If religion is essentially of the inner life, it follows that it can be truly grasped only from within. But beyond a doubt, this can be better done by one in whose inward consciousness an experience of religion plays a part. There is but too much danger that the other [the non-believer] will talk of religion as a blind man might of colours, or one totally devoid of ear, of a beautiful musical composition.— E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1965: 121, citing Wilhelm Schmidt)
This article introduces and presents the English original of the preface Dame Mary Douglas (1921–2007) wrote for the Hebrew translation of Purity and Danger, which appeared in 2010 as part of the Libido (Sociology/Anthropology) Translation Series, published by Resling Press in Tel Aviv. The actual work of translation was done by Ms. Yael Sela, currently Hebrew Language Manager at Google Israel, under the academic supervision of Dr. André Levy of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheva.1 Levy also contributed an introduction to the Hebrew translation, setting Purity and Danger in the context of structuralist analysis (primarily that of Claude Lévi-Strauss), insisting on the importance of Durkheim as providing the intellectual backbone of Douglas's contributions, and defending Purity and Danger against the critiques of post-structuralists. Levy concluded that Douglas's comparative perspective in the book made Purity and Danger interesting and relevant in spite of the criticisms that had been leveled against it and the many years that had passed since its initial publication in 1966 (Douglas 2010: 17–27).
Although Douglas learned biblical Hebrew in order to be more fully qualified for her studies of the Hebrew Bible, to which she devoted many years,2 she never learned modern scholarly Hebrew. She therefore worked on the preface to the Hebrew translation in English, from May 2004 to January 2005, with the final version dated 28 January 2005.3 It was translated as part of the project to translate the book as a whole. As such, this preface, written so close to the end of her life, is effectively Douglas's final statement about the motivation, meaning, and ultimate significance of her book. It is her summary of reflections on Purity and Danger, its strengths and weaknesses (as seen by Douglas herself and others); it is also about the alternatives to the ideas first proposed in Purity and Danger that Douglas offered over the next 50 years. I am grateful to Richard Fardon, Douglas's biographer (see Fardon 1999) and literary executor, for sending me the files with the versions of the English original and for permission to publish it, along with a brief excerpt from Douglas's note congratulating Jacob Milgrom when he turned 80 years old. My goal in the initial sections of this article is to suggest a context for Douglas's preface, which then appears in full, followed by an afterword.
Of all the books and articles written by Dame Mary Douglas over her long and productive career, the most widely read and most frequently cited remains Purity and Danger (1966). Reprinted many times and widely translated, the book achieved considerable fame for Douglas. As Tracy Maria Lemos wrote, she considered Douglas one of her intellectual heroes for crossing academic boundaries, beginning in Purity and Danger and continuing into her later work, even if Lemos found that Douglas, like all heroes, had a tragic flaw. According to Lemos, Douglas was exceptionally brave and original in crossing the boundaries of academic disciplines in all her work. The flaw, Lemos (2009: 251) concluded, was that Douglas was not sufficiently aware that the different methods she introduced contradicted each other. Nevertheless, Lemos summarized the significance of Purity and Danger as “attesting to its generative role for the study of the Israelite cult, an area which in the past two or three decades has finally received the attention it deserves—and much of the thanks for this goes to Douglas” (ibid.: 240). On a wider horizon, Purity and Danger is the source of inspiration for numerous scholarly analyses across an extensive range of subjects in the Humanities and Social Sciences. As one of many examples, I note the acknowledgment of the inspiration that the historian Peter Brown (1971: 80) of Princeton University derived from Douglas's work in writing his classic essay on the Holy Man, which virtually founded the study of ‘Late Antiquity’: “I owe to the work of Dr. Mary Douglas an inspiration that has guided me towards this, and related, topics.”
One quote at the beginning of Purity and Danger caught a good deal of attention: the saying, attributed to Lord Chesterfield, that dirt was “matter out of place” (Douglas 1966: 35). This adage was Douglas's guide to interpreting her material on purity and impurity.4 However, the clear star of this widely cited book—the most highly read and reprinted section to which readers always wanted to return, while disregarding (to her dismay) so much of what Douglas wrote after 1966—was the chapter “Abominations of Leviticus” (ibid.: 41–57). It offered a rational and coherent answer to an age-old question, already put contemptuously by Caligula to the Jewish delegation from Alexandria in 40 ce: “Why do you refuse to eat pork?”5 A generation later, echoing the same disdain for Jewish abstinence from pork, the Roman satirist Juvenal (60 ce–130 ce) noted that Judea was a land where the kings went barefoot on the Sabbath6 and pigs lived to an old age (Satires 6.157–160).7 Douglas's explanation was neither apologetic nor anachronistic. It did not make an unconvincing appeal to hygiene (a pig wallows in dirt) or to ‘medical materialism’ and the danger of disease (trichinosis). Instead, it insisted on these biblical prohibitions as part of an emphasis on order, structure, and the universal need to avoid anomalies—in the biblical case, in a system that emphasized holy perfection and was based on classification by habitat, an idea Douglas picked up from her African experience with the Lele.8 The prohibited animals and water creatures did not have the necessary characteristics of members of their habitat class. To make matters even worse, the pig and camel each had only one of the two required features: the pig had cloven hooves but did not chew its cud, while the camel chewed its cud but did not have cloven hooves. People might miss their anomalous character, and the Torah needed to make clear that they were forbidden. As one colleague put it, setting forth her conclusions to an audience of specialists in Jewish studies, Douglas showed that from now on we need to study the Bible differently. Or, as one of her earliest reviewers wrote, “after her, the study of religion will never be the same” (F. B. Welbourn, cited in Hendel 2008b: 14*).
