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Purity, Body, and Self in Early Rabbinic Literature

DR. S Mira Balberg

Publication Year: 2014

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 Literature adds 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.

Published by: University of California Press

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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book owes its existence to the mentorship, guidance, and advice of many teachers, colleagues, and friends. The study presented here is based on my doctoral dissertation, which was written at Stanford University under the tutelage of my doktormutter, Charlotte Fonrobert. Charlotte’s advising, which was as kind and...

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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...

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1. From Sources of Impurity to Circles of Impurity

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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...

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2. Subjecting the Body

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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...

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3. Objects That Matter

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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...

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4. On Corpses and Persons

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pp. 96-121

For the rabbis, as I mentioned in the first chapter, impurity is by definition the ability to make others impure, 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...

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5. The Duality of Gentile Bodies

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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 a prerogative. The ability to be impure is constructed in rabbinic discourse not as...

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6. The Pure Self

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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...

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Epilogue: Recomposing Purity and Meaning

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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...


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pp. 185-236


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pp. 237-252

Subject Index

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pp. 253-256

Source Index

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pp. 257-265

E-ISBN-13: 9780520958210
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520280632

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2014