Decircumcision: The First Aesthetic Surgery

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Modern Judaism 17.3 (1997) 201-210

The distinction between reconstructive and aesthetic surgery is haunted by the specter of race. Arising in the mid-19th century, this split signifies the line between “real” medicine and surgical quackery — at least according to contemporaries. The roots of this dichotomy lie in the anxiety about the visibility of the Jew in the Diaspora. Does the Jew look different than everyone else? And is this outer difference a reflection of an inner deviance? The focus on the Jewish nose in the physiognomic discussion occurring after the work of the Swiss physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) is associated with anxiety about the penis within Sigmund Freud’s system of human psychology. For Freud and his contemporaries who focused on universals of difference, a bleeding nose as a sign of male periodicity seemed a natural universalization to the myth about the meaning of the Jewish nose, as well as that ascribed to the myth of Jewish male menstruation which haunted the medical literature of Europe. In other contexts I have dealt with this question and with Freud’s response to it. Jewish sexuality, as represented by the practice of infant male circumcision, became the touchstone for debates about Jewish social practices as the cause of the biological differences of the Jew. The act of circumcision was seen to set the male Jew’s body off from that of his neighbors to the largest degree (from a European perspective.) It is important to note, however, that the fear and unhappiness about the botched nose job becomes a symbolic place for the displacement about the circumcised penis which defines the Jewish male as the “Jew” at the turn of the century.

This anxiety was but the continuation of an older response to the Western critique of circumcision as a sign of the process of Jewish self-isolation and resulting feminization. Circumcision of the penis became the outward sign of the immutability of the Jew within it, and marked the Jewish body as different. Even Jewish thinkers such as Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), in a passage often cited and commented on in the 19th century, labeled circumcision as the primary reason for the survival of the Jews: “They have incurred universal hatred by cutting themselves off completely from all other peoples.” Circumcision also made the Jewish male “effeminate” and, thus, unlikely to assume a political role in the future.

The repair of such a damaged masculinity could only be undertaken through medical science. The response was to operate, and the operation was one that clearly had aesthetic implications for the Jewish body. The nose job was one procedure that certainly had its origin in the desire to “pass,” but the practice of foreskin restoration, also known as posthioplasty, epispasm, decircumcision, or preputioplasty, also reappeared at the turn of the century. Such procedures can be understood as “reconstructive”; they rebuild the prepuce that has been removed from the infant shortly after birth; they can also be understood as “aesthetic”; they restore the invisibility of the body. In both cases, they remedy the “unhappiness” of the patient. Indeed, such questions of reconstruction or aesthetic improvement are raised even in the total reconstruction of the penis after it is amputated. The American aesthetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz (1899-1975) describes his procedure for the construction of a new penis out of a tubed-pedicle graft in a 1946 textbook. After two or three weeks, the new penis was detached from the wall of the abdomen and “a cosmetic procedure [was] carried out to the tip of the ‘new’ penis” to make it look like — a circumcised or an uncircumcised penis? That Maltz does not tell us.

A classical model for such operations was evoked by American physicians at the turn of the century. The Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus (25 b.c.e.-50 a.d.) had recorded two surgical procedures for elongating or replicating the male foreskin. In the first, the foreskin was stretched, the skin at the root of the penis was incised, and the stretched skin held with a band until it remained in place; the second, intended for men who had been circumcised, was a procedure in…