BMCR 2004.12.06

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

, Gentile impurities and Jewish identities : intermarriage and conversion from the Bible to the Talmud. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xiii, 309 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0195151208. $45.00.

In this important book, Christine Hayes explores how the impurities of Gentiles were understood in the Hebrew Bible and early Jewish literature. One of her main arguments is that the “didactic pair” of pure/impure was used both to describe Jewish culture and to inscribe socio-cultural boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. H. focuses on ancient debates over conversion and intermarriage. In her view, these debates reflect different ideas about Gentile impurity and were key factors in the formation of Jewish sects in the Second Temple period (536 BCE- 70CE) as well as in the separation of Christianity from what became Rabbinic Judaism.

In chapter one, H. provides a brief summary of past scholarship on distinct types of purity in the Hebrew Bible, focusing on the work of A. Büchler, G. Alon and especially J. Klawans. Past research has considered biblical and early Jewish purity laws in terms of two main categories: ritual and moral. Ritual impurity includes defilements arising from typically unavoidable impurities such as birth, death, sex, disease and other circumstances that reflect the conditions of normal life. The consequence of this type of impurity is lack of contact with the sacred. These impurities, however, are by nature impermanent and can be reversed through procedures of purification. Moral impurity results from immoral acts such as sexual sins, idolatry, and bloodshed. This type of impurity can only be remedied through repentance and punishment.

H’s major contribution is refining this two-fold analysis by suggesting a third category, namely genealogical impurity. She argues that this concept is important for understanding early Jewish self-definition and the perceived boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. H’s analysis of biblical and early Jewish concepts of genealogical impurity serves to refute the widely held view that ancient Jewish sources ban intermarriage because of a fear of contracting ritual impurity through physical contact with Gentiles. Contrary to the scholarly consensus, H. argues that Gentiles were not considered ritually impure either intrinsically or conditionally, nor were they depicted as a source of defilement in biblical, Second Temple or Rabbinic Jewish literature.

H. outlines the core of her argument in chapter two, focusing particularly on genealogical impurity. She defines this concept in terms of a concern with the purity of blood and thus characterizes it as a “racial ideology” (p. 27). H. argues that genealogical impurity, unlike ritual and moral, is seen as an intrinsic impurity that cannot be removed by either conversion or intermarriage. The only solution to genealogical impurity is to forbid or remove foreign spouses in order to prevent the birth of mixed and hence impure offspring.

H. develops this argument by analysing the priestly sources of the Pentateuch (esp. Lev 12-15). In her reading, biblical law connects the ritual purity system directly with Israel’s unique covenant with God such that its requirements do not apply to Gentiles. In other words, Gentiles cannot be rendered ritually impure by failing to live up to the rules outlined in the Pentateuch. In support, H. cites biblical traditions about Gentiles residing among Israelites in the holy land (e.g. Josh 6:25) and entering into the covenant community of Israel through intermarriage and voluntary acceptance of covenantal terms (e.g. Num 15:13-16). H. suggests that Gentiles are subject only to biblical laws about moral purity; they can engage in sinful acts (esp. Lev 18 and 20), but they are also capable of participating in activities such as renouncing idolatry and immorality in order to gain entrance into Jewish communities. Due to these biblical precedents, the potential obstacles to conversion in early Judaism are never ritual, possibly moral but often genealogical. In the Pentateuch, the genealogical impurity of Gentiles is a concern only for the Jewish priesthood; marriages between Jews and non-Jews are thus possible. Ezra and Nehemiah, however, promote the idea of all Israel as a “holy seed.” Accordingly, they prohibit intermarriage for all Jews. Ezra’s innovation, in H’s view, was to take the levitical notion of priests as holy seed and extend it to the whole Israelite community. It was due to his influence that some later Jews construed Jewish identity so as to entail a ban on interethnic relations.

