This volume was born of an encounter with a single talmudic text. In the course of my study of Talmud many years ago, I came upon b. AZ 36b, which contains the report of a rabbinic decree that ascribes ritual impurity to Gentiles. How is it, I wondered, that I have never observed the operation of a principle of Gentile ritual impurity in the Hebrew Bible or in the vast majority of the laws that regulate interaction between Jews and Gentiles in rabbinic literature? I dug a little deeper and soon realized that I had stumbled on a complex and widely misunderstood issue, one to which I hoped someday to return.
Return I did. What I thought would be a short and relatively simple study of the history of the principle of Gentile ritual impurity turned out to be a rather long and complex study of the history of Jewish identity and the access of Gentiles to that identity. My exploration of Gentile impurity (or, as I soon learned, impurities) led me to surprising new insights into the origins of sectarianism in the Second Temple period and the range of late antique Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage and conversion.
I have benefited enormously from the resources and faculty at Yale University and express here my gratitude for a Morse Research Fellowship, which relieved me of teaching duties and so enabled me to complete this volume in a timely fashion. Several of the ideas and selected portions of this work were presented at conferences held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Melton Center of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I would like to thank the conference attendees for helpful comments and criticisms. Chapter 4 is a revised version of my article “Intermarriage and Impurity in Ancient Jewish Sources, ” Harvard Theological Review 92:1 (1999), 3–36, and chapters 6 and 7 are revised versions of my article “Palestinian Rabbinic Attitudes to Intermarriage in Historical and Cultural Context, ” in Jewish Culture and Society under the Christian Roman Empire, eds. R. Kalmin and S. Schwartz (Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 3; Leuven: Peeters, 2002).
Many scholars have directly and indirectly provided the training and scholarly example necessary for such an undertaking, and I acknowledge with gratitude their contributions to my research while reserving to myself sole responsibility for any errors within it. Some of these scholars have been my teachers, some my interlocuters; still others have influenced me primarily through their writings. They are Jacob Milgrom,