Profane and Holy in Mishnah’s Cosmos: The Case of the Diaspora

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Emile Durkheim notes that characteristic of all religions is the division between the holy and the profane. Furthermore, he understands that religious symbols and ideas are actually symbols for society, and the its moral order (Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life NY: The Free Press). In my proposed paper, I examine the way these ideas (and others) are expressed in the way the Mishnah understands the Land of Israel. The Land of Israel was a sacred universe in Mishnah’s “imagined collective”. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and there was no hope to return to or rebuild it through a military victory. Those remaining in the Land of Israe would continue to be bound to their universe by the ancient system of obligations, which their ancestors accepted as their covenant with God. This was manifested through the only remaining element, the holy Land of Israel. This reciprocity between Israel and God, the close parity between these two partners in the charge of restitution, is what Mishnah seeks to convey. The Land of Israel became the conduit for the rabbinic Jew to God. If the Land of Israel was sacred, then the land outside Israel was viewed and defined as profane. The sacred universe desacralized all other lands, placing that which resided in them within the category of “outsiders” and thus labelling them as a potential threat to the holy cosmos. The outsider could take the form of people or objects or land. For Mishnah’s redactors, the profane or outsider was of interest primarily when it served the needs of the “insider”, and specifically the rabbinic Jew. This essay will examine how the redactors of Mishnah viewed, used and drew the boundaries of the profane lands to serve the needs of Mishnah’s world and its members.

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