The Magazine

From Abraham to America

Answering the question of why we still circumcise our sons.

Sep 25, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 02 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery

by David L. Gollaher

Basic, 260 pp., $ 26

Lately I've been noticing other men's private parts. It's not because I've decided to sample an alternate lifestyle, or because I've felt a new calling to urology. It has all been in a spirit of sociological inquiry, for I've been reading David L. Gollaher's Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery, which claims that some 60.2 percent of American males have undergone the bizarre operation called circumcision.

I had expected the figure to be far higher and decided to conduct an informal study. So for a couple of weeks, after swimming each day at the local pool here on Mercer Island, Washington, I looked around in the public showers of the men's locker room. I saw not a single uncircumcised penis. In a Christian country like ours, where the Jewish obligation to circumcise infant males should be of negligible consequence, some large proportion of newborn boys have the tip of a highly sensitive bodily organ rudely snipped off. What compelling rationale could there be for this? Should more Americans consider letting their sons go uncut?

David Gollaher thinks so. In good, clear, pop-historical prose, he traces the story of circumcision from its earliest recorded appearance in Egypt, around 4000 B.C. Certain mummies from the period have been scanned by X-ray and found to bear signs of the surgery. A funerary bas-relief from 2400 B.C. shows priestly circumcisers doing the deed to young men, some of whom have to be restrained to keep them from fainting or running away. Under one scene a caption has the patient coaching the surgeon to "thoroughly rub off what is there," to which the doctor reassures him, "I will cause it to heal."

Still, it is unlikely that Americans would ever have embraced the surgery were it not for our Old Testament heritage. The patriarch Abraham was the first man ever to be commanded by God to undergo circumcision -- at age ninety-nine and at his own hand, no less.

Over the 3,700 years that followed, Jewish commitment has occasionally faltered. Influenced by classical Greek culture, Hellenized Jews sought to hide or even reverse their circumcisions. (The objection had to do with modesty: In Greek eyes, the exposed glans made the Jewish male look as if he were in a nonstop state of arousal.)

Later Jewish religious radicals likewise sought to dispel the mystique of circumcision. Liberal German rabbis of the nineteenth century saw no reason that a Jew should not look like a German in every detail including his reproductive anatomy.

But out in the pews, ordinary Jews would have none of this particular reform. The ancient habit was retained, along with the Passover seder as the only two consistently observed aspects of biblical ritual among modern-day liberal Jews.

The rationale was never medical. As Maimonides, the medieval Jewish sage and physician, put it: "No one . . . should circumcise himself or his son for any other reason but pure faith." But one of the earliest promoters of circumcision American-style, Dr. Norman H. Chapman, in 1882 called Moses "a good sanitarian" and endorsed the surgery as a "precautionary measure" against a variety of complaints linked with an irritated foreskin, including paralysis and spinal deformity. As a prophylactic measure, circumcision was introduced in 1870 in New York City by that "Columbus of the prepuce," Dr. Lewis A. Sayre.

Since David Gollaher wants to make the case that Americans would be better off if we rejected circumcision, he focuses on the medical reasons for infant circumcision. As Maimonides anticipated, these reasons are pretty weak. The practice certainly offers a defense against irritation and inflammation of the glans. It probably gives some protection from penile cancer, since there is less penis there in which cancer cells may gestate. But penile cancer is an extremely rare condition to begin with.

Some research suggests that circumcised men are less vulnerable to sexually transmitted disease. It's unclear, however, whether this benefit comes more from the operation itself or from good sexual habits like self-restraint and hygiene. Though Gollaher doesn't say so, there also has to be a correlation between circumcision and socioeconomic status, and it figures that children from more privileged backgrounds stand a better chance of learning about how to avoid getting the clap.