Nevertheless, despite its fame, Purity and Danger came under severe criticism from Melford Spiro, almost at the outset. Spiro (1968: 392) was displeased by symbolic analysis of the kind he found in Purity and Danger,
which proceeds neither from a general theory of symbolism, from which the meaning attributed to a symbol can be logically deduced, nor from a set of psychological data on social actors, from which the putative meaning of the symbol is empirically induced. In the absence of both bases for the derivation of meaning, symbolic analyses become arbitrary, and conviction of their validity must stem from the persuasiveness of the argument.
Spiro found Douglas's conclusions unconvincing. He insisted that they suffered from overgeneralization and lacked an adequate basis in fieldwork. He charged that the main conclusion of Purity and Danger was “supported neither by evidence nor by argument; it is asserted as a self-evident truth” (ibid.).9
To the best of my knowledge, Douglas never responded explicitly to Spiro's assertions, but she was responsive to criticisms and offered unfavorable comments of her own about the book. Douglas (1986: x) related that friends had told her that Purity and Danger was “obscure, intuitive, and ill prepared. They were right.” One might therefore argue, quite convincingly, that much of Douglas's subsequent prolific contribution was an attempt to correct the defects, back up central conclusions, and fill out the basic points, all the while elaborating the theoretical basis of ideas first proposed in Purity and Danger.10
As a consequence of this further reflection, and despite its fame, Douglas fundamentally revised the explanation of the “Abominations of Leviticus” proposed in Purity and Danger. First, on a more theoretical level, Douglas ( 1996: ix) undercut the basis of her explanation of the prohibition of certain animals because they were anomalous by recognizing “the empirical fact that some societies persist very well without strongly bounded cognitive categories and some tolerate anomaly more easily than others.” She then wondered if the prohibitive attitude toward anomalous creatures shown by biblical texts was “a peculiarity of the Mosaic code. In other societies anomaly is not always so treated” (Douglas  1999a: 244). Indeed, as she noted, in some cultures “the anomalous creature is treated as the source of blessing and is specially fit for the altar (as the Lele pangolin), or as a noble beast, to be treated as an honourable adversary as the Karam treat the cassowary” (ibid.). Her universalist theory about a worldwide negative response to anomaly, on which the “Abominations of Leviticus” was based, did not meet the comparative test. Instead, as worked out in detail in later works (e.g., Douglas 1986), Douglas proposed a theory emphasizing institutional thought styles and the feedback loops of ritual practice that reinforced patterns of institutional organization. Only that perspective, she insisted, could adequately explain particular anomalies in specific situations and point toward a dynamic social process for channeling conflict.11
In light of these later reflections, the rejection of the anomalous animals based on habitat, such as the pig and the camel, could no longer suffice as the reason for their prohibition. Another explanation must be found. Specifically, concerning the permitted and forbidden animals, she recognized the intricacy of biblical prohibitions. Douglas noted that the forbidden animals can be utilized for numerous purposes while alive: camels and asses can be harnessed, while dogs and cats can be domesticated. They are a source of impurity only when dead, and this, ironically, makes them safe from use in the kitchen. Therefore, counterintuitively, she now insisted that “to be classified unclean ought to be an advantage for the survival of the species” (Douglas 1999: 142). Furthermore, a kind God would not have created abominable creatures. In Genesis 1, God made all the creatures, including the swarming and teeming ones, and found them good (ibid.: 11). As to the permitted animals, Douglas asserted (ibid.: 148–151):
The meaning of purity depends on the sense of God's awful majesty, manifest in his creation. Exodus describes it in a narrative of volcanic explosion, thunder, fire. Deuteronomy describes it with words about God's power, and with verbal warnings of disaster. Leviticus conveys it by double, triple and multiple microcosms. The people, with their children and servants and their domestic animals too, benefit from his covenant. As vassals of God their unworthiness is immeasurable, but yet they are invited to eat at his table and may eat the food that is offered to him. Sacrifice is a communal feast. Theoretically, the people of Israel never eat meat except in God's company, in his house and with his blessing. They have been singled out for the honour of being consecrated to God, to be his people. The height and depth of this honour is inexpressible. At another level it is a parallel honour for their flocks and herds, the cloven-hoofed ruminants, to be singled out of all animal kinds to be consecrated to God. This paradigm turns the covenant animals into vassals in relation to the people of Israel, as are the people of Israel the vassals of God.
Ritual impurity imposes God's order on creation.
