Thursday, April 25, 2013

Immersion vs. Ritual Circumcision: A Look at the Talmudic Debate Over Which Ritual Was More Fundamental For Conversion

So this is actually an old point of debate in Judaism, whether immersion marked the point of the conversion or whether circumcision marked the point of conversion:

"One passage in the Talmud presents different opinions over what act constitutes the basic ritual of conversion:  circumcision or immersion (in a miqveh or an appropriate natural body of water).  Another view is that both are necessary," (pg. 268 of Jewish Passages:  Cycles of Life by Harvey E. Goldberg)
Here's the passage to which Goldberg refers (if I'm not mistaken):


"If [a proselyte] immersed but did not circumcise...R. Joshua says 'Lo, this one is a proper proselyte, for so we find in the case of our mothers that they immersed but did not circumcise'....Said to him R. Aqiba, 'But is it right to derive the rule governing what is possible from a case involving what is not possible...He said to him, 'Even though it was not possible, it does represent probative evidence, so that we should derive the rule from that case.'" [The Babylonian Talmud:  A Translation and Commentary, Yebamot, pgs. 236-37]

11 comments:

  1. During the time of Solomon, there was a massive conversion of Gentiles, some speculate how large this number actually is, but regardless it was a large conversion. I can't imagine how that could have ever happened if the ritual of the proselyte found in the 1st century was at play, they would have had to travel land and sea just to get one convert, if you know what I mean... :P

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    1. My interest is primarily in learning about the historical context to understand how the Apostles viewed immersion. Also, I find some of the hermeneutical principles used by the Rabbis to be very compelling. For example, in the next section of Talmud, Yebamot 46b, the Rabbis deduce that the Israelites at Sinai must've immersed based on the following logic:

      R. Eliezer infers from the forefathers, while R. Joshua [maintains that] in the case of the forefathers also ritual ablution was performed. Whence does he deduce it? If it be suggested, 'From that which is written, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, if where washing of the garments is not required ablution is required, how much more should ablution be required where washing of the garments is required', [it may be retorted that] that might have been a mere matter of cleanliness. — It is rather from here: And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and we have a tradition that there must be no sprinkling without ritual ablution."

      Is that accurate? I don't know for certain. But the logic appears sound.

      I think that conversion rituals might've evolved and then been taken too far. Ezra might've tightened things up. Also, the Maccabean period might've seen some dramatic changes. Who knows? But, again, I'm primarily interested in Apostolic thought. So I'm just examining all possible historical evidence that might shed light on that.

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    2. "massive conversion of Gentiles"

      I think it's important to understand that even in the day, repentance from idolatry for Gentiles didn't require conversion/coming under the Mosaic Covenant and joining of Israel as member of the tribe. The story of Jonah and Nineveh is a good example. People of that city repented, but there's nothing about them getting circumcised, taking a trek to Jerusalem to join the rest of the Israelites.

      Another good example is the story of Naaman and Elisha. In that story, the idol-worshipping general and former leper realizes that there's only one G-d - the G-d of Israel. He repents of his idolatry and goes back to his home country (while telling Elisha that his future bowing to idols would be merely for a show). No word of coming under any covenant is uttered or any obligation to Torah of Israel. Elisha says nothing to Naaman about his plan to pretend-worship idols.

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    3. I think it's important to understand that even in the day, repentance from idolatry for Gentiles didn't require conversion/coming under the Mosaic Covenant and joining of Israel as member of the tribe.

      In 2 Chronicles 2:17 these were converts, ger, who were residents of Israel, a massive number, again this is different than non-converts.

      The story of Jonah and Nineveh is a good example. People of that city repented, but there's nothing about them getting circumcised, taking a trek to Jerusalem to join the rest of the Israelites.

      Well lets start by saying we really do not know much about Nineveh at all, other than they were breaking God's Laws, why God held such a higher responsibility to them than other cities is probably found in responsibility, how much they actually knew. We see a sample of this in Matthew 11:24:

      But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

      The more one knows, the more responsible they become, and this becomes even more evident in the context of conversion, unlike Nineveh, Gentiles who put their trust in Messiah are considered sons of Abraham, our responsibility to covenant obligation has increased, not included that most scholars agree the gentiles are part of the New Covenant as well, this all ties into a much more responsible obligation than all previous situations. If the Law is being written on our hearts as seen in Romans 2, then we can be assure that more responsibility is involved for a Gentile who puts their trust in Messiah, than a gentile who does not know Messiah or God.

      To me, this is a simple equation. Trying to claim all gentiles are the same or there is no different between a believing gentile and a non-believing gentile defies scripture.

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    4. "Trying to claim all gentiles are the same or there is no different between a believing gentile and a non-believing gentile defies scripture."

      Never claimed that there's no difference at all. If a Gentile is not an idolater, clearly that in itself is a huge difference vs the one who is.

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    5. Never claimed that there's no difference at all. If a Gentile is not an idolater, clearly that in itself is a huge difference vs the one who is.

      I mean, there is a difference in responsibility between the two, that in itself changes everything.

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    6. "I mean, there is a difference in responsibility between the two, that in itself changes everything."

      Not "everything". It doesn't change the fact that the Gentile is not a Jew and is not bound to the terms of the Mosaic Covenant concluded only with Israel. To say otherwise flies in the face of both apostolic writings not to mention (by which I mean "of course I will mention":) Judaism.

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    7. Not "everything". It doesn't change the fact that the Gentile is not a Jew and is not bound to the terms of the Mosaic Covenant concluded only with Israel.

      Jews were not the only ones bound by the Mosaic Covenant, so were gentiles, or as the Torah states, gerim. I never said a gentile became a Jew, which is impossible to begin with...

      To say otherwise flies in the face of both apostolic writings not to mention (by which I mean "of course I will mention":) Judaism.

      Only in your dreams... :P

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  2. And where does it say in Scriptures that Calev ben Yefune, went through any ritual of circumcision?

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    1. "And where does it say in Scriptures that Calev ben Yefune, went through any ritual of circumcision?"

      What is a "ritual of circumcision"? I didn't know that there's some elaborate ritual involved. That said, I am quite confident that Caleb was brissed.

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  3. "
    What is a "ritual of circumcision"?"

    That is what they did to you when got brissed....You know, a mohel with a sharp knife...Your mother crying and your father so proud...Ah.. how can you remember, you were only 8 days old.....

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