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Bound by Blood:Circumcision and Menstrual Taboo in Post-Exilic Judaism

Bound by Blood:Circumcision and Menstrual Taboo in Post-Exilic Judaism

by Leonie J. Archer
First published as Ch. 3, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990
Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions

The concern of this paper is to explore the possible link between the rites of (male) circumcision (1) and menstrual taboo in the Judaism of the late biblical period. I have for some time been concerned with circumcision - with tracing the evolution of the rite within Judaism and drawing attention to the implications which the lack of a similar or substitute rite had for women in terms of religious and social involvement and activity.(2) Only recently, however, did I begin to perceive a connection between it and the biblical legislation about menstruation and childbirth, and that arose from a rather tardy recognition that (a) central to both is a flow of blood, and (b) covenantal circumcision and the regulations concerning menstruation and childbirth both appeared at the same time and for the first time in the Babylonian exile and beyond (sixth century BC) - that is, according to the still quite widely accepted dating, within the source critical school, of the Priestly document which contains these regulations. (In fact we do not have to rely on the conclusions of this traditional chronological stranding; my argument, as we shall see, independently points to the exile as the time when these rituals would have first emerged.) (3) This simultaneous appearance seemed too much of a coincidence, and prompted me to look a little more closely at it. What emerged from my closer examination is that there is a link, that the two ritual forms are in fact opposite sides of the same coin, and that theyderived (at least in their final form) from the trauma of the exile to Babylon and the consequent restructuring of the Jewish community. In the context of the centuries surrounding the exile they served sound, pragmatic patriarchal ends, and in the context of present day Judaism they remain central rituals, with profound resonances for women and their involvement or non-involvement in public religion. (4) In post hoc analytical terms, the two rituals may be seen to pivot on perceived gender differentials in blood - i.e. upon an assumed distinction between male blood and female blood - and upon some kind of constructed nature-culture dichotomy - i.e. circumcision being deemed the work of culture and menstruation and childbirth the functioning of nature (in the culturally constructed sense of the word).

My concern, however, is not only to show the, as it were, abstract or theoretically constructed connection between the two groups of legislation, but in more concrete terms, to demonstrate how they both stemmed from and then served to reinforce a changed and inferior position for women in respect to their social and religious involvement and status. In other words, these laws were one aspect of what I perceive to be a negative development in women's lives from the biblical to the post-biblical periods. As indicated already, I believe the exile to have been a turning point or catalyst for both developments, so before turning to the analysis of the two types of ritual practice (for both circumcision and the prescriptions regarding both menstruation and childbirth fall into this category of human activity) it will be necessary, I think, first to sketch in a general picture of the changes which occurred in the religious and social ordering of the Jewish community in the centuries surrounding the exile. This I shall do specifically from the woman's point of view. Thus we shall have both the necessary background in respect to the changing position of women, and the required context for our discussion of these particular rites, for it must be remembered that ritual and ritualistic ideas can only make sense when taken in reference to a total structure of thought and system of social and historical reality (most of which we shall, of course, only be able to touch upon here). They do not spring from a vacuum or according to some arbitrary whim of the people and legislators, but have their origins in the human need to control and order existence. The way in which ritual develops - or, rather, is developed and the characteristics which it assumes reflect the ordering and preoccupations peculiar to a society. Thus it is essential that we keep in mind that notions which may now seem 'normal' and 'natural' are in fact, as with most things, social and cultural constructs determined by a complex of reasons and situations.

Also by way of introduction and again to be borne in mind in the course of this paper is that nature-culture opposition which I referred to at the start. This framework of analysis is, I am sure, all too familiar - and I am equally sure unacceptable to many. I, however, believe that this universalistic model has much to offer in terms of helping our understanding, and in the context of the present paper may well be of assistance.(5) To remind ourselves of the basic tenets, as it were, of this projected dichotomy: essentially it rests on the assumption that every society recognises a distinction between culture and nature, with ritual being the outer manifestation or expression of this recognition and representing culture's need to regulate and control the passive functioning of its opposite, nature - 'nature', of course, itself being a construct of 'culture'. Regarding the social differentiation between the sexes, this conceptual schernatisation can result (and I stress this is just one possibility) in women being perceived as closer to nature in consequence of the biological facts of childbirth and menstruation (or rather, a particular cultural interpretation thereof), whilst men, who are deemed to lack such a cycle of visible creativity (and who have other aspects of their own equally natural physiology denied), are placed within the realm of culture, manipulating their own social and political existence, and transcending the passive forces of nature. Culture, and therefore male activity within this scheme of thought, are consequently seen as superior to nature and female passivity. It should be said that this particular elaboration of the nature-culture split is, of course, also itself a complex social construct and one which serves patriarchal needs in various ways. The split could have gone in a different direction with different characterisations and emphases within the overall framework. To use the nature-culture dichotomy for a greater understanding of a particular situation is not therefore to promote principles of immutable (socio-) biological determinism. (6) Such, then, in extremely broad terms, is the essence of the nature-culture opposition, an opposition which, as I hope to show, provides one clue as to the perceived gender differentials in blood within Judaism which I mentioned at the outset, and which may be of help in establishing an (oppositional) link between circumcision and menstrual taboo.