The fundamental analogy is that of the so-called Russian stacking dolls, whereby each outer layer repeats exactly what is found in the inner layers. God, the sanctuary, the people, and their flocks—each repeats a pattern of covenantal holiness. As such, the permitted animals, sacred for offering on the altar, share in the blessings of the covenant (and therefore can be consumed), while the forbidden animals do not.12
Not surprisingly, this ongoing interest in the biblical laws of purity and impurity, the forbidden and permitted animals, was at the front of Douglas's mind when preparing the preface to the Hebrew translation of Purity and Danger. It was this aspect of the original work that would most interest the reader in Hebrew.13 However, when the Hebrew edition was being prepared for publication, a newly released book aroused Douglas's attention and interest, on which she showered her highest praise. In 2000, the late Valerio Valeri's book entitled The Forest of Taboos: Morality, Hunting, and Identity among the Huaulu of the Moluccas was published posthumously (born in 1944, Valeri died in 1998). Reviewing the book, Douglas (2000) concluded that “The Forest of Taboos is destined to be a classic text. Apart from anthropology, there are many other fields in which it will be influential.”14 Given that the work was based on a quarter of a century living with the people of Seram, with the Huaulu of the Moluccas in Indonesia, one could not dismiss Valeri's conclusions as overgeneralization and lacking an adequate basis in fieldwork, as Spiro had criticized Purity and Danger.
In another reflection and synthesis of Valeri's contribution, Douglas (2004a: 164) wrote:
His central construct correlates spatial and temporal perceptions of distance and proximity with relations of similarity and likeness, familiarity and strangeness, friendship and enmity. Excessive distance, which pairs with strangeness and enmity, needs to be marked. Also excessive closeness, which pairs with persons or things invading from another sphere, needs to be classified. By following these principles, taboos construct the subject's whole identity, and the identity of the other. Bit by bit, they bring the whole cosmos into a coherent pattern.15
Valeri insisted that taboos should be understood as the result of marking symbolic mismatches. In a word, he transposed Douglas's dirt as a matter out of place into a new intellectual key, but the basic tune remained the same. Both symbolic mismatches and coherences could now find their meanings as matter out of place or in place. Douglas's analysis of ritual purity and impurity, as elaborated over the years, could be comfortably housed in Valeri's construct. Valeri was explicitly critical of Douglas, a fact accentuated by the circumstance that he did not cite How Institutions Think, which might have mitigated his objections. Nevertheless, as Perri 6 and Paul Richards (2017: 41) noted, despite his objections to Douglas's work: “Ironically, Valeri's own account of taboo based on a strategy of distance and proximity management turned out, as Douglas recognized, to be more closely akin to her own mature project than [Valeri] recognized.” It is therefore fitting that Douglas turned to Valeri at the end of the preface as a model of how the research she had pioneered in Purity and Danger should be done.
Douglas's allegiances as a Catholic taught by nuns of the Sacred Heart Convent in Roehampton, where her mother had been educated, were well known (Douglas 2013: 17–22), and she noted them in the preface. She considered her “life-time project, to make sense” of the hierarchical world in which she had been brought up by her grandmother and the nuns (ibid.: 21). However, she could also be critical of that world: As she told Deborah Jones in 1999, who asked “Can a scientist be objective about her faith?”:
If you're brought up as a Catholic you can be more anti-clerical and more free in joking about sacred matters than if you're on the outside, tiptoeing politely around. There is a joke they used to tell about how to recognize the Church. ‘How can you recognize the one true Church?’ ‘By the corruption of its ministers—for only God's true Church could survive with such corruption!’ That's how we were brought up—committed and free. (Douglas 2013: 265)16
Despite this, she had been suspected of writing Natural Symbols ( 1996) as a defense of Catholic ritual. For that reason, it was important for Douglas to emphasize the rational and academic basis of her work on the Bible so that it would not be perceived as apologetic theologizing or special pleading.17 This was a challenge, as finding what is unique or special about the Hebrew Bible is a perilous enterprise. Jonathan Z. Smith (1990) warned that too much of what is claimed as unique in some traditions is the result of theological bias, arguments to uphold the superiority of a particular religious tradition in contrast to its contemporary peers. From another perspective, commenting on a collection that was supposed to demonstrate the distinctive nature of the Hebrew Bible, Morton Smith (1952) turned the tables on the authors of the collection and insisted on the common theology of the ancient Near East.
To accomplish her goal, Douglas devoted decades to intensive study of the Bible. She spent years in conversation with biblical scholars, especially with Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010).18 Many of her publications focused on understanding religious experience from a social perspective: her biblical research consisted of test cases and definitive examples for wider conclusions about social structure. Most important of all, however, she was convinced that the comparative insights she brought to Bible study as an anthropologist allowed her to identify what was unique in the Bible and formed a basis on which she could build.19
However, in relation to other Bible scholars, the concern for rational objectivity was most prominent in her mind and runs through the preface to the Hebrew translation of Purity and Danger. It begins with the note that Purity and Danger belonged to the “normal part of the 1950's Oxford programme in the anthropology of religion” and moves on to state that her goal was to propose a systematic explanation of ritual uncleanness from “a rational aspect.” Toward the end of the preface, after the turn to the work of Valerio Valeri, Douglas asserts that the “whole system of cultic laws is much more closely integrated, more rational than ever I had suspected.” The results of her efforts to understand religious experience in general and the Hebrew Bible in particular, again from “a rational aspect” elaborated over more than 50 years, inform Douglas's final reflections on the most famous section of her most widely cited book.
A Hebrew Edition of Purity and Danger
Preface by Mary Douglas
I am very grateful to the publishers for this edition of Purity and Danger. A translation is always an immense satisfaction. As the main inspiration for this book came from reading the Mosaic dietary laws in chapter 11 of Leviticus, and as the chapter I wrote on the ‘Abominations of Leviticus’ has been more cited than any other in the book, to have it in Hebrew is an honour and fulfilment. Leviticus has been a source of inspiration for my own thinking ever since.
The book was conceived as a normal part of the 1950's Oxford programme in the anthropology of religion. As a student I understood that the underlying idea was a kind of vindication of ‘primitive religion’. Religions of Africa and indeed, pre-Christian religions anywhere, were popularly thought to be bogged down in superstitious magic and absurd taboo rules against defilement. The great books on religion being written at that time by my teacher, Evans-Pritchard, and fellow students, Godfrey Lienhardt, John Middleton and Jean Buxton, took a contrary line; based on their fieldwork. They described noble conceptions of godhead, and spiritual doctrines of sacrifice in Africa. Frank [sic] Steiner in the same spirit presented a rational, perspective on taboo. My own fieldwork was among a people in Central Africa who did not perform sacrifice at all but respected many dietary laws.
At that time theories of ritual uncleanness had not been systematically presented under a rational aspect. It was a job waiting to be done. I needed to try it because I had been struck by some superficial similarities between the Lele food prohibitions and those of Leviticus. The illumination did not come from my prior reading of the Bible. My Catholic education had never included that book. When I was in the field I sent for a copy because I had observed Jewish friends’ respect for the dietary laws, and hoped for some insight from Leviticus. It is embarrassing to confess that I had never read Leviticus or Deuteronomy at all. It was a revelation to find there, in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, two things in common with the Lele food rules. For one, there is a common focus on animal foods, so evidently the human/animal interaction was at issue. For the other, the animals were classified by their habitat, that is to say that the rules rested upon a primary distinction between animals of the land, animals in the sky and animals in the waters. There were so many other things they did not have in common, but I was primarily interested in the classificatory aspects.
I was developing a cognitive theory of anomaly. It struck me that the status of the pig in the levitical classification was very like the status of the flying squirrel in the animal classification of the Lele; neither conformed to the classifications of the class to which it seemed on first view to belong. The flying squirrel was so like other squirrels that it ought to have been as edible as they were, indeed a favourite delicacy. But if it belonged with the squirrels, it had no business to be flying around like a bird. The pig had the cloven hoof which should have made it a member of the Israelite flocks and herds which characteristically cleave the hoof, but unlike them it did not chew the cud, so it was anomalous, it only fulfilled one criterion of membership of the class.
My idea was a universalist theory about a worldwide negative response to anomaly. That which resists classification produces discomfort in the mind of the classifier. Hence a tendency to anomalous creatures and to count them as inedible, or to forbid eating them.
This is one of the central theses of Purity and Danger, a thesis of how things get to be treated as dirt, a definition of dirt as matter out of place. It was treated much too generously by reviewers. I still think it holds good, but only within cultures which have a strong classificatory bent, an obsession with classificatory completeness. It opened a new approach to impurity. But I now realize, after many decades, that the argument was not nearly good enough for the Jewish dietary laws.
It was worse than rash to make use of that sacred book as if it were any other text. My first excuse for an uneducated attack on the hoary old question was that the expert biblical commentators seemed not to agree on the meaning of the Jewish food laws. My second excuse for going ahead was the extraordinary tolerance and encouragement I always received from Jewish biblical scholars. The first that I consulted was the late Professor S. Stein at University College London. He kindly read an early draft of the chapter on forbidden animals and promptly struck out the first sentence. I had begun by describing the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus 11 as ‘the hoariest puzzle of the Bible’. He said that the Bible has so many hoary puzzles that I was silly to give the food rules a claim to be foremost. It was a very polite way of saying that the particular problem of ritual uncleanness needed to be set in the context of the Bible as a whole.
Since then it is true to say that I never left the problem. Finally, about fifty years later, I think I have come to the right answer. The main trouble was to have focused on the negative aspect of culture. We have to try to fit the rules that forbid with the rules that permit. The rules that bestow identities will make sense of the rules that attack matter out of place. I am now able to take the argument on much further. The advance depends on discussion with many friends, and much reading.
