Women and Cultic Purity

Source: Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 4.

“The stress on cultic purity extended to every detail of daily life; the sages aimed to preserve not only the sanctity of sacred space and time–the Land of Israel and the sabbaths and festivals ordained in Scripture–but also the purity of people, places, and objects involved in sacred rites. Crucial to the system was the preservation of sanctity in human relationships, above all in matters of family law. Cultic purity required the avoidance of illicit unions with women who belonged to other men. So the Mishnah focused on the sanctity of Israelite life at bed and board as well as in courthouse and marketplace, synagogue and study house.”

What does marriage law have to do with cultic purity? Is it that God won’t want to deal with Israel if she has flagrant adulterers in her midst? Cult may mean temple, but it could also relate to the purity of the meal-table, where rabbinic Jews believed they experienced God.

This quote gives a good summary of what the Mishnah is trying to accomplish in its laws about various facets of Jewish life. And it underlies a thesis that Wegner repeats over and over: that the rabbis treated women as chattel whenever they wanted to control her sexuality. When her sexuality was not an issue, as when she was divorced or widowed, she was rather independent. But I wish she’d say more about cultic purity, since her book doesn’t delve deeply into the ideology behind the Mishnah’s treatment of women. At least that’s my impression.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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