In chapters three and four, H. traces these ideas through a variety of Second Temple Jewish sources, including texts from the Apocrypha (Tobit, Wisdom of Ben Sira, Epistle of Jeremiah, 1 and 2 Maccabees), Pseudepigrapha (1 Enoch, Jubilees, 3 Maccabees, 3rd and 5th Sibylline Oracles, Testament of Levi), the Dead Sea Scrolls (War Scroll, Community Rule, 4QFlorilegium, Miqtsat Ma’aseh haTorah), and the works of Josephus and Philo. H. holds that there is strong biblical influence on Second Temple literature; here too Gentile impurity is potentially moral but never ritual. In respect to genealogical impurity, H. argues for a distinction between different texts. Like the Pentateuch, Josephus and Philo seem not to see non-Jewish genealogy as an obstacle to conversion. By contrast, Jubilees and 4QFlorilegium build on Ezra’s concept of “holy seed;” for their authors, true conversion of Gentiles is impossible and intermarriage unacceptable.

Chapter four looks specifically at Jubilees and Miqsat Ma’aseh Torah (4QMMT), two texts which, in H’s view, prohibit intermarriage as a result of Ezran influence. H. contends that these two sources treat the preservation of Israel’s seed from profanity as so important that marriage with Gentiles — converted or unconverted — is impossible. Nevertheless, H. maintains that ritual impurity was never the rationale for the prohibition of interethnic marriages in Second Temple Judaism. She suggests that the two types of impurity associated with intermarriage in the Hebrew Bible (moral and genealogical) continue to serve as the basis for post-biblical prohibitions of intermarriage.

The first half of H’s book ends with a brief chapter (ch. 5) on the views of marriages between Christian and non-Christians in the letters of Paul and the writings of selected Church Fathers (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Jerome). In her reading of Paul, mixed marriages are identified as a sexual sin, as porneia (the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew zenut). In H’s view, this ideology is rooted directly in Ezra and related Second Temple Jewish traditions; the criterion of genealogy, however, has here been replaced by the criterion of belief. Inasmuch as these sources make marriage contingent on the conversion of the non-Christian spouse, they adapt the “holy seed” motif with a new focus on the defilement of the holy flesh of an individual. To describe the shift in early Christian understandings of impurity, which H. already sees as developing in Paul’s writing, she adds a fourth category, namely, “carnal impurity.” An extension of moral impurity, it can be transmitted physically to other persons and is linked to the body (p.92). H. argues that concept of “carnal impurity” is developed in Paul’s work and is continued by the Church Fathers.

The second half of H’s book focuses mainly on the discourse about Gentile impurities in rabbinic Judaism and treats a wide range of tannaitic and amoraic sources. Although rabbinic texts look to Scripture for allusions and analogies to guide their construction of Gentile ritual impurity, H. stresses that the rabbis never claim a biblical basis for their ideas about the ritual impurity of Gentiles. In her view, there is a self-conscious innovation on the part of the rabbis with regard to their ideologies on Gentile impurities and Jewish identities.

Much of this section is devoted to a discussion of m. Pesahim 8:8, the source most often used to argue for a rabbinic concept of the intrinsic ritual impurity of Gentiles. Taking on scholars like Büchler and Alon, H. argues that m. Pesahim 8:8 does not point to an early tannaitic acceptance of an ancient principle of Gentile ritual impurity. In her view, the rabbis, consistent with the Pentateuch, understood Gentiles to be exempt from biblical laws of ritual impurity.

In the last section of this chapter, H. discusses the ritual impurity of idols, with the aim of refuting Alon’s assertion that Gentile ritual impurity is a pre-rabbinic halakhah rooted in the impurity of idols. Alon relates the three ways that idols can be impure to the three types of Gentile impurities in rabbinic texts: sherets (the carcasses of swarming creatures, such as insects, reptiles and fish), zav (abnormal genital flux), and corpse. H., by contrast, argues that only zav impurity is attributed to Gentiles by the rabbis. She also stresses that the idea of the ritual impurity of idols is a rabbinic innovation rather than a pentateuchal tradition. Therefore, this rationale could not serve as the basis for a pre-rabbinic principle of Gentile ritual impurity. In addition, she contends that the rabbinic decrees about Gentile ritual impurity were not intended to establish an impermeable boundary between Jews and Gentiles.