In anthropology the most significant contribution to this ongoing problem was the late Valerio Valeri's book, The Forest of Taboos, Morality, Hunting and Identity among the Huaulu of the Moluccas, (2000, U. of Wisconsin Press). His profound study of the taboo shows, first, that it is indeed a system, which means that no picking out one tabooed item for explanation will ever serve. The whole system of thought is engaged. The body is a structured model of the universe; the taboos reinforce the oppositions that structure the universe and make it rationally comprehensible: animal/human, male/female, young/old, near/far. Respecting the codified distinctions is a method of learning by not doing. If the distinctions were not honoured, they could easily collapse, and the mind would be confronted by chaos.
This is a big subject, and I make it opaque by trying to say it too quickly. Let me hasten back to the case of the Mosaic food prohibitions. Instead of looking only at the forbidden animals, look at the whole range of animal life that is incorporated into these two chapters; relate this scheme to the whole range of human life. Consider the food rules in the light of the sexual rules, and both in the light of the rules of the cult in the book of Leviticus. Start with the injunction to the people of Israel to be holy and separate from other peoples. Remember that the food rules are not universal, they are only for the people of Israel who have been chosen by God for a special destiny. The Covenant governs their relations with God, with each other and with their domestic flocks and herds. The latter are also under the Covenant. When we reread the chapter 11 very closely we find that the human relations with their animals are analogous to God's relation to his chosen people, under the Covenant. All this distracting detail about hoofs divided and not divided, chewing and not chewing the cud, is simply to identify the domestic flocks and herds which can be offered in sacrifice. The pig is not to be eaten because it is not to be sacrificed. Analogous rules for what can be eaten and what can be sacrificed draw a parallel between the altar and the human body. The book describes a microcosm of God's universe, and tells his people how to conform to its pattern. Living in harmony with the way he made the world is to take their share in the work of creation, a special destiny.
Jewish friends have told me that they liked Purity and Danger because it offers a rational explanation of the kashrut: the rules were not to be dismissed as magic or superstition. The good news on this subject that emerged from my further studies of Leviticus (Leviticus as Literature, 1999 OUP) is that this whole system of cultic laws is much more closely integrated, more rational than ever I had suspected in Purity and Danger.
There is one person I must thank for helping me to persevere with the themes of Purity and Danger. Without Jacob Milgrom's unfailing encouragement, his kindly reading of every draft I sent him, and his strict care to correct my errors, I would never have developed my passionate admiration for Leviticus as a book. What a loss that would have been for my life.
This article introduces and presents a historical document, written in 2005. As such, it concentrates on publications available to the author at the time of composition, with only brief references to further discussion of Douglas's work on the Bible written after 2005. It is somewhat unfair to consider a text written at a certain time in light of later assessments of that author's work, of which the author could not have been aware. I have therefore limited extensive discussion based on scholarship published after 2005 in the body of this article.
Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, it would be remiss not to summarize briefly some of the discussions of Douglas's writings on the Bible, especially Purity and Danger and particularly “The Abominations of Leviticus” in its various iterations, which appeared primarily after her death in 2007. As Ronald Hendel (2008b: 5*) noted: “Any contemporary scholar working on biblical religion and ritual must engage with her work, whether to criticize or build upon it—or, best of all, to do both.” It is in this spirit that I offer the remarks that follow, focusing on contributions that directly engage Douglas's 2005 preface, the base text of this article.
I begin the survey with Lemos (2009: 241–250), who found Douglas's writing on the Bible, especially her later efforts, marred by apologetic theologizing and special pleading. For example, Lemos noted that a theological bias led Douglas to downplay and explain away inconvenient evidence, such as the attitude toward people with skin disease, who are the embodiment of impurity. Douglas somehow turned these rules into something not so harsh for ordinary people, but especially hard on the priests, as part of a system of control applied against them (ibid.: 241–245). Along the same lines, Schmitt (2008: 12) found Douglas's insistence that Israel's symbol system was fundamentally different from those of its ancient Near Eastern environment to be an apologetic relic of her Roman Catholic commitments. Finally, Lemos (2009: 242–243, 247–248) worried that Douglas had collapsed the difference between historical Judaism, as practiced by her informants, and Israelite religion.
