Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature

Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature

Mira Balberg
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt5hjj9g
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  • Book Info
    Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature
    Book Description:

    This book explores the ways in which the early rabbis reshaped biblical laws of ritual purity and impurity and argues that the rabbis' new purity discourse generated a unique notion of a bodily self. Focusing on the Mishnah, a Palestinian legal codex compiled around the turn of the third century CE, Mira Balberg shows how the rabbis constructed the processes of contracting, conveying, and managing ritual impurity as ways of negotiating the relations between one's self and one's body and, more broadly, the relations between one's self and one's human and nonhuman environments.With their heightened emphasis on subjectivity, consciousness, and self-reflection, the rabbis reinvented biblically inherited language and practices in a way that resonated with central cultural concerns and intellectual commitments of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean world.Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literatureadds a new dimension to the study of practices of self-making in antiquity by suggesting that not only philosophical exercises but also legal paradigms functioned as sites through which the self was shaped and improved.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95821-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    “From the day the Temple was destroyed there has been no impurity and no purity,” medieval and modern Jewish authors often proclaim,¹ identifying the Roman demolition and burning of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 C.E. as a point of no return, after which the complex array of biblical laws pertaining to ritual purity and impurity became almost entirely inapplicable. According to this prevalent view, to write a book on the ways in which the rabbis of Roman Palestine in the second and third centuries C.E. reinterpreted, reshaped, and reconstructed the biblical concepts of purity and impurity is to...

  5. 1 From Sources of Impurity to Circles of Impurity
    (pp. 17-47)

    The collections of laws in Leviticus 11–15 and Numbers 19, according to which certain creatures, substances, and bodily phenomena constitute sources of ritual impurity, have been daunting to traditional exegetes and modern scholars alike for centuries. The biblical text’s silence as to the principles that govern the rendition of particular things as impure (if any such principles exist), as well as the lack of apparent explanation of the very concept of impurity and its import, posed a significant challenge for interpreters who sought to incorporate the laws of impurity into whatever they perceived to be the general theological or...

  6. 2 Subjecting the Body
    (pp. 48-73)

    A reader who is accustomed to associating the concepts of purity and impurity with states of mind or heart, as one who is versed in Jewish and Christian liturgical or moralistic literature might be, could perhaps be surprised by the extent to which purity and impurity in the Mishnah pertain strictly to material entities. In the Mishnah there is no such thing as impure thoughts or pure intentions, an impure soul or pure love. Rather, the rabbinic realm of impurity consists only of concrete physical objects, visible and palpable, which are made impure through direct physical contact with material sources...

  7. 3 Objects That Matter
    (pp. 74-95)

    One of the more notable features of the rabbinic impurity discourse, to which I have already pointed on several occasions, is the unapologetic presentation of human beings and inanimate objects not only as comparable, but also as interchangeable. Beyond the notion that objects that have come into contact with a human source of impurity sometimes function as if they were this human source itself, we have seen that the Mishnah often couples “person”(adam)and “artifacts”(kelim)¹ together in its accounts of the ways in which impurity is contracted and is ridden of. The parity between humans and artifacts is...

  8. 4 On Corpses and Persons
    (pp. 96-121)

    For the rabbis, as I mentioned in the first chapter, impurity is by definition the ability to makeothersimpure, and to contract impurity from a person or object effectively means to acquire the ability to impart impurity to something or someone else. Accordingly, since impurity can travel well beyond the primary source, every contractor of impurity is also a potential conveyor of impurity, if only in an attenuated degree. Interestingly, the premise that a secondary (and sometime even tertiary) contractor of impurity in turn becomes a source of impurity in and of itself also operates in the reverse direction,...

  9. 5 The Duality of Gentile Bodies
    (pp. 122-147)

    The rabbinic notion that both inanimate objects and body parts must meet certain conditions in order to be able to convey and contract impurity, which I ventured to demonstrate in the last three chapters, oddly turns impurity into something of aprerogative.The ability to be impure is constructed in rabbinic discourse not as an inherent and unchanging trait, but rather as a trait that can only materialize when certain standards are met. In contrast, purity in the Mishnah is the unmarked state: it is the neutral status of that which no longer meets the requirements for impurity or does...

  10. 6 The Pure Self
    (pp. 148-179)

    Throughout this book, I have showed that some of the most central innovations that the rabbis introduce into the biblical impurity system have to do with subjective mindsets and mental processes. I emphasized that the rabbis turned one’s personal investment in an object or even in one’s body parts into a condition for susceptibility to impurity, and thereby remapped the world of purity and impurity through the prism of human consciousness as manifested in processes of thought, intention, deliberation, and contentment. By this point, then, I hope to have persuaded the reader that the rabbis positioned theself,the conscious...

  11. Epilogue: Recomposing Purity and Meaning
    (pp. 180-184)

    This book set out to explore the ways in which the biblical concepts of purity and impurity, and the institutions and practices that pertain to these concepts, were reshaped and reconstructed in the Mishnah around a new focal point, namely, around the self. Throughout this study, I examined some of the critical innovations that the rabbis introduced into the system of purity and impurity that they had inherited from their predecessors, and showed how questions of subjectivity and consciousness profoundly shape the rabbinic discourse on the emergence, discernment, and management of impurity, and on the pursuit of purity. The centrality...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 185-236)
  13. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 237-252)
  14. SUBJECT INDEX
    (pp. 253-256)
  15. SOURCE INDEX
    (pp. 257-266)