Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud

By Christine E. Hayes | Go to book overview

7
Gentiles and Moral Impurity:
Rabbinic Attitudes to Intermarriage

The rabbinic attitude to interethnic unions with Gentiles of all stripes—converted and unconverted-differs greatly from that espoused by Ezra and the related Second Temple sources examined in chapter 4. The rabbis deny a universal Pentateuchal prohibition against intermarriage (the mixing of distinct genealogical seeds). As a result, they accept the phenomenon of conversion, they recognize marriage between converts and Israelites, and in many ways they work to enhance the halakhic (legal) status of the convert. In chapter 8, I focus on rabbinic discussions of the personal status of converts and their offspring. Despite some local variation, the consistent trend toward equity for converts reveals a steady weakening of the notion of genealogical purity among talmudic rabbis. 1

In this chapter, I examine the rabbinic approach to interethnic unions in order to gain an appreciation of its divergence from the approach advanced in Ezra and related sources, as well as its divergence from the approach taken by Paul and later Christian writers (examined in chapter 5). I argue that the rabbis' emphasis on moral rather than genealogical purity as the essential defining component of Jewish identity leads them to establish a more permeable group boundary, one that tolerates penetration by “morally pure” (i.e., converted) Gentiles. In addition, because of their strict compartmentalization of moral and ritual impurity (see chapter 6), the rabbis do not vilify intergroup sexual relations as communicating a moral defilement to the very body, or flesh of the Jewish partner (in the manner of Paul's carnal impurity).

The rabbinic view of the prohibition of intermarriage differs from that of Jubilees and 4QMMT in both its scope and its rationale. My discussion of the rabbinic data in this chapter focuses on b. AZ 36b, often utilized as a source for reconstructing early rabbinic attitudes toward intermarriage. On the basis of this passage, various scholars have argued that (1) early rabbis were divided over the scope of the biblical prohibition of intermarriage (i.e., whether intermarriage is partially or universally prohibited by the Torah) and (2) a primary rabbinic rationale for the prohibition of intermarriage was the fear of contracting ritual impurity from Gentiles. 2

I argue that this account of rabbinic attitudes toward intermarriage requires significant revision in two primary ways—and here I state my conclusions up front. First, concerning the scope of the biblical ban on intermarriage, close analysis of the sources indicates greater

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