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According to biblical theology, God is the Source of Life. The God of Israel embodies life, and only the living can praise God Psalms For many years, I have relished any opportunity to teach about the biblical purity system and the powerful purification ritual of the mikveh. However, year after year, I am challenged by the most paradoxical case of impurity in Leviticus. Parshat Tazria declares that a mother becomes impure following childbirth:.


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Why would a mother contract impurity upon bringing new life into the world if impurity is the result of the symbolic forces of death? Each time I read Leviticus 12, I consider the available responses to these persistent questions. There are several compelling suggestions. First, childbirth in the ancient Near East was fraught with danger to the mother and high infant morality rates.

Thus, every childbirth was an encounter with potential death. Secondly, the pregnant woman is a vessel of abundant life. Following delivery, the mother experiences a loss of this powerful presence of life within. Her discharge of life leaves a void and creates the ritual necessity for purification. While neither of these answers perfectly reconciles the impurity of childbirth within the symbolic system, they both address the experience of childbirth as a nexus point between life and death.

In light of recent events, I have contemplated another possible explanation for the impurity of childbirth.

Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism : Jonathan Klawans :

Each birth brings another fragile, mortal being into the universe. In our precarious world, this reality quickly comes into sharp focus. Herein lies one explanation for the double period of impurity following the birth of a female child. The baby girl embodies the potential to one day bear another new life.

Each life that is brought into the world will also bring another death.

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Perhaps the laws of Leviticus 12 respond to the conflicting emotions of any new parent. A new birth brings joy and trepidation, awe and fear. A new parent has faith in the potential for life, yet dreads the possibility of death.

The biblical purity system proclaims that our confrontations with the temporal nature of life leave a deep spiritual imprint — from conception to birth to illness to death. At every stage in life, we acknowledge and ritualize our encounters with death. Since impurity and holiness are antonyms in the priestly system, impurity is to be equated with death and holiness with life. The symbolic system enjoins the Israelites to separate impurity from God and his sanctuary as the quintessential source of holiness.

Thus, according to Milgrom, it serves as a reminder of the divine imperative to reject death and choose life. However, aside from the concept of ritual purity, biblical law elsewhere and prophetic literature — most prominently Ezekiel — draw on the concept of purity in ways that extend beyond the functional, ritual context. In a number of prophetic and poetic passages, it has a clearly metaphoric function e.

Such behavior includes the sexual transgressions listed in the Holiness Code Lv. The reference point for these "impurities" is not merely the Temple.

Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism

Rather, such acts impose impurity upon the perpetrator Lv. However, neither the land nor the sanctuary is rendered impure by direct or indirect contact. Rather, their impurity is the cumulative, spiritual consequence of the behavior deemed to be reprehensible. In these legal contexts and in the prophetic reproach, the rhetoric is clearly punitive: the individual perpetrator s will be "cut off" from their people Lv.

Therefore I do punish its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out her inhabitants" Lv. Finally, none of these texts provide any overt process of purification.

Idolatry, Incest, and Impurity: Moral Defilement in Ancient Judaism

Only Ezekiel envisions the future ingathering of the exiles in the terms of a divine purification of the people Ezek. The tension between the conception of impurity in the priestly source and the Holiness Code and Ezekiel has caused considerable debate, particularly in biblical scholarship on the ritual purity system, since any analysis of the nature of the ritual purity system depends on the way the relationship between the ritual purity system and those other uses of purity terminology are defined.

At the same time, it has provided a fertile ground for the adaptation of the language and conceptualization of purity and purification in post-biblical Jewish literature and later Jewish religiosity. For the sake of conceptual clarity we will briefly review the former, before describing the latter. Jacob Neusner's approach in The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism can be found on one end of the scale in that he considers the two to have a metaphorical relationship.

Purity and impurity are primarily "cultic matters," but can serve as metaphors for moral religious behavior, even though in some post-biblical Jewish formations Qumran, rabbis transgressive behavior may serve as a source for actual pollution. Milgrom, however, recognizes the defiling force of sinful behavior and develops a specific description of the process by which various types of transgressions render the sanctuary impure.

