Leonard B. Glick: Cultures Change

Jewish American scholar, Leonard Glick, speaks of his life, his academic career, his research on the history of circumcision, and his views on intactivism.

(slightly modified)

I received an MD from the University of Maryland in 1953. I was involved in the medical profession for several years:

  • I interned at Charity Hospital in New Orleans
  • I was in the Air Force for two years as a physician.

When I left the Air Force, I began a residency in internal medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, which is my hometown where I grew up. [However], I soon decided that I wanted to do something else; I left the medical profession voluntarily and went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, [where I] took [on] a Ph.D in anthropology. So, my career has been largely as a professional anthropologist—a university and college teacher of anthropology.

When I came to Hampshire College [in Amherst, Massachusetts] as an anthropologist in 1972, I encountered a group of students who had developed a course on the Holocaust. They had no faculty member to work with them, and I was asked whether I would; I had already become interested in the subject, and so I functioned as their faculty supervisor for the year while they ran this course, where we had guest speakers come in.

Following that, I began to teach a course on the Holocaust myself, and soon after that I decided that I should really teach this course as European Jewish history with the Holocaust as the final part of the story. So, in addition to teaching anthropology, I became a teacher of European Jewish history and culture as well.

Back in approximately 1995, I was reading a book on European Jewish history, and I encountered a statement by Sander Gilman, who is a well-known scholar in the field. He said the image of the Jew in Europe was the image of the circumcised male. Now, by that time, not only had I been teaching the subject, but I had also written a book entitled:

Abraham's Heirs: Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe

I had never seriously considered this subject, so after I read that [statement], it stunned me, and I began to research the subject in depth. The more I read, the more I learned, of course, and I soon realized that circumcision [is] not just a Jewish practice, but that in fact circumcision is a practice in the United States—at the time, practiced by somewhere around 70% of the population.

By that time, I had already become what we call “an intactivist”—I had become one in spirit, although not in flesh yet, but I did discover NOCIRC and Marilyn Milos; I wrote to Marilyn and asked her whether I might come to speak at one of the [genital integrity] symposia—I knew there was going to be one in Sydney in December of the year 2000. Marilyn said she had no space for me, but [that] I should send an abstract and if anything opened up, she would see what she could do. So, I sent her an abstract for a talk that I called:

Jewish Circumcision: An Historical Enigma

Marilyn said no one had ever spoken about this subject this way and she would like me to come, so I [went] to Sydney and met the intactivist group there, [who] warmly and enthusiastically received [me]. I liked people [there] so much and I was so interested in what was happening that I knew from then on that [I'd be] hooked; it's been 10 years, and I have not regretted it.

So, I then went on from there and continued my research that eventually led to the publication of my book in the year 2005 (published by Oxford):

Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America

I [view] that [book] as my contribution to the [intactivist] movement. I've also [written] articles for symposia volumes—I've done several of those—and I'm going to be speaking again today (and [I will] hopefully publish at least one more [book]), so that's been my contribution. I think of myself as “a scholarly activist” or “an activist scholar” (call it what you will), [and] I think of this as my contribution to the movement.

I also write letters. I've also stood in booths. I've stood outside and held signs saying:

The foreskin is not a birth defect!

and so on. I'm convinced—I'm totally convinced—that cutting the genitals of children (infants or children, girls or boys) is fundamentally evil, and that's why I'm an intactivist.

[My wife], Nancy, and I have three sons in addition to a daughter. All three sons were circumcised without our ever thinking twice about it; I didn't give it a first thought or a second. Later, because Nancy is not Jewish, we had the boys go through a formal conversion ceremony, so that they could be bar mitzvahed. In order to do that, [the boys] had to have a ritual drawing of one drop of blood [from each of their penises]; perhaps you know about this already: It's called hatafat dam brit, the drawing or the shedding of Blood of the Covenant, [which is performed as a symbolic circumcision to convert to Judaism males who have already been circumcised].

I accepted that at the time; I did not like it. I have never liked bris [(Jewish ritual circumcision]), period; I've only been to a couple, and I didn't like it. If the decision were being made now, there's absolutely no question: We would never have had our sons circumcised in any form—ritually or otherwise. [However], at the time, we were not aware, so that was done.

I am a Jew. The fact that I am opposed to this anachronistic, barbaric behavior has nothing to do with the fact that I am Jewish.

I told my students when I taught European Jewish history—I told them [at] the first class: We're talking here about Jews, and I want you to use the word and understand who we're talking about; we're talking about Jews.

Children—whether male or female of any race or ethnicity or background—have the right to their own physical integrity. No one—no parent, no adult, no one—has the right to deprive [a] child of any part of his or her body without extreme emergency medical justification; no cultural or religious justification, in my mind, can serve for depriving a child of a part of his or her body.