In contrast, Hendel (2008b) insisted that the books on the priestly sections of the Bible were fieldwork in the texts, exploring what for Douglas was always crucial—how the thought style that was expressed “cohered with the social form of the priestly hierarchy” (ibid.: 8*). Hendel also contributed a key insight by placing Douglas's work in the intellectual context of its times, situating it in ‘modernism’ (as exemplified by the work of Eric Auerbach  in his classic study Mimesis), in which “minute details are revelatory of universal human conditions” (Hendel 2008a: 4). The search is for the universal in the particular and for the complex relationship between these two (ibid.: 3–5). This approach enabled Hendel to endorse the revised version of Douglas's explanation of why the pig and other “Abominations of Leviticus” were forbidden, accepting her argument for analogies between table and altar, people and food (ibid.: 7–10):
In other words, the prohibition of certain animals calls into play the structure of the created cosmos … the distinctions and relationship between God, Israel, and other humans, and the divisions of holy and profane persons … Distinctions of cosmos, divinity, ethnicity, and religious authority—of knowledge and power—are articulated within this system and are ritually enacted in the daily meal. (Hendel 2008a: 9)
Saul Olyan (2008) took up the analysis of holiness in “The Abominations of Leviticus.” Douglas argued there that holiness required a perfect body, or what Olyan chose to call ‘wholeness’. Wholeness was an embodiment of holiness, whereby to be holy is to be whole. He noted that Douglas's conception had been widely accepted (ibid.: 2n2). In a previous work, Olyan (1996) had extended this paradigm to explain why the altar was to be built of unfinished stones: when a tool had been taken to them, specifically an iron tool, they lost their wholeness and hence their holiness. Olyan noted two other applications of the holiness/wholeness paradigm: to sacred time by Jacob Milgrom (work on the Sabbath ‘blemishes’ its wholeness; Milgrom 2001: 1978–1979) and to priestly hair after the death of a relative by Susan Niditch (2008: 106–107; see Olyan 2008: 6–7). However, Olyan also noted that the connection between wholeness and holiness was not absolute or unique in the Bible. Beauty could also be a correlate of wholeness, while defective priests did not completely lose their holiness. They retained access to the sanctuary and to sacred foods. In short, Olyan (2008: 7–8) argued that Douglas's paradigm was useful for some biblical texts, but not for all, concluding that although “Douglas did not distinguish between biblical sources, it is important that we do so if we are to evaluate the utility of her paradigm with any insight” (ibid.: 9).
Thomas Kazen (2018) offered the most extensive analysis and critique of Douglas as part of his own effort to explain the variety of biblical purity regulations and language. He began by insisting that thanks to the human penchant for narrativity, we assign cause and effect to phenomena. But cause and effect are slippery concepts with multiple possible meanings, and hence accounts of them differ due to the underlying questions on which they were based, creating confusion. Kazen identified several levels according to which an event might be ‘explained’, including social, political, economic, and religious. He called on scholars to be “clearer about their underlying questions and at which level they attempt to answer them” (ibid.: 75–76).
Kazen identified one type of explanation as ‘functionalist/structuralist’, and it was in that framework that he analyzed Douglas's account of the abominations of Leviticus. Kazen (2018: 82) noted that despite the praise heaped on Douglas, her explanation suffered from five problems: (1) it assumes a universal structure of the human mind; (2) it understands mind, theory, or idea to precede ritual behavior; (3) it is acontextual, not paying enough attention to the specific circumstances; (4) it is ahistorical, as the practices involved are older than the regulations in the texts; and (5) it is speculative and arbitrary. He noted that Douglas ( 1999a) attempted to remedy some of these flaws in “Deciphering a Meal,” but only added to the difficulties rather than resolving them (Kazen 2018: 81–82).
As for her later works, such as Leviticus as Literature, offered by Douglas (1999) as an alternative to her earlier explanation of “The Abominations of Leviticus” that she herself soon rejected, Kazen (2018: 86) cited the evaluation offered by James Watts: “[Douglas's] analysis of Leviticus provides a rather extreme example of mixing textual meaning and ritual significance and folding both into a theological superstructure provided by the interpreter.” Watts offered an extreme example, insisting that the claim that a ‘kind God’ could not have created abominable creatures, as argued by Douglas, was pure ‘intellectual apologetics’. Referencing Watts, Kazen argued that the master analogy suggested by Douglas between Sinai, the Tabernacle, bodies of sacrifices, and human Israelites is made possible through “an arbitrary use of parallels, a random selection of elements and an idiosyncratic structuring of Leviticus” (ibid.).
For himself, Kazen preferred cognitive linguistic explanations. Purity language is sometimes specific, as when applied to disgusting things such as pus, gore, genital discharge, or corpses. However, it is often metaphorical, and these metaphors can be extended further and further to encompass other items or behaviors that are rejected. Applied to animals, people, or sinful actions, idolatry can thus become bloodshed, and intermarriage with non-Israelites an illegitimate mixing of holy seed (Kazen 2018: 96–99).
Douglas's writings on the Bible, from Leviticus as Literature through Jacob's Tears, received a more sympathetic assessment from Perri 6 and Paul Richards, and it is with a summary of their analysis that I close this afterword. Both Perri 6 and Richards were in close personal and academic touch with Douglas over many years and benefited from her advice. Both utilized hypotheses derived from her theories in their own empirical research. Their book was written to make scholars better aware of the importance of Douglas's contributions to the social sciences (6 and Richards 2017: ix).
Thanks to this personal knowledge, they were aware of an important biographical moment in Douglas's life—her return visit to the Lele in 1987, where she witnessed a rage against sorcery that took shape as persecution by newly ordained Catholic priests against practitioners of the old religion. Sorcery, Douglas ( 1999b: 83) insisted, was an important, integral part of that old religion and had a significant social role in maintaining the relations between older and younger generations of the tribe: “Sorcery was the most enduring part of their pagan system.” The older missionaries had preached that sorcery was delusional and meaningless, that “the devil was more ridiculous than dangerous” (ibid.: 91). But for the younger ones, encountered in 1987, sorcery was evil, and the old God of the Lele was Satan. Young priests then launched a direct attack against sorcerers. One charismatic Abbé went from village to village. Those suspected of sorcery were beaten and burned until they confessed. Some died. As might be expected, those who tried to help the accused sorcerers were themselves pursued. In the end, the Catholic Church ended the anti-sorcery campaign by reassigning the young priests who had led it elsewhere (ibid.: 83–88). Douglas ended the essay by arguing that the Church ought to develop serious respect for African religions and their ability to offer comfort facing life's challenges. Otherwise, “the Christian Church will bring Africa more rage than peace, more hate than love” (ibid.: 93).