To Milgrom, in Leviticus 1 — 16 , the defiling force on transgression is concentrated on the sanctuary, and the reference point for purification remains to be the sanctuary "Israel's Sanctuary". While individuals have to bring purification-offerings during the course of the year for inadvertent transgressions Lv.

Early in the twenty-first century, Klawans has taken issue with these prevailing theories in biblical and rabbinic scholarship. He insists on a categorical distinction between "ritual" and "moral" impurity which each have their distinct defiling forces. These two categories can be correlated to the different approaches the priestly source and the Holiness Code and related texts take in biblical law.

Contra Neusner, moral impurity is not merely a metaphorical concept, and contra Milgrom, he focuses on those transgressive behaviors deemed to cause impurity to the land and not merely the sanctuary. Klawans emphatically rejects the idea that the concept of the defilement of the land Lv. Rather, the performance of sexual transgressions defiles the sinner and the land upon which the sins are committed.

This defilement is understood to be moral, and what is conveyed is a permanent degradation of status. In Impurity and Sin in Ancient Judaism , Klawans views moral and ritual impurity as two analogous, but distinct, perceptions of contagion, each of which brings about effects of legal and social consequence. It should be added that Christine E. Hayes builds on Klawans and introduces one additional category of impurity in the biblical and post-biblical literature in her work Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud.

Taking a similar history-of-idea approach, she traces the notion of genealogical purity in biblical and post-biblical literature. The innovative moment with regard to this category lies with Ezra and Nehemiah who extend the requirement of genealogical purity to all Israelites, beyond the priestly groups as in the Pentateuch and Ezekiel. A terminological shift occurs in these books according to which priestly exogamy is no longer described as profanation but as defilement Neh. In this genealogical context, the term "pure" comes to mean unalloyed or free of admixture, notes Hayes, and Nehemiah accomplishes purification by separating the Israelites from the foreign wives.

She notes that while moral impurity defiles the land, the sanctuary, and the sinner, it is not said to impair ones seed in any way, as in the case of exogamy. Hayes argues therefore that these differences should caution against adopting the view that Ezra's concern for the holy seed of Israel as simply an extension of the concept of moral impurity. Both Klawans and Hayes argue that different views of their respective categories of impurity are at the root of Jewish sectarianism during the period of the Second Temple.


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Various Jewish groups during the last two centuries bce and first century ce draw on the conceptualization of purity for boundary making purposes, among them prominently the sectarians who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. On the one hand, these sectarians make use of ritual purity laws to differentiate themselves from other Jews, by adding more laws and interpreting some laws differently as for instance in the scroll Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-torah 4 QMMT. But furthermore, they also conflate the differences between what were different types of discourse in biblical law.

In the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls moral transgressions are considered to have a polluting force and the technical ritual language in the priestly source of biblical law is applied to moral transgressions. Even more significantly, repentance and atonement require actual ritual purification, as reflected for instance in the Rule of the Community.

One can also speak of a literalization of what in biblical literature appeared to operate as a metaphor, when prophetic and poetic passages draw on the terminology of purity and purification to illustrate their notion of atonement.

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Early Rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, by and large adheres to the conceptualization of purity reflected in the priestly source of the Bible. To be sure, it does champion the concept of the cumulative polluting effect of moral transgressions on the land and the punitive theological consequences.

But this appears as a trope mostly in homiletic contexts and in the context of biblical interpretation, while it does play no role in the context of legal discussions. However, the legal development and talmudic discussions of purity laws atrophy, and the codification of the laws of ritual impurity as reflected in later legal codes e. As mentioned above, this is the only subject of the mishnaic "Order of Purities" to receive a talmudic discussion.

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The ongoing interest of the rabbinic scholars in the subject is warranted by the continuous applicability of at least some of its aspects, prominently the unconditional prohibition of menstrual sex in the Holiness Code. It is this prohibition that perpetuates the interest in the legal discussions of menstrual impurity. At the same time, even in this context most of the impurity rules have become irrelevant and therefore inapplicable in the absence of the Temple, according to Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert in Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender.