Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians

Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians

Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians

Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol between Jews and Christians

Synopsis

Blood contains extraordinary symbolic power in both Judaism and Christianity--as the blood of sacrifice, of Jesus, of the Jewish martyrs, of menstruation, and more. Yet, though they share the same literary, cultural, and religious origins, on the question of blood the two religions have followed quite different trajectories. For instance, while Judaism rejects the eating or drinking of blood, Christianity mandates its symbolic consumption as a central sacrament. How did these two traditions, both originating in the Hebrew Bible's cult of blood sacrifices, veer off in such different directions? With his characteristic wit and erudition, David Biale traces the continuing, changing, and often clashing roles of blood as both symbol and substance through the entire sweep of Jewish and Christian history from Biblical times to the present.

Excerpt

Shortly before this book went to press, a distinguished Italian Jewish historian, Ariel Toaff, published a book entitled Pasque di Sangue: Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali (Passovers of Blood: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murder). Toaff speculates that some Ashkenazic Jews in northeastern Italy may have actually killed Christian children for their blood, motivated in part by a desire for revenge and in part by the practice of using human blood for medicinal purposes. An enormous controversy broke out and forced the author to suspend new printings of his book until he could incorporate some clarifications.

While there is little doubt that the Jews, like other people in the Middle Ages, believed that human blood had medicinal value, there is no real evidence (apart from confessions obtained under torture) either that they committed murder to obtain such blood or that such alleged practices—if they ever existed—had the sanction of ritual. But the fact that an argument about events five hundred years ago could occasion such heated polemics—Toaff was the target of death threats and calls for his removal from his professorship at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University— demonstrates that the relationship between Jews and blood remains as controversial and compelling today as it was in the past.

From the role of blood in the biblical sacrifices to the rituals of circumcision and the Passover meal, the Jewish religion has always invested the greatest symbolic meaning in the red “juice of life.” Perhaps for that reason, the blood libel—the accusation that Jews use Gentile . . .

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