Turning now to the historical outline of religious and social development. From the early chronological strands of the Old Testament, it is apparent that women in the pre-exilic period of Hebrew history enjoyed a certain active involvement in the nation's religious affairs. (7) In the biblical narratives they appear as singers, dancers, prophetesses, sacred prostitutes, and in other cultic capacities. Significantly, however, the period to which these texts refer was one in which that rigid monotheism so characteristic of later Judaism had not yet developed. Then, polytheistic belief and worship flourished and shrines to the various deities, which included a number of goddesses, dotted the countryside of Palestine. In the course of time, however, the monotheistic principle began to assert itself, and for a complex of reasons not within the scope of this paper, the god Yahweh was elevated to a position of supremacy over all other deities. With this rise to power of a single male deity and the concomitant lessening in status of the other members of the Israelite pantheon (especially its female members), the role played by women in public religion began to diminish. The first step in that direction was taken when the early Hebrew legislators forbade the practice of sacred prostitution, this ritual being fundamental to the non-Yahwistic cults and also one in which women played a central role. Women were further removed from cultic activity when the Yahwists forced the abolition of all rural shrines in Palestine and centralised worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, a move which was again designed to rid the land of undesirable cults. At this central sanctuary there was no place for female officiants as the Temple's affairs were regarded as the sole responsibility of an organised, hereditary male priesthood dedicated to the service of Yahweh. But, despite all efforts, worship of the old gods and goddesses continued throughout the land of Israel and even on occasion at the Temple of Jerusalem itself - as evidenced by the books of Kings and Chronicles, which refer to events of the seventh and sixth centuries. Ironically, Yahweh's final victory came with the destruction of his Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BC. For generations prior to this calamity the custodians and promoters of Yahweh - that is, the now canonised Prophets of Israel -had been warning the people that if they did not abandon their syncretistic ways, the wrath of the one true God would descend upon them. For the people as a whole, therefore, the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon came to be viewed as dramatic realisation of these doom prophecies, and proof of the absolute power of the jealous god Yahweh, and - harnessing these concepts to their own pragmatic ends - the exiles set about ridding themselves of all impurity in an effort to regain his favour. To this end all records of the past were zealously preserved and older, more primitive legal traditions extensively reworked and edited in the light of developing concepts and attitudes - most of which would seem to have been the direct result of the community's change in circumstances and new needs for order and social cohesion. (8) Of particular significance and far-reaching consequence to the lives of women was the exilic legislators' obsession with ritual cleanness(9) - and in order to understand the full import of this statement, I shall momentarily have to digress from our historical outline and spend a little time analysing the reasons for the legislators' obsession and its impact.

Remembering that we are here dealing with a community first in exile and then returned to an impoverished and divided land {i.e. Palestine towards the end of the sixth and in the course of the fifth centuries BC),(10) it is significant that the principal concern of the Priestly Code was with the laws of kashrut, pollutions from secretions from various bodily orifices, and legislation about the cult and priesthood.(11) This concern for purity and order - for that is what the legislation is about - both reflected society's concern for its own racial integrity and social cohesion, and in turn served to promote them. As Mary Douglas writes:

The idea of society is a powerful image . . . This image has form; it has external boundaries, margins, structure . . . For symbols of society any human experience of structure, margins, or boundaries'is ready to hand.(12)

And again:

. . . ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.(13)

So, for example, the laws of kashrut, whilst serving an obvious pragmatic purpose of separating and distinguishing the Jews from their neighbours, and guarding against assimilation, also served to affirm the selected symbolic system, the abomination and avoidance of crawling things being the negative side of the pattern of things approved and a function of the ordering of society.(14) Similarly, the concern for the pollution of and from bodily secretions on a practical level worked to promote the integrity and productivity (in human terms) of the family unit - a matter of prime importance for a group concerned for its very existence and reproduction - whilst on a symbolic level, the exiles' concentration upon the unity, purity and integrity of the physical body well reflected their larger concern for the threatened boundaries of the body politic. The overt rationale behind the new prescriptions was the desire to create a people which was truly holy to God.(15)

Whilst the laws of ritual purity were directed at both men and women,(16) women - in order to promote practical, patriarchal socio-economic concerns - were particularly affected.(17) Central to the legislators' notions of purity was an all-pervasive blood taboo (which embraced foodstuffs; sacrificial victims; humans, etc., and very definitely separated out the male from the female). The fact that, unlike men, women's periods of bodily emission followed a regular and extended (i.e. several days at a time) cycle meant that they were declared unclean for a large part of their lives (for details see below). Great attention was paid to the pollution which resulted from contact with them during these periods, with vital purification rituals being prescribed to avert the danger to both individuals and community (in particular, the male religious community - see below). For, to take just one aspect of this notion of danger, just as crawling things could be seen as the negative side of things approved, so the flow of female blood, again in symbolic terms, could be seen as the negative side of the ideal concept of society as whole and self-contained.(18) In other words, whilst necessary to the system on both practical and symbolic levels, and a strengthening factor to the positive definition, it remained also an offence to the ideal, marginal to the correct order, and therefore dangerous. (It was also of course a source of female power.(19) In addition to the prescriptions of purification ritual, further precautions were taken by severely restricting the movement of women during their times of uncleanness, particularly with regard to their access to or participation in cultic affairs - matters to which I shall return shortly.

Before turning to my next point in the historical outline, I would also like quickly to note the way in which this new notion of female impurity rapidly made inroads into the popular imagination, with the result that women came to be seen as a constant stumbling block to man's improvement, a blight on the possibility of his attaining the now required (i.e. post-exilic) standard of personal purity. So, for example, in the fourth century BC, Job could write:

Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble . . .
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?
What is man that he should be clean?
And he that is born of woman that he should be righteous?

