• Contagion and Cognition: Bodily Experience and the Conceptualization of Pollution (ṭum’ah) in the Hebrew Bible

    Yitzhaq Feder (see profile)
    Ancient Near East, Biblical Studies
    Cognitive science, Religion
    Item Type:
    impurity, Cognitive science of religion
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    In this study, I apply embodiment theory as a framework for reconstructing the origins of the Israelite notion of pollution (ṭum’ah). Despite the fact that the Hebrew Bible describes a diverse array of sources of pollution – including bodily conditions, moral offenses and foreign cult practices, most modern studies attempt to find a single organizing principle which is ‘symbolized’ by the notion of pollution, whether it may be death, disorder, or some other abstract referent. In contrast with these attempts to explain away the heterogeneity of the biblical sources of pollution, the present study argues that the category of pollution is based on several distinct schemas that are modeled after bodily experience, including uncleanness and infection. These distinct models can be differentiated by the means of transmission and processes of purification associated with them. This approach is tested through comparison with ancient Near Eastern and ethnographic evidence as well as through modern psychological research into notions of contagion. This comparative examination provides a basis for a more accurate appraisal of the historical context of ancient Israelite notions of pollution. This inquiry also clarifies the relationship between “ritual purity” and hygiene. Despite the obvious similarity between these two types of behavioral motivation, the understanding of the relationship between them is frequently obscured by anachronistic and simplistic assumptions which ignore the less differentiated perception of contagion that existed in the pre-modern world
    Published as:
    Journal article    
    Last Updated:
    7 years ago
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