that one was physically imprinted with the Hebrew characters representing YHWH (Yahweh), the name of the Lord.

Later, circumcision became a focus of Christian condemnation of the Jews. The year 1753 saw the passage in Britain of the "Jew Bill," permitting residents for at least three years to become naturalized citizens "without receiving the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper," but the ensuing uproar soon forced the repeal of the Jew Bill.

Chapter 5 of "Marked in Your Flesh" provides an enthralling tale of Jews attempting to blend into the larger society. Glick's professorial skills are nowhere more evident than here, as he shows us the roots of and ultimate demise of nineteenth century rabbinical questioning of circumcision in a number of European countries.

Professor Glick traces for us some of the earliest nineteenth century examples of the now familiar discourse conflating religious and medical considerations to justify circumcision. The author shows us how an unfortunate chain of events led to employment of the more drastic procedure commonly practiced today. Starting in 1870, physician Lewis Sayre advocated the cure of a broad range of conditions by what he called "circumcision," meaning removal of part of the foreskin. By 1887, it was clear enough to Sayre that other physicians were removing the complete foreskin that Sayre authored another paper declaring his unease that these doctors were going much too far. By that point, of course, the cat was well out of the bag. As Glick shows, it was not long before the very presence of a foreskin came to be seen as pathological!

I enjoyed Glick's adroit commentary on the American Academy of Pediatrics' hopelessly contradictory 1999 position statement on circumcision. "If until now anyone has doubted that male infant circumcision is a procedure like no other in the minds of the very physicians who perform it, surely the American Academy of Pediatrics has provided an answer." In contrast to all other medical decisions, parents are to determine a child's best interests. "This extraordinary statement is the only instance of physicians explicitly delegating responsibility for irreversible surgery to persons with no medical credentials." Glick skillfully reads and places in context commentary on bris milah by a range of Jewish institutions and individuals. What we notice most of all is the difficulties encountered by rabbis and laypeople alike in trying to explain this most "mysterious rite."

In a large book packed with facts and footnotes, Glick's errors are vanishingly few and far between (most notably, he repeatedly neglects the anomalous case of South Korea when discussing countries with high circumcision rates). Leonard Glick has crafted a unique and invaluable study connecting religious and historical roots of the practice with its current (ultimately untenable yet surprisingly tenacious) position in our culture. As he notes with reference to the widespread medicalization of circumcision as performed even by Jewish families, "the great majority of Jewish Americans have already decided against ritual circumcision." At least with regard to Judaism, asserted `religious" justifications for violations of genital integrity have already crumbled; what remains to be done (though obviously it isn't easy!) is outreach and advocacy. "Marked in Your Flesh" should instruct and inspire activists as we work toward the day when no infants or children will be circumcised.
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