(Job 14.1,3;15.4)

It was an easy step from this type of attitude to regard women as the source of all evil in the world, and that indeed is what happened in the exile and beyond when there emerged the concept of the Evil Woman, of wickedness personified in female form. Such developments, however, are the concern of another paper.(20)

Returning to our historical outline and intimately connected with this new notion of female impurity, was the development of an increased rigidity in attitude towards and definition of function within the family group - something which had gradually been happening before the sixth century but which was accelerated and refined by the experience of the exile.(21) Together with moves towards greater urbanisation, more complex economic systems, shifts in societal and familial structure (in particular the movement away from the earlier extended family unit to the nucleated one), there developed the situation whereby the woman's role was placed firmly and almost exclusively in the private sphere of activity as wife, mother and homemaker (a removal encouraged by the purity laws), whilst that of the man was located in the public sphere as worker and family supporter, and active participant in social, political and religious affairs. This sharp differentiation, and the various impulses and societal shifts which encouraged it, (which unfortunately we do not have space to go into here) was quite different to the situation which pertained in earlier Hebrew history. In religious terms, these two exilic and post-exilic developments -i.e. the concentration upon ritual purity and the sharp differentiation in male-female social function - were to have far-reaching consequences for women. Henceforth they were denied access to active participation in the public cult and (by implication of the biblical text which concentrated upon male activity) deemed exempt from the obligation to fulfil many of the commandments - a loaded exemption given the fact that Judaism by this time was already very much a religion of performance, moving towards being a religion dominated by a plethora of commandments governing virtually every aspect of daily existence.(22) This implication was later firmed up by the Sages of the Second Commonwealth to become a fully fledged rabbinic declaration of exemption embracing nearly all of the positive commandments whose fulfilment depended upon a specific time of the day or of the year - an exemption which rapidly carne to be viewed in terms of actual exclusion. So, for example, women were under no obligation to circumcise their sons (a point of some significance in the context of the present paper, and one to which I shall return later), or take them to the Temple for the ritual redemption of the first-born;(23) they were exempt from making the thrice yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles; from living m the ceremonial booths at Sukkoth; shaking the lulabsounding the shqfar, and even, at a later stage, of pronouncing the daily affirmation of faith, the Shema. Women's exemption from these time-geared precepts was the result both of their extensive periods of ritual impurity and of their designated role as closeted homemakers - though of course in making such a statement, we immediately involve ourselves in a great degree of circularity. Unclean, and in a state of domestic seclusion, they thus became increasingly less involved in matters of public religion, and the situation quickly developed wherein their non-participation was viewed in term of actual exclusion rather than mere exemption.(24) Now, therefore, and unlike the earlier period, only men were the full participants in and officiants of the nation's religious life. In other words, they comprised the religious community; they were the sons of the new covenant as developed in the exile and beyond.

The mark of this new covenant was (and still is) circumcision. Circumcision as a rite had been performed in Israel for many centuries, but it was only with the exile that it assumed the character of a covenantal sign between God and his chosen people. Prior to that it had been viewed in terms of an individual's placatory act of redemption to the deity (or deities) and later as a rite of initiation into the tribe, so marking the male's passage firstly to ordinary, profane existence and secondly to full, public and potentially active membership of society. (25) Already at this stage of the rite's evolution, the absence of a similar rite or substitute ceremony for the girl was a loaded omission. But it was the final stage in the history of circumcision which was to have the most far-reaching implications for the woman and her role in the society and religion of her people. In the exile it was decreed that circumcision was to be fAe official rite of initiation into Judaism and all that that now meant. It is in Genesis 17.10ff - verses which are usually taken as belonging to the Priestly strand of the Bible - that we first find mention of the covenantal aspect of circumcision:

And God said unto Abraham , . . This is My Covenant, which ye shall keep between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old (26) shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in thy house, or bought with the money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed . . . And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

Henceforth, and unlike the earlier period, this was to be the dominant aspect of the rite. Now it was not simply the male, but the circumcised male who was to be the full participant in his nation's covenantal law and cultic activities. So, for example, with regard to observance of the Passover, the pre-exilic ruling was for 'thee and thy son', with no further qualification, to keep the feast, whereas in the exilic and post-exilic legislation the ordinance was modified io count only those who had been circumcised.(27) Similarly, only circumcised men were under an obligation to fulfil the whole law(28) - and we should recall that the essence of Judaism was now legalism and observance of the commandments. In other words, they formed the public religious community, and so the words covenant and circumcision are often used interchangeably in the post-exilic writings.(29)

Another aspect of this later circumcision of particular pertinence to the present discussion is that removal of the foreskin did not on its own render the rite effective. Tremendous importance was attached to the actual blood of the circumcision, and unless several drops of blood were seen to issue from the wound, the operation was deemed invalid and valueless. Later it was even specified that should there be for any reason no foreskin to sever, blood must still be made to flow for the rite to be effective and for the individual to enter the covenant. (30) Whilst blood would appear to have been associated with circumcision from the earliest times (witness the account of Zipporah),(30) this character of the rite, as I hope shortly to show, assumed new dimensions and significances with the experience of the exile and the developments which I have just outlined.

As a clue to that significance we might recall firstly the way in which the laws regarding menstruation and childbirth and this new circumcision appeared at the same time in the history of the Jewish people, and secondly what I said earlier about the need of culture to control or impose itself upon what it deems to be nature. Before entering upon that comparative analysis, however, I would first like to indicate the general significance which blood - of certain types - had within Hebrew thought and society; and then, within that context, point to the particular significance of its shedding in the rite of circumcision.