The fact that a child is born to Jewish parents simply means that [the] child has the same right as any other child to physical integrity. When the child reaches the age of 18—whether male or female—if that mature person decides that he or she wants a part of [his or her] body altered, well, I may think of that as foolish, but that's the person's right and privilege—but not for an infant! and not for a young child!

It's hard to explain how one does research, because it takes place over a number years, but basically I think [that] as you read, you follow everyone else's references, and you extend your references more and more broadly, and gradually the whole subject comes together for you. It takes quite a bit of time. I couldn't have done it without my wife's assistance—it was more than assistance; she was really my editor and the judge of everything I was doing and [she was] making constant suggestions for organization.

The hardest part is organization—thinking about what goes into what chapter and what follows what. Generally speaking, I follow chronology at least for the first part of [Marked in Your Flesh]; I favor a chronological story. Then, in the later part of the book, I [deal] with particular topics that I thought might be of special interest—for instance, the way circumcision is dealt with in the popular media.

I learned a great deal [while researching]. I think practically everything I learned was new to me:

  • I certainly came to understand how sexist [circumcision] is, particularly within Judaism and Islam; this is a procedure that is supposed to shed [the] “sacred” blood of the male. We know that in many religions—including Judaism—[that] female blood is considered to be contaminating; the woman has to purify herself. Certainly according to Leviticus, the woman [must] purify herself after bleeding, including the blood of child birth, of course. [Yes], I certainly learned how sexist [circumcision is].

  • I certainly learned how much [circumcision has been] connected with aggression.

  • I learned also how [circumcision has] evolved over time—the changeover from earlier Temple Times to Rabbinic Times, and how the ritual [has] been interpreted and re-interpreted and justified and re-justified in various ways.

  • I learned also how connected the idea of circumcision was with Christian fantasies about Jews; it seems sort of understandable. Let's think of young Christian girls—peasant girls—coming into Jewish homes as maids and seeing [circumcision] happen. Well, obviously the conclusion would come out:

    If they're willing to do this to their own children, what might they do to ours?

    [I learned], of course, the [European Christian] fantasy about ritual murder; the idea that Jews were ritually murdering Christian boys in immitation of the Crucifixion (and so on) was obviously connected with circumcision. In fact, if you look at my book, there's at least one very good picture there (a woodcut) showing a ritual crucifixion, but in fact what they're doing [is] drawing blood from the child's penis; the child's penis is very obviously being assaulted, so it [is] clear that [this is rather] an immitation of circumcision, and the conclusion [was]:

    If Jews are willing to mutilate their own babies this way, what might they be willing to do to ours?

    So, there was an association in the Christian mind between Jews, blood, and knives: The mohel with his sharpened knife, the animal slaughterer with his sharpened knife and the need to remove all blood from the slaughtered animal, and so on. There grew up in the Christian mind an association between:

    • Jews,
    • blood,
    • and knives

    that persisted right up into our own time, and perhaps in some places [it] still does. [Yes, circumcision is] certainly connected with the ritual murder fantasies that have been part of European Christian culture for [very] many centuries and even re-emerged in [the U.S.] during the 20th Century more than once.

  • Metzitzah B'peh [is a Jewish circumcision ritual in which the circumciser uses his or her mouth to suck blood from the child's freshly wounded penis. It was developed] later, as far as I can tell. Why exactly they began to do this, I don't think anyone is completely certain; it has something to do clearly with blood.

    Circumcision originally was a sacrificial act, and blood itself is not mentioned in the Torah—in Genesis and Leviticus. All that is mentioned is:

    The flesh of his foreskin shall be removed.

    [The word] “flesh” in Hebrew is “basar”, but it also means “penis”. [However], blood is not mentioned; only later, after the destruction of the Temple—when bloody temple-sacrifices were no longer possible—did circumcision become the sole remaining Jewish ritual involving blood, so that of course now blood must be drawn: The infant's penis must bleed. When the mohel [does] this sucking (sometimes spitting it into a cup of wine), this obviously [is] connected with the emphasis on blood.

    Now, by the 19th Century, many German Jews in particular—Reform Jews—were objecting to this [practice], [but] they began to develop other ways of doing [the same thing]: One thing [is] to use a glass tube [through which blood may be sucked without making contact between the mouth and penis], which is still in use in some places [today].

    My guess would be that most of the mohelim—the mohels—do not practice metzitzah; I think this is only practiced by the Ultra Orthodox [Jews]. Of course, we had a nasty case in New York City not long ago, where this led to severe illness and death for children because [a herpes] infected mouth was being used to suck the penises of these helpless infants. Not a good situation.

    I might add that as far as I can tell, most Jewish Americans know nothing about this. Nothing.

Generally speaking, I would say the response of most Jewish readers [to my book Marked in Your Flesh] has been sort of neutral; they haven't said much afterwards about it. Some have told me that [the book] influenced them in a way I had hoped it would. Reviews that were written by rabbis and others of that type [are] generally negative, saying I [don't] understand the power of religion and ritual—even though I taught courses on the anthropology of religion for many years, as well as courses on European Jewish history, and so on.

