by Mira Balberg

This guest post is part of a series leading up to the upcoming joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in San Diego. Eight of our authors with recent and forthcoming titles on a range of topics will share the motivations and stories behind their research. We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for a new post every few days between now and November 21st.

When I initially set out to write a book about ritual purity in early rabbinic Judaism, I thought that the allure of the topic lies is in the fact that it is utterly and charmingly irrelevant to the contemporary world. “It’s all so bizarre,” I’d say to anyone who made the grave mistake of asking me about my research. “In the texts I’m reading women go to immerse with coins in their mouths, and babies are raised on the backs of oxen so that they’d never touch the ground, and people agonize over not being able to remember whether the thing they accidentally touched was a lizard or a frog…” I marveled in plunging into a religious world that seemed no longer to exist, and in trying to decipher the intricate logic of hundreds of rules that were once definitive of everyday life and by now have been pretty much abandoned for almost two millennia.

But when I shared with people around me – friends, family, colleagues, and students – some of those rules and intricacies, I was taken aback by the strong opinions and convictions that many of them had regarding the ostensibly obsolete issue of ritual purity. Almost everyone had a theory of what ritual purity is actually about, and by extension, also a clear notion of what my book should actually be about:

“It’s about hygiene, it’s as simple as that,” said my father, who is a scientist. “Your rabbis simply used terms like ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ to scare people into washing their hands and avoiding corpses and sick people.”

“It comes from hatred to the body,” another friend, who has a penchant for psychoanalysis, told me. “The rabbis respond to everything that comes out of the body or into contact with the body like it’s dangerous.”

“Quite the opposite!” protested an esteemed professor in my field. “It’s not out of contempt for the body but out of appreciation of the body, it’s like poetry of the body.”

And one student, particularly exasperated, angrily got up and said: “Do you really not get it? It is all metaphorical! It’s about the soul and its relations with God.”

Initially, I would protest when such comments came up, and try to explain that I don’t think ritual purity (or any other form of religious observance) is “about” only one thing and that we can really recover its “true meaning.” But after some time I realized that these conversations were teaching me something very valuable: they taught me why and how purity continues to matter to people even when it is a merely a theoretical issue, and that religious language pertaining to flesh, blood, skin, water, sex, and food touches people in a way that abstract talk of afterlife and goodness and redemption often does not. To the dismay of my conversation partners, the question that underlies my book is not “what does purity mean?” But it is thanks to them that the question that does underlie it came to be “how does purity become meaningful?”

Mira Balberg is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.


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