Firstly, blood was perceived to be the life-giving force of the universe - an obvious conclusion on empirical grounds, but one which was then elevated from the pragmatic to the sacred in Hebrew thought by the belief that in humans it was also the seat of the soul.(32) Hence prohibitions on and descriptions of killing in the Bible were couched specifically in terms of the shedding of another's blood.(33) Secondly, the blood of animals was also considered sacred, or at least as belonging particularly to the deity (hence the prohibition on humans eating it), (34) and so animal sacrifice and the dashing of their blood played an all-pervasive role in the Jewish cult, being regarded as a means of atoning for sins, purging ritual impurity, and connecting with the God-head.(35) Differences were made regarding the value of male sacrifices as opposed to female ones, the latter only being offered on less important or non-community based occasions. (36)We might also note the way in which this cultic shedding of blood was controlled by men, and the fact that in the exilic ordinances regarding sacrificial procedure -contained in the Priestly strands of Exodus - the consecration of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood was marked by the daubing of blood upon their right ears, thumbs and feet.(37) Thirdly, and following these first two points, it was also believed that to shed one's own blood ritually and voluntarily - and I stress the word 'voluntarily' - was to recommend oneself to and establish a link with the Creator of the Universe - and this is precisely what happened with circumcision.(38) In other words, by the culture-controlled shedding of blood at circumcision, the individual entered the covenant and joined with his fellow 'circumcisees', who together formed a community or brotherhood of blood, bound to each other and God by special duties and mutual obligations. Most importantly, this brotherhood was seen as extending laterally across a generation, vertically to fathers, grandfathers, sons and grandsons, and ultimately to God - a point to which I shall return.(39) The new significance of the covenantal blood of circumcision was clearly demonstrated by the later midrashic paraphrase of 'life is in the blood' to 'life is in the blood of circumcision'.(40)

At precisely the same time as circumcision and the blood of circumcision were receiving this new casting and additional dimension, legislation about female blood - i.e. the blood of menstruation and childbirth - appeared for the first time on the scene. But the attention paid to it was of a completely different nature to that accorded male blood. As we have seen, it was declared unclean and ritually polluting, and was equated metaphorically with the defilement imparted by carrying an idol.(41) Unlike the cultic inclusion of men through the blood of circumcision, the blood of the female cycle resulted in cultic exclusion for women. So, according to the laws of Leviticus, women were forbidden to enter the Temple or touch any hallowed thing during their times of menstrual uncleanness,(42) whilst with regard to childbirth they were similarly removed from cultic activity, this time for forty days following delivery of a boy and significantly eighty days after that of a girl.(43) And here I would like to quote the Levitical ruling on childbirth for it highlights what I hope is now becoming clear, i.e. the perceived gender differentials in blood and the connection between male circumcision and the female blood cycle:

If a woman be delivered and bear a man-child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the impurity of her sickness shall she be unclean.

And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

And she shall continue in the blood of purification three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled.

But if she bear a maid-child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her impurity; and she shall continue in the blood of purification threescore and six days.

And when the days of her purification are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtle dove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tent of meeting, unto the priest.

And he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the fountain of her blood . . . the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall become clean (Lev. 12.2ff.)-

The main points to note from this passage are firstly the way in which the blood of delivery is unclean; secondly the way in which in the case of a boy's birth, circumcision intrudes in the text and interrupts both the period of the mother's pollution and the account of that pollution; and thirdly, the way in which the woman is finally cleansed of her impurity through the blood of sacrifice as administered by a circumcised male.

It is apparent, therefore, that differentiation was made between male and female blood, and that circumcision, in its new casting, had some role to play in that context. To deal with the blood differential first: according to the later thinking of the tannaim (rabbis of the first centuries AD), the reason for the Levitical laws of menstruation and childbirth was as punishment for the sin of Eve who brought about the death of Adam. In other words, '. . . because she shed his blood, she was punished through her blood'.(44)As the quotation shows, the two types of blood were perceived as two sides of the same coin: on the one side positive male blood and on the other negative female blood. However, whilst the image of the 'head and tail' coin is pertinent to our understanding of the rituals, the rabbis' words provide us with little more than an appreciation of how Jewish society (or a part thereof) at the time perceived and explained the religious state of affairs. In other words, they merely represent a constructed rationale of an existing custom.(45) To reach a fuller understanding of the blood differential - its origin, purpose and effect - it is necessary to dig a little deeper and attempt to trace the underlying reasons by means of a sociological/anthropological analysis - and this is what I have been attempting to do in the course of this paper. I would now like to reiterate and elaborate the several points which I have raised so far, and then finally bring my argument round to demonstrating the link which exists between circumcision and menstrual/childbirth taboos.

The first point is that it is generally recognised that ritual tends to increase, intensify and shift in focus at times of social crisis. In particular - and on this see the work of Mary Douglas - when the body politic is threatened, it is common to see increased attention paid to the purity, integrity and unity of the physical body. (46) This, as we have seen, is precisely what happened with the exile and in the Levitical legislation regarding ritual pollution.

Secondly, ritual, in addition to mirroring the anxieties of society, also expresses the ordering of society in all its aspects and complexity, and to use the words of Ortner, may be viewed as marking the universal human endeavour to transcend and control the world of nature (amongst other things). Indeed, to continue with Ortner's words, 'the distinctiveness of culture rests precisely on the fact that it can under most circumstances transcend natural conditions and turn them to its purpose. Thus culture at some level of awareness asserts itself to be not only distinct from but superior to nature, and that sense of distinctiveness and superiority rests precisely on the ability to transform - to "socialise" and "culturalise" - nature', (47) i.e. to be active and in control.