I would say, overall, it's been difficult for me to really know what kind of response I would get. The most enthusiastic responses have come from fellow opponents of circumcision—from intactivists. [As far as] Jewish readers [go], some have simply responded by saying: “Well, you know, we're still going [to circumcise our infants].” Others have been more friendly, and I would say the usual response—to the extent that I've heard any—has been rather neutral.

Sometimes, I have sent books to rabbis and others who have never even acknowledged the book; I've asked them if they would like a copy:

"Yes, send me a copy."

"I'd like to hear your comments on the book."

[However], I've received nothing—not even so much as a note saying “Thank you for sending me the book.” Nothing. So, you may read that as you like.

Most reviews have not been favorable. [Although], I received one quite favorable review from an eminent Jewish scholar, Shaye Cohen, who himself is the author of a book called:

Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised?

and his answer—he took a whole book to say it—[is that] it's a sexist ritual for men. He did write a very positive review of my work.

Rabbis—when they [have] reviewed me—[have been] negative, as I would [expect]. I [don't] think it was exactly fair to have them as the reviewers, but there it [is].

David Gollaher, the author of a good, pioneering book on circumcision:

Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery

wrote a negative review, saying essentially that I had said nothing new; I [think] that [is] unfair; I've never said anything to him about that, but I [think] that [is] unfair. I certainly depended for part of my book on his work, and I referred to him frequently, [and] I certainly indicated where I had used his work, but to [say] that I had done nothing beyond what he had done [is] not really a fair review.

One expects that if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen; when you're in academia and you [publish] a book, you have to expect that [negative reviews are] going to happen, and if you think that you're not going to be able to tolerate that, [then] you shouldn't publish the book.

I don't have any religious faith; I am what's called “a secular Jew” or “an ethnic Jew”—I am a Jew by ethnic origin; I'm a Jew by birth, and will of course remain so, obviously. [However], I haven't had any supernatural belief since somewhere around age 15 or 16 when I decided that this [is] all nonsense.

I have attended [very] many synagogue services, Jewish rituals of every kind, and we conduct a Passover seder in our home, and so on, but I do this as a member of the larger Jewish community. This, to my mind, has nothing to do with “faith”, because as I say, I have no faith other than in:

  • Reason.
  • Rationalism.
  • Scientific progress.

I don't believe in anything supernatural [whatsoever]—nothing.

I [had known] that I [do] not like circumcision well before I became an activist. One thing that stuck in my mind years before was when I learned that recordings of the screams of [infants during circumcision] [are] different from other infant crying. That told me right there—it's sort of obvious—that something very serious [is] going on here.

You can't do everything in this life. We only have one [life]; you can't do everything, and I think that people who are in [this intactivism movement] with us are those who have chosen this as their way of expressing themselves, and as their way of contributing in some small way to the betterment of human life.

I think we have to focus on trying to get the United States' circumcision rate down down down. The Jewish American rate, I think, will naturally follow; most Jewish Americans are American first. I use the term:

Jewish American

rather than:

American Jew

specifically to indicate that most Jewish Americans are an ethnic group—they are of Jewish background if you want to use that term or whatever (or Jewish ethnicity), but they are Americans, and if Americans are doing this, that, or the other, [then] most Jewish Americans will do the same thing.

If circumcision rates continue to drop in the United States, [then] Jewish American circumcision rates will also drop. They already are [dropping]; there are many Jews out there who are not accepting circumcision for their children. We think that perhaps 1 in 6 Jewish male babies are not being circumcised—are being left intact—but that's speculation only on the basis of personal experience (talking with people, and so on). So, there are changes taking place in America, and there are changes taking place among Jewish Americans.

The notion that Judaism is a religion and a culture that cannot change doesn't correspond to what we as anthropologists know about cultures. Cultures change. They change constantly in response to individual decision making—to individual will. If we look at any culture anywhere, we see that although basic patterns may remain, all sorts of individual parts of the culture change.

[For instance], Orthodox Jewish men (Hassidic men) are dressing in clothing that is characteristic of the Polish gentry somewhere around the 17th Century; they don't even know that [fact]—[that] there's nothing Jewish about the way they dress. This is purely a cultural development that took place in one part of the Jewish community that really has nothing to do with anything that you can find in biblical or even rabbinic Judaism.

The same holds for circumcision. Certainly, [circumcision has] been [around for a long time]—[though], not since the time of Abraham ([after all], Abraham is a mythical character who never lived). It's been there since approximately 500 BCE [when it was] instituted by priests as a symbol of loyalty to the theocracy that they were creating. So, [circumcision] has been part of Jewish culture for something like 25 hundred years, [but] it has changed over time—the procedure itself has changed over time—and certainly we know that Judaism as a religion has changed immensely over time; there's no reason why at least many of us can't get rid of this abominable custom.

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