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‐honored 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 antisemites?
Not everyone reacted along those lines, though. Others were not only interested but even eager to learn more; they admitted that they had always wondered why Jews had to perform such a disturbing ceremony. Yes, circumcision was supposed to ensure Jewish survival—but how, and why?
Although I'd like to claim that I had long asked such questions myself, the truth is that I had not. Until a few years ago, I took circumcision more or less for granted, like nearly everyone else. I never thought of it as an attractive practice, and although to the best of my recollection I have attended two ritual circumcisions, I tried not to see the surgery or even to think about it. I should add here that although my professional career has been as a cultural anthropologist and college professor, I have a medical degree and completed a general internship, in the course of which (again to the best of my recollection) I myself performed one circumcision.
To speak on an even more personal level, our own three sons were circumcised—not ritually but in hospitals soon after birth. (p.viii) I accepted this without a second (or even a first) thought, assuming that it was not only medically advisable but appropriate for Jewish boys. Later, because their mother is not Jewish, all three underwent a ritual circumcision as part of a conversion. We took them to a Jewish urologist, who donned a skullcap, recited appropriate liturgy, and drew a few drops of blood from each juvenile foreskin remnant.
Those sons are now mature men. Had I known at their births what I know now, they would never have been circumcised. But as it happened, I did not begin serious study of circumcision until a few years ago, and only after becoming immersed in the research did I realize that my subliminal sense of unease was wholly justified. To my surprise, I learned that the United States is the only country in the world where well over half of all male infants are circumcised for nonreligious, supposedly medical reasons. Soon I came to understand much more: that the procedure has no medical value standing up to an elementary cost‐benefit analysis; that removal of the foreskin destroys extremely sensitive genital tissue and diminishes normal sexual experience for both men and women; and that arbitrary reductive surgery on a nonconsenting person of any age violates that persons's fundamental right to physical integrity. With regard to Jewish circumcision in particular, I realized that the practice is rooted in anachronistic sexist ideology and, finally, that removing infant foreskins neither promotes anyone's later commitment to Judaism nor contributes to the enhancement of Jewish life in America.
Once I began to understand this, I felt that if I wrote honestly and forthrightly about what I had learned, most readers, Jewish or Gentile, would grant me a fair hearing and would decide for themselves whether they found my interpretations and conclusions credible. I've since come to realize that this may not be so; that, judging from what has already been published on this subject, I might be subjected to misrepresentation by some—physicians, rabbis, mohels, even scholars—with investment in seeing this practice continue. I accept that prospect (not with pleasure, to be sure) as the price one may pay for challenging an entrenched custom.
On the other side, though, are those treasured friends and colleagues with whom I share mutual support and enlightening exchange on matters historical, medical, legal, ethical, and practical. I belong to several organizations dedicated to ending all forms of genital injury to male and female children throughout the world. In this company, I think of myself as a scholarly activist, contributing my particular knowledge and perspective to the ongoing effort to educate people on why circumcision should be unacceptable in a society supportive of fundamental human rights. Since colleagues in these organizations have contributed immensely to my knowledge and sense of personal commitment, I want to cite and thank them here. First is the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC), now a widely respected international organization, founded and directed by (p.ix) Marilyn Fayre Milos; the book's dedication is a token of my admiration, affection, and gratitude. Thanks to the work of George Hill, NOCIRC maintains a website, CIRP.org, that is second to none as a source of thorough, dependable information on every aspect of the circumcision controversy; I recommend it to readers who want to learn far more than I can compress into these pages. Second is Doctors Opposing Circumcision (D.O.C.), founded and directed by Dr. George C. Denniston, a public health physician who has worked patiently to educate physicians and the public, not only on medical topics but also on the ethical issue raised when physicians perform circumcisions after having pledged to “first, do no harm.” Finally, there is Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (ARC), founded and directed by J. Steven Svoboda, who has authored and coauthored some of the most thorough and penetrating articles on all aspects of circumcision, with particular insight into legal and ethical questions connected with nonessential surgery performed on nonconsenting persons. Among others to whom I owe special appreciation are Dan Bollinger, Norm Cohen, Rio Cruz, Amber Craig, Rob Darby, Paul Fleiss, John Geisheker, Ron Goldman, Frederick M. Hodges, David Llewellyn, Van Lewis, Martin Novoa, Hugh O'Donnell, Mark Reiss, Steve Scott, Jim Snyder, Dan Strandjord, Robert Van Howe, Hugh Young, and Avshalom Zoossmann‐Diskin. Frederick Hodges, Rob Darby, Steven Svoboda, and Marilyn Milos provided invaluable critical readings of parts of the manuscript. I thank also my many other activist colleagues; all have contributed in various ways to my education.
I owe thanks to many others who have contributed their special skills and knowledge. John Koster, Anne Spier‐Mazor, and Neil Zagorin provided essential translation assistance. Members of the Hampshire College Library staff—Stephanie W. Brown, Gai Carpenter, Susan Dayall, Christine Ingraham, Isaac Lipfert, Kelly Phelan, Dan Schnurr, Helaine Selin, Serena Smith, and Bonnie Vigeland—were always there to answer innumerable requests for assistance and for interlibrary loans. Noah Glick shepherded us through the maze of manuscript preparation. Matthew Bauer, Gail Glick, and Marian Glick‐Bauer alerted me to the latest news and brought me up to date on popular culture. Stuart Jaffee and Sylvia Jaffee graciously answered questions from a friend who was outspokenly on the other side of the circumcision debate. Lester Mazor, Bob Meagher, and Barbara Yngvesson, Hampshire College faculty colleagues, offered vital support and advice. The college provides an exceptionally open intellectual environment where cross‐disciplinary exploration and creative critical thinking are cultivated.
I thank also the many scholars whose work has provided essential foundations for my own. I must emphasize, though, that all interpretations and conclusions are mine alone, and that no one whose work I cite necessarily accepts or endorses anything I say; indeed, as yet most of them know nothing of this book.
(p.x) I owe special thanks to my editors at Oxford University Press—Cynthia Read, Theo Calderara, and Linda Donnelly—for their generous support and guidance, and for their expressions of confidence in me and my work. Evaluative comments by two anonymous readers were just what I needed: incisive but supportive. At an earlier stage, Susan Rabiner offered encouragement and advice on how to present my work to potential publishers.
Nansi S. Glick has contributed so much to this entire project that routine acknowledgment will not do. Her editorial acumen and shrewd judgment on writing style and authorial voice; her insight into weaknesses in logic, explanation, and organization; her willingness to read chapters again, and again, and yet again; her crucial practical assistance; and her faith in me and in this book—all extended far beyond anything represented in customary expressions of appreciation for spousal support. Once more, and still inadequately, Nansi, thank you.
Although I am totally committed to a particular position in the circumcision controversy, I trust that readers will not find the book unduly polemical, and that those who stay with me will be prepared to explore all claims, counterclaims, and opinions for themselves, and to reach their own conclusions. With that end in mind, I quote or paraphrase rather freely and extensively, perhaps more than is usual in most histories, because I believe that we learn best about controversial issues when those on both sides speak for themselves. It's true, of course, that all quotation and paraphrase involves selection—highlighting some statements or phrases, choosing to omit others. Readers who want to know more about quoted texts may consult the references in the notes and bibliography.