Within this scheme of thought, anything which cannot be controlled is labelled dangerous and marginal, particularly when society is working to preserve its unity and to develop more sophisticated systems of self-definition, as was the case for the Jewish community in Palestine following the exile. The blood of childbirth and menstruation, which follows a passive and unstoppable cycle, can be construed (by the powers that be) to fall within this category, and so it is required that cultural regulation step in with restrictive legislation. That cultural regulation, as we have seen, is controlled by men, for (and this brings me to the third point) within this scheme of thought, woman herself is placed more fully within the realm of nature than man in consequence of the fact that more of her time and her body are seen to be taken up with the natural processes surrounding reproduction of the species.(48) Man, on the other hand, who within this particular characterisation of the nature-culture dichotomy is deemed to lack such natural and visible creative functions, is obliged, or at least has the opportunity (to use the words of Ortner) to assert his creativity externally through the medium of technology, ritual and symbol.(49) As active manipulator of his existence, he falls within the realm of culture, and so, just as culture is deemed superior to nature, so man and his activities are considered superior to woman and her world.(50)And this brings me to my fourth point, and that is the notion of domestic-public opposition. Following the exile, it should be recalled that women, for a complex of pragmatic reasons, were confined almost exclusively to the domestic realm. This relegation - for as such it was construed(51) - to the domestic realm, whilst on the one hand promoting a higher status than before for women in terms of motherhood (a status generated for society's structural purposes and needs(52), also resulted in an overall decrease in women's status generally for, to use the well known Levi-Straussian model, the domestic unit - i.e. the 'biological' family concerned with reproducing and socialising new members of society(53) - was seen as separate from the public entity, i.e. the superimposed network of alliances and relationships which comprised society proper, as it were. And this separation - or indeed opposition -according to Levi-Strauss, had the significance of the opposition between nature and culture. (54) Women's world could therefore be seen as inferior to the higher cultural activities of men in the public domain (55) - a fact recognised by the first-century AD Jewish philosopher Philo who in his writings made much play of this gender-differentiated opposition between the public and private domains.(56) The same writer also pointed to a prime offshoot of this particular nature-culture dichotomy when he wrote, in the context of explaining why the male sacrificial victim is preferable to the female, that:

virtue is male since it causes movement and affects conditions and suggests noble conceptions of noble deeds and words . . . the male is more complete, more dominant than the female, closer akin to causal activity, for the female is incomplete and in subjection and belongs to the category of the passive rather than the active (Abraham 102; Spec. Leg. 1.200).

And this brings me finally to the link between circumcision and menstrual taboo.

Whilst women's role as mothers was of paramount importance to society - particularly after the exile when maternity, for various pragmatic reasons, became the means of transmitting and establishing in biological terms, as it were, religious and ethnic identity(57) - it would seem logical, given our culture-nature opposition and the fact that culture seeks to control and impose upon whatever has been construed as natural, that something had to be done in cultural terms about the natural function of childbirth. And this, I think, is where circumcision comes in. It served as a rite of cultural rebirth by which the male individual was accorded entry into the society and religion of his people. In other words, whilst women, as it were, merely conducted the animal-like repetitive tasks of carrying on the reproduction of the human race, men, by one supreme symbolic act, imposed themselves upon nature and enacted a cultural rebirth. The blood of circumcision served as a symbolic surrogate for the blood of childbirth, and because it was shed voluntarily and in a controlled manner, it transcended the bounds of nature and the passive blood flow of the mother at delivery and during the preparatory cycle for pregnancy, menstruation.(58) The blood of circumcision, just like the blood of animal sacrifice, could also be viewed as cleansing the boy of his mother's blood and acting as a rite of separation, differentiating him from the female, and allying him with the male community.(59) In a sense, therefore, circumcision actually creates a more powerful gender distinction rather than just deriving from such a distinction - but here again one gets wrapped in inevitable strands of circularity. For all of these reasons, and unlike the earlier biblical period, only men were allowed to perform the operation.(60) At a later time it was even decreed that should there be no male (in particular a father) available to sever the foreskin and make the blood flow, then the child should wait until he had grown up and then perform the operation himself Under no circumstances was the mother to enact this cultural role.(61) All of this was so very different from the earlier period of Hebrew history when the first recorded occasion of a circumcision had as its central active character the woman Zipporah.

In conclusion, then, natural birth gave rise to an intergenerational line of blood; cultural rebirth created a network or brotherhood of blood which transcended generations and was superior to biological and socio-biological kinship ties. These were the two sides of the same coin which I referred to at the beginning of my paper, the nature-culture opposition and the particular characterisations and choice of emphases here explored being one explanation for the apparent gender differentials in blood within Jewish ritual practice, and one link at least between the rite of circumcision and menstrual taboo in post-exilic Judaism.








Gen. R

Genesis Rabbah















Spec Leg









(Special Laws)



De Abrahmo



(on Abraham)


Ab. Zarah

Abodah Zarah










Con Ap

Contra Apionem




(Against Apion)








The only form of circumcision practised among the Hebrews/Jews: Strabo is certainly incorrect in his view that both male and female children were circumcised (Geographica, XVI, 2:37, 4:9; XVII, 2:5). Even if he were correct it is clear from surveys of other cultures that female circumcision has a very different function to the male rite with which we are here concerned. On this point, see Nawal El Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve. Women in the Arab World {London, 1980). See Leonie J. Archer, Her Price is beyond Rubies. The Jewish Woman in Graeco-Roman Palestine (Sheffield, 1990), Ch. I, sect. b.

