Moral and Ritual Purity: A True Divide?

Posted by Kris (w/a "k") The other day a new book came in. One I've been waiting for. I'm just getting into it but here's an excerpt on the supposed dichotomy of ritual and moral purity:


"Let us finally touch upon one important aspect of the purity discussion that is of particular relevance for the present publication: the question of moral purity. In addition to the basic differentiation between cultic and non-cultic purity, the distinction between ritual and moral purity is often stressed as a second basic differentiation. To have a pure heart or conscience (e.g. Ps 51:12; 1 Tim 3:9) or to act with pure hands (e.g. Ps 18:21) seems to speak of a purity that is completely disconnected from the cultic sphere and is attributed instead to the ethical realm. The difference between the two dimensions appears to be clear at first glance: While ritual purity is considered to be contagious, moral purity seems not to be. While both have collective aspects, moral purity is rather restricted to individual behavior. Finally, while ritual impurity may be a temporary phenomenon, moral impurity is often a lasting one. 

Hence the so-called moral dimension is discussed time and again as if it were an antagonist of the ritual dimension. It seems to be a more-or-less explicit reflex in purity discussions to indicate a linear development from the physical dimension to an ethical or spiritual moral dimension, which is expressed metaphorically. The presumed development is often qualified as the difference between 'archaic' and 'rational'. The purity of the heart, the mind or the inner self is explicitly contrasted to ritual or genealogical purity.

[...] there is a growing awareness of the shortcomings of such conceptualizations of purity in terms of "spiritualization", alongside reservations about simplistic models of linear development from ritual to moral purity and from real to metaphorical meaning. While there is no denying that purity refers to various contexts, including (un-)ethical behavior, and that there are relevant issues of morality in purity, the obvious peril is to confuse ritual and material aspects with moral issues. Impurity and moral transgressions ('sin' in the language of ancient Judaism and early Christianity) are related but by no means interchangeable. Purity is often, but not necessarily, a matter of ethics. [...] The dimensions of physical and moral purity differ (for example on the level of acts) but are not two separate concepts, either in synchronic or in diachronic respects. They are close to each other and are often intertwined. [...] Both dimensions interfere with each other and may be separated for heuristic purposes only. Every physical purity or impurity has a moral aspect and all purification has a moral dimension as well. Sometimes the moral aspect is strengthened explicitly, and sometimes the physical, but they are never totally detached from each other."

Frevel and Nihan (2013), Purity and the Forming of Religious Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean World and Ancient Judaism, Leiden: Brill, 19–21 (italics original, bolded added)