Cooling destructive effervescence thus became an issue of intense personal and professional interest for Douglas. But where is there a precedent that can be emulated in that search for curbing effervescence of the sort that convulsed the Lele? What were the social dynamics that made it work? Perri 6 and Richards (2017: 14) asserted that
Douglas chose to use ethnographic examination of several books of the Hebrew Bible to develop her account of what kinds of institutional capabilities might sustain the thought styles required for peace making and social reintegration, and for calming the frenzied and runaway processes of hostile classification such as stigmatizing people and demonizing groups.
She attempted this through a particular analysis of hierarchy as she saw it played out in those biblical books. She followed Louis Dumont in understanding hierarchy not as “a coercive system of command and humiliation of subalterns,” but as a contrapuntal distribution of “powers across linked but separated spheres … that then tended to provide mutual checks and balances, for example, between church and state in the Holy Roman Empire” (ibid.). Hierarchy, thus understood, could minimize social conflict. Douglas's analysis of biblical books, Perri 6 and Richards argued, was not barely veiled theology written as a result of personal Catholic loyalty; rather, it was an attempt at deep social analysis that could point ways to curb ‘collective effervescence’, from which there was much to be learned (ibid.: 146–175).
Speaking for myself, I find Douglas's contributions on the nature of hierarchy based on the Hebrew Bible, as analyzed by Perri 6 and Richards, exceptionally suggestive. With Douglas's help, I can ‘think better’ about puzzling aspects of ancient Jewish sectarianism, as I hope to show in future contributions.
This article had its genesis in a conversation with Professor Richard Fardon, SOAS, University of London, at the 10th Annual Mary Douglas Seminar, held at University College London, 23–24 May 2019. Fardon (Douglas's biographer and literary executor) and I discussed the preface Douglas completed in January 2005 for the Hebrew translation of Purity and Danger, which Fardon had recovered from Douglas's computer. He suggested that I write a short introduction to this interesting text and then print it. I thank Professor Fardon for suggesting that I do so and for his comments on drafts. I am grateful for helpful feedback that I received from Professors Elisheva Baumgarten, The Hebrew University; Jonathan Klawans, Boston University; Perri 6, Queen Mary University; and Paul Richards, Professor Emeritus, Wageningen University. I also thank the editors and their anonymous reviewers for insightful comments that contributed to the scope and clarity of the article.
Douglas (2004a: 2–3) did not want to be like the anthropologists who wrote on the Bible whom she satirized:
Since Frazer wrote The Golden Bough British anthropologists have been offering their interpretations of the Bible, using their special experience of exotic cultures. Far from our usual work, it may seem to other anthropologists like a leisure-time occupation, or a stay in a kind of picturesque holiday resort. To the Bible scholars we probably look like tourists who have taken an old mansion for the season: the men irreverently hang their baseball caps on the trophy antlers in the hall; the women bring down an antique chamber pot and fill it with a display of flowers; we all earnestly discourse on the local customs, and claim that the present-day owners of the sacred books don't really understand them. We used to be able to say what we liked, for no one was going to hold us accountable. The Bible scholars were unlikely to read what we wrote, and the regular anthropologists didn't know the Bible anyway.
Times have changed. We have to be more careful. Bible scholars not only read us but they review our books, and they can quote anthropology with the best …
Personally, I don't want to be on vacation in the Bible. For fifteen years the Bible has been my main interest and the central focus of all my work.
See also Douglas (2004b).
Richard Fardon, e-mail of 29 May 2019.
On this quotation see Fardon (2013). For an extensive discussion of purity and impurity systems, taking its lead from Douglas's insistence that ‘dirt’ or ‘matter out of place’ means that there must be a system, but arguing that there is no single biblical purity system, see Lemos (2013).
Philo of Alexandria, Embassy to Gaius, 362.
The ancient rabbis were also well aware that Jews were mocked for not eating pigs, but they turned the status of the pig into an allegory denouncing Rome. The pig stretches forth his feet demonstratively, marking his cloven hooves and declaring that he is kosher, all the while ignoring the fact that he does not chew his cud and does not meet the second requirement. In that same way, Rome, the evil empire, declares her loyalty to the law and ignores the arbitrary and unjust way she rules (Genesis Rabbah 65,1; 713 [Theodor-Albeck]).