3. For a history of source criticism and other methodological approaches to the Old Testament, in particular the Pentateuch, see Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker (eds), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (Philadelphia and Ghico, 1985), especially Ch. 8. For details regarding recent debates over the dating of the Priestly literature (which varies from pre-Deuteronomic to Persian, but with the majority of scholars still looking to the exilic and post-exilic age) and discussion as to whether P is a source or redaction, see ibid. especially pp. 285-6.

4. Regarding circumcision it is significant to note that one of the five objections to the ritual raised by leaders of the nineteenth century Reform Movement in Frankfurt was the fact that there was no initiation for daughters into Judaism.

5. This model was first developed by Sherry Ortner to help account for the universal subordination or secondary status of women in all societies at all times. See her 'Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?' in Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere (eds), Women, Culture and Society (Stanford, 1974), pp. 67-87. Opponents of her argument who are disinclined to use any universalistic model and who argue that Ortner simply swapped one set of deterministic principles (biological) for another equally inflexible set (social constructionist) include Janet Sayers, Biological Politics (London, 1982) and Carol P. MacCormack, 'Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique' in Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (eds) Nature, Culture and Gender (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 1-24. The model here presented and then applied is a modified version of Ortner's which attempts to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of her early argument whilst at the same time acknowledging its debt to her work.

6. See Ortner, op. cit. p. 71, '[biological] facts and differences only take on significance of superior/inferior within the framework of culturally defined value systems'; Kirsten Hastrup, p. 49, 'socially significant distinctions arc mapped on to basic biological differences and vice versa' ('The Semantics of Biology: Virginity', in Shirley Ardener (ed.) Defining Females (London, 1978), pp. 49-65); and MacCormack, op. cit. p. 18, 'the link between nature and women is not a "given". Gender and its attributes are not pure biology. The meanings attributed to male and female are as arbitrary as are the meanings attributed to nature and culture.'

7. For details of this involvement and the subsequent developments here itemised, with biblical references and bibliography, see Leonie J. Archer, 'The Role of Jewish Women in the Religion, Ritual and Cult of Graeco-Roman Palestine' in Averil Cameron and Amelia Kuhrt (eds), Images of Women in Antiquity (London, 1983), pp. 273-87.

8. Or at least if not the direct result they received their final and decisive impulse from the experience of the exile. Religious and social ordering had been slowly changing in the immediately preceding centuries, but the exile both accelerated and fixed these developments and marked a definite turning point. On this see further below and Leonie J. Archer, 'The Virgin and the Harlot in the Writings of Formative Judaism', History Workshop Journal issue 24 (Autumn 1987), pp. 1-16.

9. In saying that these laws were in fact exilic, I again follow both the traditional dating within the documentary hypothesis framework and, more importantly, the internal dynamic or logic of the sociological argument here elucidated.

10. Note that only the elite of the nation had been taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar, leaving behind 'vinedressers, husbandmen, and the poorest sort of the people of the land' (2 Kings 24.14; 25.12). Of these exiles only a portion then returned to the land to start the process of purification and separation. For this see the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah.

11. See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London, 1966), p. 124, for the way in which concern about orifices, fluids, etc., mirrors the anxieties of a 'hard-pressed minority'.

12. Op. cit. p. 114.

13. Ibid. p. 4. Of particular importance to us here, of course, is the need to create distinct niale-feinale categories.

14. For an analysis of the dietary laws along these lines, see Douglas, op. cit., Ch. 3.

15. See the constant admonitions to this effect in Ezra, Nehemiah and diroughout the priestly strands of the OT, particularly Leviticus. For the equation by the legislators of ritual cleanness with holiness, see Jacob Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism, with a critique and commentary by Mary Douglas (Leiden, 1983).

16. The rules specific to men concerned excretions from the sexual organs (i.e. venereal disease) and issues of semen (Lev. 15.3-18). The first necessitated counting 'seven days for his cleansing' whilst the second, obviously more common state resulted in impurity only 'until the even', i.e. the first sunset following the emission. The rules which pertained specifically to women will be treated below.

17. Douglas argues (op. cit. p. 101) that women are particularly affected because their bodies serve as biological models or symbols for the purity of society - and so by implication they are the special target of such legislation. The dangers of such an argument are, however, all too obvious in that it implies an inescapable destiny for women. I prefer the focus here taken which emphasises both the socio-economic dynamic and the cultural mapping on to the biological, in particular the patriarchal cultural mapping.

18. Here again, unlike Douglas et al., I would stress that this is just one possible interpretation of the biological facts. See pp. 40f above.

19. By virtue of the fact that anything that threatens also wields power. Female danger/power also rested on the fact of women occupying structurally marginal positions (i.e. neither fully inside nor outside the system, not wholly nature nor culture) and on the fact that society placed them in interstructural roles (as wives and daughters) with respect to alliance making and linking disparate power groups. Although officially accorded little or no power, therefore, it may be seen that women's culturally ambiguous position within Hebrew patriarchy resulted in a type of informal sub-structural power dynamic which in turn regenerated the culturally constructed fear of women necessary to patriarchal interests and explicit power concerns.

20. For the rise of this concept/image and its use in creating distinct gender categories and social roles, see Archer, 'The Virgin and the Harlot in the Writings of Formative Judaism', History Workshop Journal issue 24 (Autumn 1987), pp. 1-16.

