Religion 101

So, what about such matters as religious taboos, or religious sacrificial offerings? What role, if any, might such things play within major contemporary religions of the modern Western world — like, say, Judaism or Christianity?

In our own contemporary culture, we tend of think of a “taboo” as being a social faux pas, an act or a behavior or even just a topic of conversation that is considered strictly off limits within polite society. Among many indigenous cultures, however, taboos are things that are religiously off limits, because they can be downright dangerous. Violating a taboo means crossing a spiritual line, and doing so can have negative spiritual consequences.

For instance, in many indigenous religions, contact with blood is taboo (spiritually prohibited). Perhaps because spilling blood can cause death, blood is seen as somehow associated with the life force. As such, blood itself is often regarded as mysterious and powerful — and therefore potentially dangerous.

For this reason, in many indigenous cultures, menstruating women and women giving birth are kept isolated and apart from the rest of the community until the bleeding stops. In many indigenous cultures, any contact with blood can render one ritually unclean or impure. Specially prescribed religious rites are then required in order to restore one back into a state of ritual purity.

And it’s not just blood that can have this unwanted effect. In some cultures, even the mere shadow of a person of lower social rank can be spiritually tainting, should such a ritually impure shadow happen to fall upon a person of exalted social stature (such as royalty, or the nobility). Even certain otherwise perfectly ordinary-seeming foods may also be regarded by some indigenous cultures as ritually unclean, or as spiritually impure or inappropriate, or as otherwise taboo.

Does any of this perhaps sound familiar? Might any sorts of similar “taboos” exist within contemporary Western, Judeo-Christian religious practices?

The Hebrew Bible, otherwise known to Christians as the Old Testament, agrees that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Consuming blood is, therefore, explicitly banned in the Jewish Torah. Kosher butchers go to great lengths to ensure that all blood is drained from the meat they sell.

The Torah also requires that, because of the ritually polluting quality of coming into contact with blood, Jewish men are prohibited from having sex with a menstruating woman, and Jewish women must immerse themselves within a special ritual bath or pool (known as a mikvah) following menstruation or childbirth, in order to ritually purify themselves. This ritual purification practice is by no means a thing of the past; it still continues today, among many traditionally observant Jews.

Blood isn’t the only thing that Judaism regards as taboo, of course. Certain foods are, too, as well as certain manners of food preparation. The kosher (“fit to eat”) food laws, as spelled out in the Torah, prohibit the consumption of a variety of foods regarded as ritually unclean, such as pork and shellfish (among others). Animals must also be slaughtered in a kosher manner, and drained of all blood, as previously noted. Additionally, meat and dairy products must not be eaten together; consequently, a hamburger is kosher, but a cheeseburger is not kosher. And there are other food laws, too.

So, taboos of various sorts would seem not to be something now relegated just to indigenous religions alone; they also exist as prominent features of our own Judeo-Christian religious heritage, and still remain observed among its contemporary practice.

If this is the case with respect to religious taboos, then what about something like offering religious sacrifices?

(To be continued, and concluded, in Part Five.)