The final two chapters focus on intermarriage and conversion. H. rightly acknowledges a distinction between Second Temple and rabbinic literature: unlike Jubilees and related texts, rabbinic sources deny that the ban on interethnic marriages finds its origins in biblical sources (ch.7). In H’s reading, the rabbis permitted intermarriage with a converted Gentile and believed that the prohibition of marriage to unconverted Gentiles is not rooted in the Bible (with the single exception of the seven Canaanite nations mentioned in Deut 7:3-4). Moreover, the rabbis did not view the threat of impurity as an effective deterrent for persons inclined to interethnic liaisons. Rather, the discourse about Gentile impurities was an attempt by the rabbis to dissociate themselves from the “holy seed” rhetoric of Ezra and the Second Temple Jewish groups that developed his views. Rabbinic sources that discourage intermarriages do so only on the basis of a concern for the moral and/or religious dangers posed to the Jewish spouse. Intermarriage is discouraged because it may lead to the worship of other gods or to the neglect of dietary laws; it was not deemed defiling in and of itself.

The eighth chapter explores rabbinic traditions concerning the impact of genealogical impurity on converts and their offspring. Here too, H. sees the rabbis as breaking with Ezra and Second Temple Jewish sects. In her view, their demand for “priestly requirement of genealogical purity” (p. 164) had much to do with their concept of genealogy. The concern for genealogy served two purposes: (1) to protect against violations of biblical marriage laws for priests and (2) to observe the biblical prohibition against the appointment of foreigners to positions of authority. Neither purpose is related to the preservation of “holy seed.” H. thus argues that the rabbinic period was marked by the attempt to narrow the gap between native-born and non-native Jews.

H. concludes by offering insights on the impact of her findings on early Jewish sectarianism. She defines genealogical impurity as the “distinguishing characteristic of Jewish identity” (p.193) and surveys the adoption of this ideology in biblical, Second Temple, and rabbinic sources. She argues that different views on genealogical filiation led to division within Judaism. What she sees as an inevitable break between Jews and Christians was aided by Ezran ideologies that denied Jewish identity to non-native Jews and converts:

… for the first time, the Jewish community was confronted with persons who met none of the requirements of Jewish identity: neither the sufficient condition of genealogical filiation nor the condition of moral-religious conversion as signalled by circumcision and observance of Jewish law. By no definition, then, could such persons lay claim to Jewish identity — certainly not by those espousing an Ezran concern for genealogy and not even by tannaitic rabbis, who required, at the very least, the adoption of Jewish religious practices. And so, a new religion was born (p. 198).

H’s book is extremely insightful, thought-provoking, and thoroughly convincing in many respects. Her discussion of genealogical impurity contributes much to the study of Jewish purity laws as well as to our understanding of Jewish views of non-Jews. In light of her concluding comments on the break between Judaism and Christianity, one might have hoped for more treatment of Christianity beyond the Pauline literature and selected Patristic writings. For instance, in Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender (Stanford 2000), Charlotte Fonrobert profitably compares rabbinic literature with the Didascalia Apostolorum, a third-century guide for church discipline that exhibits a sharp concern for issues of purity.

In any case, this book is a superb piece of scholarship. H. here offers a new perspective on the phenomenon of Jewish sectarianism in the Second Temple period, early Jewish self-identification, and Jewish relationships with non-Jews. At times H’s halakhic discussions can be difficult to follow, yet, overall, her book is extremely well researched, skilfully argued, and articulately written. Particularly helpful are her detailed discussion of debates in the appendix and her accessible glossary. Readers interested in purity laws, Jewish and Christian self-definition, and relations between Jews and Gentiles will benefit greatly from H’s careful study.