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

By Christine E. Hayes | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

This book explores the diverse views of Gentile impurity found in biblical, Second Temple, and rabbinic sources and considers the role such views played in both the rise and development of sectarianism within late antique Jewish society and the regulation of certain Jewish-Gentile interactions through the talmudic period.

In recent years, social scientific scholarship has focused on the varied means by which societies formulate and reinforce some of their most basic cultural concepts, including group identity or self-definition. 1 As Saul Olyan (2000:63) notes, self and other have emerged in one field after another “as inseparable, socially constructed categories subject continuously to challenge and revision. …Through defining the other, a group determines what it is not; in short, it establishes its boundaries. The other is therefore an essential component of any group's project of self-definition. ” Applying these scholarly insights to biblical literature, Olyan points to a set of “discrete, socially constructed, and culturally privileged binary oppositions” that generate social difference in various ancient Israelite contexts (3–4), including those oppositions that mark the boundary between Israelites and others.

Whereas Olyan (2000:63–81), focuses on ethnic polarities (various forms of the dyad Israelite/alien) in his discussion of ancient Israelite constructions of self and other, I emphasize the dyadic pair pure/impure. 2 I argue that in ancient Jewish culture, the paired terms “pure” and “impure” were employed in various ways not only to describe but also to inscribe sociocultural boundaries between Jews and Gentile others. 3 An accurate reconstruction of Jewish attitudes toward, and actual interaction with, non-Jews from the classical period forward is impossible if based on a mistaken perception of Jewish notions of Gentile impurity.

A proper construal of the impurity of Gentiles is of central importance for another reason. As I will argue, purity terminology is employed in biblical texts in three distinct modes. Biblical sources differ regarding the precise mode of impurity connected with Gentiles, and the relationship of impurity to Gentiles remained a point of contention among various Jewish groups throughout the Second Temple period. Different views on the question of Gentile impurity entailed different definitions of group identity and served to construct group boundaries of varying degrees of permeability. Consequently,

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