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

By Christine E. Hayes | Go to book overview

6
Gentiles and Ritual Impurity in Rabbinic Sources

Part I examined the application to Gentiles of various modes of impurity in biblical and Second Temple sources. I noted that different notions of Gentile impurity were correlated to widely different definitions of Israelite-Jewish group identity and the permeability of group boundaries in Second Temple times. Part II examines the application to Gentiles of various modes of impurity in rabbinic sources. I show that the rabbinic conception of Gentile impurity is likewise correlated to the rabbinic definition of Jewish group identity and the permeability of group boundaries through intermarriage and conversion.

The first order of business must be to correct decades of erroneous scholarship on the question of Gentile ritual impurity in rabbinic sources—a task to which the current chapter is dedicated. Chapter 7 turns to the rabbinic attribution of moral impurity to Gentiles and the implications of this attribution for rabbinic attitudes toward intermarriage and interethnic sexual unions. Chapter 8 considers the notion of Gentiles and genealogical impurity in rabbinic texts as determinative of rabbinic attitudes toward conversion.

The rabbinic system of purity and impurity, for all its extension and elaboration of biblical tradition, is clearly based on the central axioms of the biblical system. 1 This means that the rabbis accept the following premises: No Israelite or Gentile is intrinsically pure or impure; ritual impurity and moral impurity are distinct modes of impurity; and ritual impurity is a contingent state for humans, depending on certain physical substances or processes. Furthermore, although the rabbis maintain that all humans are subject to moral impurity, arising from certain basic immoral acts, they assert that according to Torah law only God's covenantal partners—Israelites and converts—are subject to ritual impurity from the physical states detailed in Lev 12–15. 2

The rabbis draw a distinction, however, between that which derives from the authority of the Torah and that which does not. 3 Torah law enjoys a primary and supreme legal status. By contrast, rabbinic law—a term used to describe all posttoraitic law, including enactments attributed to the prophets, to Ezra and the fabled “Men of the Great Assembly, ” and of course to the rabbis themselves—possesses a lower level of authority and cannot in theory overturn provisions of Torah law. Concerning Gentiles and ritual

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