21. For details of this evolution, which can only be touched upon here, and the sharp impulse provided by the exile see Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies, Ch. 1 Sect. d.

22. For the way in which the law was the hallmark of Judaism - a situation very different to the earlier Hebrew religion - see idem and 'The Role of the Jewish Woman in the Religion, Ritual and Cult of Graeco-Roman Palestine', p. 277.

23. For details of this and the other exemptions, with full rabbinic references and secondary source citation, see 'The Role of the Jewish Woman in the Religion, Ritual and Cult of Graeco-Roman Palestine', pp. 277ff.

24. As much is implied by various writers of the period (see Her Price is Beyond Rubies, Ch. 1, Sect. d). Note also the rabbinic view that if a woman did perform a commandment from which she was 'exempt', the action was without value for she was as 'one who is not commanded and fulfills' (Sot. 21a).

25. For this early history plus details of the rite's subsequent development, see Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies, Ch. 1, Sect. b.

26. For the significance of the operation being performed on the eighth day of the child's life rather than at any other time, see idem.

27. Contrast Exod. 12.24 (J) with Exod. 12.43 (P). Cf. Exod. 23.17; 34.23; Deut. 16.17, all of which are pre-exilic.

28. See, for example, the later statement of Gal. 5.3. Note also the way in which God-fearers who attached themselves to the Jewish community but who were not under an obligation to fulfil the whole law were characterised by various ancient writers as 'the uncircumcised' (see Emil Schiirer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (eds G. Verniers, F. Millar, M. Goodman, Edinburgh, 1987), III.2, pp. 165ff.

29. It should be said that the uncircumcised Jew remained ajew by birth (see Hull. 4b; Ah. Zarah 27a, and n. 57 below), but he was denied access to the higher life, as it were, of his people (i.e. like a woman). The penalty for non-observance of the rite was karet (Gen. 17.14) which was interpreted by the rabbis to mean premature death at the hands of heaven.

30. Shabb. 135-7; Yeb. 71a; Gen. R. 46:12, 'The sages have taught thus: in the case of an infant born without a foreskin it is necessary to cause a few drops of the blood of the covenant to flow from him on account of the covenant of Abraham.' All the texts refer to 'the blood of the covenant'. On this and the sacrificial character of the rite, see Geza Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden, 1961), pp. 190-91.

31. Exod. 4.24-6, 'And it came to pass on the way at the lodging place that the Lord met him [Moses] and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah [Moses's wife] took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his [Moses's/angel's?] feet, and she said "Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me ... A bridegroom of blood in regard to circumcision." ' Later sources (Targum, Scptuagint) also emphasise the all-important role which the blood of circumcision had in Moses's redemption. On the complexities of this passage and its treatment by post-biblical writers, see Vermes, op. cit., pp. 180ff. and H. Kosmala, 'The Bloody Husband', Veins Testamentum 12 (1962).

32. Lev. 17.11, 14 and see n. 35 below.

33. See Jewish Encyclopaedia Vol iii, p, 259

34. Lev. 3.17; 7.26; 17.10-14; 19.26; Deut. 12.16,23; 15.23.

35. So in context of the divine prohibition on human consumption of animal blood we read, 'For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls . . .' (Lev. 17.11). For the way in which the blood of sacrifice was daubed, smeared, sprinkled and generally offered as a means of covenanting, consecrating, expiating, purging, etc., see Leviticus passim and the Priestly strands of Exodus. See also the way in which the later book of Hebrews saw as the hallmark of Judaism Temple activity and the cultic shedding of blood (9.13ff. NB the theme continued in Christianity in that the basis of the new covenant was also blood - that of the male redeemer Christ, the ultimate sacrifice).

36. For a useful breakdown of the sacrificial procedure in terms of the victim's sex, see Judah Ben-Siyyon Segal, The Hebrew Passover from the Earliest Times to AD 70 (London, 1963), pp. 141-2 (though beware the purely pragmatic reasons which he adduces for the hierarchy). More importantly, see the statement made by Philo regarding the cult's preference for the male (Spec. Leg. I. 198ff., quoted in part below, p. 52) and note also that regarding sacrifice/redemption of firstlings only the male was counted.

37. Exod. 29.12ff.

38. Strictly speaking of course the eight-day-old child could not 'voluntarily' shed his own blood, but the assumption was that if he were able to determine his own fate, he would so choose. In any case, whether it was the child's will or not, the event still marked the operation of culture over nature, albeit in this instance through the agency of others.

39. So, for example, see Mal. 2.10 ('Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, profaning the covenant of our fathers?'); Amos 1.9 (the 'brotherly covenant', berith achim); Ezekiel 18.4 ('Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father is mine, so also the soul of the son is mine').

40. Midrash Rabbah, Lev. 17.11. Note also the way in which both midrashic and targumic exegesis saw Israel as having been saved through the blood of passoveranrf the blood of circumcision. See Vermes, op. cit., pp. 190-91.

41. So, for example, the statement of R. Akiba in Shabb. 9:1. For biblical instances of the uncleanness of the menstruant being used as a noun and metaphor for the height of defilement, see Ezek. 7.19-20; Lam. 1.17; Ezra 9.11; 2 Chron. 29.5 (note the dates of these works).

42. Lev. 15.19-32. Biblical law declared the woman unclean just for the days of bleeding, up until the close of a seven day period (if bleeding continued thereafter she entered a different category of uncleannness); rabbinic law, however, extended the period of uncleanness to count from the day the woman expected her menses through to the close of seven clear days (i.e. days without bleeding), and totalled the whole period of impurity as a minimum of twelve days. The emphasis of the biblical law (our concern here) was with admission to the cult, that of the rabbis with sexual activity between husband and wife. For details of the consequences of impurity, its transmission to others, etc., see Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 12, cols 1141-7; vol. 13, cols 1405-12.