Douglas always insisted on her training as an Africanist and on her African experiences as sources of insight for her later work. For one example among many, see her remarks about what is unusual in the biblical Book of Numbers (Douglas 1993: 25–26): “Everybody is liable to be defiled or to defile. This should be totally unexpected to the anthropologist used to purity codes in other religions … Impurity is universal … biblical defilement is not from contact with foreigners or lower classes. It is not used for keeping them outside or in lower ranks … The priestly doctrine … universalizes the causes of defilement and only allows it to be used to protect the sanctuary.” For another example, see Douglas's (1992) use of the Hotel Kwilu in the town of Kikwit as a metaphor for functionalist theory.
Spiro's rejection of symbolic interpretations has been restated more recently by Kazen (2018), as discussed more fully in this article's afterword. However, if Spiro is correct in insisting on fieldwork, all anthropological analysis of texts whose authors cannot be studied through fieldwork is doomed. For my attempt to resolve this dilemma by invoking the explanatory power of ‘orphan passages’, see Baumgarten (2011, 2015).
See Klawans (2017: 225): “I think the real reason that Douglas's work endures is that her approach—a domesticated structuralism that pays attention to social and religious contexts—remains operable even when better data is inserted, and thus Douglas herself was able to substantially revise her interpretation of biblical purity and the dietary laws, even while modifying her method only slightly,” for example, as in Leviticus as Literature.
As one example of Douglas's emphasis on social structure, Peter Brown has shared with me an undated handwritten letter he received from Douglas in response to a draft of his article on sorcery (see Brown 1970). In it, Douglas repeatedly stressed that if a historian wanted to be helped by the work of social anthropologists, as Brown announced that he intended in this article (ibid.: 17), that historian must constantly relate historical circumstances to their social context. In concluding her note, Douglas congratulated Brown on his “superb handling of anthropological materials.”
This revised account of the prohibited animals was already advanced in Douglas ( 1999a: 245–247). See the afterword for Hendel's (2008a) setting of his endorsement of Douglas's revised explanation of the “Abominations of Leviticus” in terms of anthropological modernism.
I suppose it was this presumption of what would be most interesting to the Hebrew reader that might explain why so much else of importance in Purity and Danger, such as the pangolin cult (Douglas 1966: 168–176), was not mentioned in the preface.
Douglas was not alone in this high evaluation. Eulogizing Valeri, Marshal Sahlins (1998) wrote: “He knew nearly 20 languages, and he had a broad philosophical background and a wide knowledge of art and literature. Everything he touched in his particular discipline of anthropology was thus informed by a more general intellectual significance. If anthropology is a project of finding universals in particulars, human significances in relative differences, Valeri was a master of it.”
In an e-mail dated 13 June 2019, Jonathan Klawans suggested to me that Valeri's special approach is rather commensurate with Douglas's later attention to ring cycles—where textual proximity and difference are key.
In its own oblique way, this comment by Douglas echoes the quotation from Evans-Pritchard in the epigraph to this article.
Despite this intention, Douglas's writings on the Bible, especially her later contributions, were viewed as apologetic theologizing and special pleading in some assessments written after her death. See, for example, Lemos (2009, 2013) and Schmitt (2008).
Jacob Milgrom was a constant companion during Douglas's work on the Bible, and his assistance was always profusely acknowledged. As she wrote, she feared “that if his second volume of the Anchor Bible Commentary on Leviticus is late my importunity has often caused delays” (Douglas 1999: xii). Milgrom's ‘second’ volume on Leviticus turned out to be so long that it was published as two volumes in 2000 and 2001. In 2001, Milgrom wrote to congratulate Douglas on her eightieth birthday, concluding: “With divine help Mary has reached her 80th undiminished in vigor and ideas. She is deep into cultivating her biblical garden. I hope she stays a while to reap its fruits. And if we stay healthy enough, we will share them with her and celebrate together as we do this day” (Hendel 2008b: 15*). In turn, in 2003, Douglas congratulated Milgrom on his eightieth birthday, writing: “But how many people in their fifties can meet someone who will eventually inspire a change of career? Someone who introduces them to a new world, and in that world of Bible studies, who stands by as a stalwart friend, ready to guide and protect? (And to keep opening new perspectives).” She hoped Milgrom would enjoy his eighties as much as she was enjoying hers. In keeping with her new status as mentored by Milgrom as a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, who had learned biblical Hebrew, Douglas signed this note with her name in Hebrew: “Many Happy Returns, Jacob, from Miriam.”
Taking all these considerations together, Douglas may stand as a brilliant example of the points made by her teacher Evans-Pritchard in the epigraph to this article. As a believer, she could understand and analyze belief based on personal experience better than non-believers.
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)| false . Baumgarten, Albert I 2015. “ Social Sciences and the Jewish History of Antiquity: How to Determine Success?” [In Hebrew.] In Milestones: Essays in Jewish History Dedicated to Zvi (Kuti) Yekutiel, ed. , , Immanuel Etkes , and David Assaf Yosef Kaplan 71– 86. Jerusalem: Shazar.
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)| false . Douglas, Mary 2004b. “ Why I Have to Learn Hebrew: The Doctrine of Sanctification.” In The Comity and Grace of Method: Essays in Honor of Edmund F. Perry, ed. , , Thomas Ryba , and George D. Bond Herman Tull 147– 165. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
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