was brought up in a Christian home and was raised on the stories of the Bible. I went to Sunday School and listened to sermons and considered myself to be fairly biblically literate. One thing that was never explained to me, though, was the complicated and confusing system of ritual purity that plays such an important role in Scripture. Ritual purity was never explained to me in college either, where I majored in Biblical and Theological Studies, and it was passed over in silence in seminary. Such neglect gives the impression that ritual purity must not be important.
I suspect that I am not the only biblically-minded person who was never formally introduced to ritual purity. Without a formal introduction, ritual purity can appear to be arbitrary and irrational and therefore meaningless. There is also a theological hurdle that has to be overcome. Christians are often taught that the New Covenant has abolished the old code with its laws and regulations and therefore there is no point to learning about what is now obsolete. But it is arrogant and dangerous to dismiss something before understanding it, especially when ritual purity forms part of the cultural context within which Jesus lived and taught. For those who care to understand Jesus’ life and message, having a grasp on ritual purity is necessary. Without understanding it, it is impossible to assess Jesus’ attitude toward ritual purity.
In this “Goy’s Guide to Ritual Purity” I will not address Jesus’ attitude toward ritual purity. Instead, I want to take the prior necessary step of exploring what ritual purity actually is. I call it a “Goy’s Guide” because mine is an outsider’s view. I have not experienced ritual purity from within. This guide is necessarily simplistic and can only give a foundation for further study. I cannot, for example, discuss the differing approaches to ritual purity that developed in the Second Temple Period and thereafter. Those differing approaches are important, but first it is necessary to get a handle on the basics.
A Different Worldview
The concept of ritual purity is perhaps one of the most difficult concepts in the Bible for people to grasp today. Whereas in many “traditional” societies the concept of ritual purity was (and is) taken for granted in daily life, the whole framework for the concept of ritual purity is totally foreign to the secular western mindset. But understanding ritual purity is important if one wishes to comprehend the assumptions and presuppositions of the people mentioned in the Bible.
Understanding ritual purity requires an open mind and a willingness to accept that the ideas and categories we work with today are not the only valid ways of looking at the world. Those who are willing to thus broaden their outlook will be rewarded with a new appreciation for an aspect of the biblical worldview.
When the biblical system of ritual purity is carefully examined, it is seen to be practical, rational, and filled with theological content. Important theological categories such as atonement cannot be properly understood without grasping the biblical system of ritual purity. This fact alone proves that ritual purity should not be dismissed as irrelevant. Even more important than its theological content, however, is the way ritual purity opens our minds to a different way of looking at the world. I consider it to be an important task to understand, accept, and sometimes to share the biblical worldview.
- Jonathan Klawans, “The Impurity of Immorality in Ancient Judaism,” Journal of Jewish Studies 48.1 (1997): 1-16.
- Jonathan Klawans, “Concepts of Purity in the Bible,” in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 2041-2047.
- Thomas Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2010).
- Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).