43. For an analysis of the social significance of this differentiation, see Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies, Ch. I, Sect. b.

44. Gen. Rabbah 17:13.

45. Here it is significant to note that in the main Eve is not cited as the culprit for the Fall, rather the attention of the text lies with Adam. The shift in focus to Eve only came about with Christianity and the work of the Church Fathers. On this see Archer, 'The Virgin and the Harlot in the Writings of Formative Judaism', p. 2 and n. 5.

46. Op. cit., especially Chs 7 and 9.

47. Op. cit., pp. 72-3.

48. See Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, pp. 24ff. regarding the non-function to the individual of breasts, ovarian secretions, menstrual cycle, etc., and her conclusion (p. 239) that the female '. . .is more enslaved to the species than the male, her animality is more manifest'. Note the way in which I, along with Ortner {pp. 73ff.), would stress that the woman within this scheme of thought is seen as closer to nature and not relegated totally to that realm. As Levi-Strauss writes, no matter how devalued woman and her designated role may be, or how denied her ability to transcend and socialise 'even in a man's world she is still a person, and since insofar as she is defined as a sign she must [still] be recognised as a generator of signs' (Elementary Structures of Kinship, ed. R. Needham (Boston, 1969), p. 46). The tensions inherent to this conceptual system and the woman's intermediary and interstructural role are obvious.

49. Op. cit., p. 75.

50. Note in this context de Beauvoir's comments regarding the way in which greater prestige is often accorded the male destruction of life (e.g. warfare, hunting, etc.) than the female creation of life (op. cit., pp. 58-9), and Ortner's comments thereto (p. 75). This is a particularly salient point remembering what has here been said regarding cultic sacrifice and its practitioners.

51. See, for example, Josephus, Con. Ap. 2.201; PhiJo, Spec. Leg. 3:169f. (quoted n. 56 below).

52. See the marked frequency with which the community was reminded in the exilic and post-exilic writings of the command to 'Honour thy father and thy mother', and Archer, Her Price is Beyond Rubies, Ch. 1, Sect, d and Ch. 3, Sect, a for an analysis of both the commandment's social dynamic and the qualified nature in fact of the respect to be accorded the woman. See also n. 55 below.

53. Levi-Strauss's labelling of the domestic unit as 'biological' is of course too simplistic and indeed predisposes his own conclusion. It is also internally contradictory to his own definition which includes the domestic unit's socialising function. To follow his labelling would be to place women (and other members of the family) totally within the realm of nature. Bearing in mind these drawbacks, though, the model remains extremely useful and insightful.

54. Op. cit., p. 479, quoted in Ortner, op. cit., p. 78.

55. On this see Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, 'Woman, Culture, and society: A Theoretical Overview,' in Rosaldo and Lamphere, op. cit. pp. 17-42; Nancy Chodorow, 'Family Structure and Feminine Personality', in ibid., pp. 43-66; Ortner, op. cit. The focus on women's role/status as mother also encouraged this view, for the tendency was to regard the tasks of motherhood as purely natural without recognising that the bulk of the work involved socialising new members of the community.

56. See, for example, Philo Spec, Leg, 3:169f., 'Market places and council halls and law courts and gatherings and meetings where a large number of people are assembled, and open air life with full scope for discussion and action - all these are suitable for men both in war and peace. The women are best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house . . . Organised communities are of two sorts, the greater which we call cities and the smaller which we call households. Both of these have their governors; the government of the greater is assigned to men under the name of statesmanship, that of the lesser, known as household management, to women ..."

57. Regarding the question of Jewish identity, we should note that at least by Talmudic times the (ethnic) status of the child was determined by that of his or her mother and not by the father. So Kidd. 68b, 'Thy son by an Israelite woman is called thy son, thy son by a Gentile woman is not called thy son.' According to Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 10, cols 54r-55, such halachic definition of Jewish identity had been reached by Hasmonaean times. Although more research needs to be done regarding exacdy when this understanding of ethnic transmission was introduced, it is certainly possible that it evolved around the time of the exile and the community's return to Palestine.

58. Although often coming from a completely different analytical perspective to the one here taken, it is interesting and revealing to note the way in which the ritual is popularly described in the secondary sources. For example, E.O. James in Myth and Ritual (ed. S.H. Hooke, London, 1933, p. 150) writes, 'In most communities where the corporate attitude of mind still predominates it is necessary for the individual at some period of his [sic] life ... to undergo a solemn initiation into the tribal society, as distinct from that of the clan or family group in which he has been born. Until this has been done the youth is excluded from the ceremonial (i.e. the social) life of the tribe. Hence the rite consists virtually in a new birth . . . as a complete and active member of society.'

59. See again Lev. 12.2ff. and rny analysis thereof, p. 50 above. See also J.B. Segal, 'Popular Religion in ancient Israel', Journal of Jewish Studies 27/1 (Autumn 1976), pp. 5-6, who descriptively rather than analytically writes: 'A male infant was circumcised on the eighth day after birth because he was affected by his mother's uncleanness during the first seven days after the delivery; the eighth day was the first on which he could be approached by the male who carried out the ceremony.'

60. Kidd. 1:7, 29ab; Pes. 3:7.

61. Kidd. 1:7, 29ab.

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