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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Purity Disputes in Ancient Judaism

Disputes among Jews with regard to the nature and force of the purity laws are in evidence throughout the Second Temple period. Purity debates among Pharisees and Sadducees are preserved in the Mishnah (m. Yad. 4:6–7), and heightened concerns with purity are also characteristic of the sectarian literature discovered at Qumran. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we find stricter rules concerning ritual impurity in the Temple Scroll, and stricter rules concerning moral impurity in, especially, the Community Rule. Early Christianity was characterized, among other things, by a heightened interest in certain aspects of moral purity over and against a reduced focus on ritual purity (e.g., Mark 7.1–23 ). The Rabbis, in contrast, exerted much more effort in discussing the rules of ritual purity (to which much of the Mishnah is devoted), while exhibiting relatively little interest in moral defilement (but see Sifra on Lev. 18.24–30 ).

One purity dispute in particular is already reflected in the early Second Temple period, and the documents pertaining to the dispute can be found within the Bible. During the Persian period, both Ezra and Nehemiah confronted situations in which a number of the Jews had married local non‐Jewish women. Both Ezra and Nehemiah urged the dissolution of these marriages (Ezra 9.1–10.44; Neh. 13.23–31 ). It is rather clear that purity in some form was at issue. Terms of defilement are used with reference to the problem (Ezra 6.21; 9.1, 11–14 ), and the proposed solution— divorce—is referred to as a purification (Neh. 13.30 ). This has led many scholars to the view that these books considered the foreign wives to be ritually impure, presumably as the result of their status as Gentiles. The passages in question, however, echo not the Priestly traditions relating to ritual impurity, but the Holiness Collection traditions relating to moral impurity: What is being said here by Ezra, Nehemiah, and their supporters is that the foreign women are in an inherent state of moral defilement and that inevitably the defilement will be passed to their progeny as well.

The view of Ezra and Nehemiah met with considerable opposition. The book of Ruth, according to some interpretations, effectively counters the prejudiced perspective of Ezra‐Nehemiah, as do various Second Temple prophetic passages (Isa. 56.3–8 ). When one looks back at the Priestly traditions on these matters, it also becomes clear that Ezra's position is by no means clearly articulated there. One can find in the Torah limited prohibitions of intermarriage (e.g., Deut. 7.1–5 ) and even passages ascribing moral intermarriage, justified by appeal to the notion of moral defilement (cf. Ezra 9.11–12 ). This may reflect the fact that the prohibition only emerged in the Second Temple period. Alternatively, this may reflect the continuing influence of Ezra's Priestly opponents, who certainly had a more welcoming attitude toward foreigners. Looking back on the Torah from the vantage point of Ezra ch 9 , one can imagine a group of priests maintaining strong systems of ritual and moral purity while at the same time establishing a society with relatively open social boundaries.

The biblical traditions, from Leviticus to Ezra, leave a legacy that is not only challenging to contemporary scholars, but was likely equally challenging to ancient Jews themselves—giving rise to the purity disputes of the Second Temple period. When evaluating purity disputes among various ancient Jewish groups (early Christians included), it is imperative to understand well the complex and symbolic character of the purity systems, and it is equally important to appreciate the distinct natures of the ritual and moral purity systems. The purity rules are often disparaged as blunt instruments of social control, put in place by the priestly few to enforce their hegemony over laypersons and women. Alternatively, some still see purity rules as vestiges from primitive times. The challenge is to recognize purity rules (of the ritual and moral sort) as meaningful and yet nuanced ways of highlighting issues of social and theological significance.

[JONATHAN KLAWANS]

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