From Code to Discourse: The Semantics of Ancient Near Eastern Ritual

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Feder_YitzhaqBy: Yitzhaq Feder, University of Haifa, Educational and Cultural Affairs Fellow

My fellowship at the Albright Institute provided me with the opportunity to make significant progress in my large-scale inquiry into the origins of ritual symbols and their sociological and political functions in cultural discourse. This project builds upon the recognition of the foundational role of concrete imagery in processes of human conceptualization and expression (as elucidated in ‘embodiment’ theory), particularly as reflected in the languages and rituals of the ancient Near East. In implementing this project, I distinguish between codes (the repertoire of symbols) and discourse (the systems of thought regulating the use of these codes). The case studies which I examined during my residency at Albright aimed to shed light on different aspects of the relationship between ritual codes and cultural discourse.

My main project was an investigation into the origins of the Israelite notion of pollution (tum’ah). Earlier treatments of this topic have tended to employ a disembodied rationality in their attempts to interpret the laws of purity as representing abstract social or cosmological categories. However, a careful examination of sources such as Leviticus 15 and Numbers 19 indicates that the logic of pollution is anchored in bodily experience, seeming to exhibit a relationship with ancient perceptions of infectious disease. Despite the common recognition of the similarity between practices motivated by hygiene and those pertaining to ‘ritual purity,’ simplistic and anachronistic assumptions have led scholars to dismiss the possibility of a direct connection between them. Through a broad survey of notions of disease and pollution in the ancient and modern worlds, I show that this dismissive attitude is premature. Although pollution cannot be simply equated with infection, I demonstrate that several types of pollution described in the Hebrew Bible can be traced back to the less differentiated perception of contagion that existed in the pre-modern world. At the same time, it would seem that biblical authors had already begun to reinterpret this notion, emphasizing primarily its implications for approaching the sacred domain. In the immediate future, I plan on studying this changing understanding of pollution and its socio-historical implications, as reflected in biblical and post-biblical sources.

In addition to situating the biblical notion of pollution in a more viable historical context, I also achieved a clearer understanding of the psychological foundations of pollution as a conceptual scheme. Building on cognitive linguistic research into conceptual integration, I show how a tangible model based on phenomenal experience (e.g. a stain) serves as a vehicle for conceptualizing an unseen essence (pollution). A similar scheme can explain why bloodguilt was conceptualized as an invisible stain.

In addition to my research on pollution, I completed the article “The Aniconic Tradition, Deuteronomy 4 and the Politics of Israelite Identity,” which was accepted for publication in the Journal of Biblical Literature. This study examines the historical background and rhetoric surrounding the idol prohibition in Israel. By elucidating the sociological and intellectual implications of the aniconic rhetoric, this article helps elucidate the role of this cultic tradition as a marker of Israelite distinction.

I am deeply grateful to the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau (ECA) of the US State Department for its generous support, and to the Albright Institute for hosting me.


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