Conversion, Intermarriage, and Matrilineal Descent (with Some Interesting Asides)

For my write-up today of Shaye Cohen’s The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, I will blog about Chapters 7-9.  What I will do is talk about what I consider to be the essence of the chapter, and then I will refer to a detail in the chapter that I found interesting.

1.  For Chapter 7, “The Rabbinic Conversion Ceremony”, I believe that page 219 highlights an important element of Cohen’s argument:

“[Circumcision] was the only ritual that, as far as is known, was demanded of all male converts by all non-Christian Jewish communities.  [G]entiles might demonstrate their affection for Jews and Judaism in a number of different ways, but if they wished to attain full membership in a Jewish community, they had to be circumcised.  Passages from Philo and Josephus that are cited by modern scholars as proof to the contrary prove no such thing.  Righteous gentiles can certainly find favor in God’s eyes even if they are not circumcised, and if they have come over to his exclusive worship they can be said, at least by Philo in one highly debated passage, to have become part of ‘Israel,’ but none of this implies ‘social conversion’—that is, the integration of the convert into the Jewish community.  In any event, all tannaitic texts that even incidentally refer to the requirements of conversion take circumcision for granted as a (or the) vehicle for conversion.  This is true for Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Sifrei on Numbers.  The Yerushalmi (the Talmud of the land of Israel) cites a debate between R. Joshua and R. Eliezer about the relative importance of circumcision and immersion; both agree that circumcision is essential for conversion, but disagree concerning immersion.  According to R. Eliezer a convert who been circumcised but not immersed is nonetheless to be regarded as a convert, whereas R. Joshua says that immersion is no less essential than circumcision.”

Cohen raises some interesting points here: How an uncircumcised righteous Gentile can be a part of Israel, and yet not fully a part of Israel, and also the role of immersion in conversion, which is especially significant for Gentile women who convert to Judaism, since they cannot be circumcised.  And, elsewhere in this chapter, Cohen shows that rabbis could be quite liberal regarding aspects of the conversion ritual.  Circumcision could count for conversion even if the Gentile was not specifically circumcised to convert to Judaism, as long as he affirmed his allegiance to the commandments.  And bathing in water for purification from a sexual discharge could count as immersion for conversion.

In terms of an interesting detail in this chapter, on page 231, Cohen refers to the Jewish view that a Jew must not teach a Gentile Torah, and that a Gentile studying Torah is “liable to the death penalty.”  So how would a potential convert know what he was getting himself into in converting to Judaism?  Some medieval Jews held that Gentiles could only be taught Torah after their conversion.  But another rabbinic view is that the potential convert could be taught some heavy and light commandments, so he’d know what he was getting himself into, and then he’d continue his studies after his conversion.

2.  Chapter 8 was about “The Prohibition of Intermarriage”.  Were Jews allowed to marry Gentiles?  There were some voices that said “no”, such as the Book of Jubilees, and also the Hasmoneans.  The rabbis, however, were more open to intermarriage, and some of them interpreted Deuteronomy 7:3-4 to be prohibiting marriage with people from the seven Canaanite nations, not all Gentiles in general.  But there were some anomalies in rabbinic Judaism.  For example, on pages 246-247, rabbinic theory held that “only Jews possess the legal capacity to create marriages” (Cohen’s words).  Consequently, the Babylonian Amora Rava asked how Deuteronomy 7:3-4 could prohibit Israelite intermarriage with Canaanites, when Canaanites “were legally incapable of marriage”.  His solution was that the passage “prohibits intermarriage only with Canaanites who have converted to Judaism.”

In terms of issues of interest in this chapter, I appreciated Cohen’s discussion of the different interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:2-9, which prohibits certain people-groups from entering the congregation of the LORD.  What exactly was being prohibited here?  One proposal is that the foreign people-groups are being forbidden to intermarry with Israelites.  In I Kings 11:1-2 and Nehemiah 13:23-28, elements of Deuteronomy 23:2-9 are drawn upon to criticize intermarriage.  Other proposals are that the foreigners are being banned from worshiping at the Temple (either the Second Temple or, for some Qumranites, the Messianic ones), or entering Jerusalem, or engaging in Jewish religious life.  Lamentations 1:10, after all, appears to draw from Deuteronomy 23:2-9 to lament that certain nations have invaded God’s sanctuary, even though God prohibited them from entering his congregation.  And Christians such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen interpret Deuteronomy 23:2-9 to mean that the people-groups cannot join God’s people.  But, as Cohen notes, the author of Judith did not interpret the passage in that way, for he talks about the conversion and circumcision of the Ammonite Achior, even though Deuteronomy 23 bans Ammonites from the LORD’s congregation.

3.  Chapter 9 is entitled “The Matrilineal Principle”.  In my last two posts on Cohen’s book, I have mentioned that the principle of matrilineal descent—that one was Jewish through his mother—was not the rule prior to the time of the rabbis, who (with exceptions) believed in it.  In Chapter 9, Cohen asks why the rabbis embraced matrilineal descent.  He goes through a variety of proposals—that Jewish women were raped by the Romans and needed assurance that their offspring was Jewish, that the rabbis were imitating Roman law, that the rabbis felt that a child was closer to his mother, etc.  Cohen sees weaknesses in all of the proposals that he discusses.  In the case of the scenario of Jewish women being raped by the Romans, for example, Cohen states that this does not account for the rabbinic law that the offspring of a gentile woman and a Jewish man is a Gentile, or the declaration in the earliest stratum of rabbinic law that the offpsring of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father is a mamzer, who can never become a legitimate member of the community of Israel.  Ultimately, while Cohen believes that some proposals are better than others, he admits that he does not know the answer to his question.

In terms of interesting details in this chapter, pages 302-303 refer to odd Jewish and Christian interpretations of bestiality.  B. Pesahim 49a-b mentions the view that a sage who sleeps with the daughter of an am ha-aretz (a Jew who is not scrupulous about observance) is violating the law against bestiality, and Maimonides says the same about a Gentile woman who has sex with a Jewish man (Laws of Forbidden Intercourse 12:10).  And Cohen states that “In medieval Christian law sexual intercourse of a Christian with a Jew was regarded as sex with an animal.”  Those are pretty loose interpretations, in my opinion!

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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