An Historian’s Perspective on Beliefs About Blood

Featuring Helen Osborne and David Biale

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He was educated at UC Berkeley, the Hebrew University and UCLA. His most recent books are Hasidism: A New History (with seven co-authors), Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah and Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. Earlier books are Gershom Scholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, Eros and the Jews and Blood and Belief: The Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians. He is also the editor of Cultures of the Jews: A New History and the Norton Anthology of World Religions: Judaism. A volume of his essays, Jewish Culture Between Canon and Heresy was published in 2023 by Stanford University Press. His books have been translated into eight languages and have won the National Jewish Book Award three times.

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In this podcast, David Biale talks with Helen Osborne about:

  • How blood is seen over timein Jewish and Christian religious cultures.
  • The role of blood in beliefs about race.

Music by Skilsel from Pixabay.

Producer and audio editor: Clair Morgan


HELEN: Welcome to Talking About Blood. I’m Helen Osborne, host of this podcast series and a member of the advisory board for The Blood Project. I also produce and host my own podcast series about many aspects of health communication, and it’s called Health Literacy Out Loud. The Blood Project’s website includes a lot of important science and medical information. These often focus on the interplay of science and society. Dr. David Biale knows a lot about this topic. He is emeritus Professor of Jewish History at the University of California Davis. David is also author of seven books, including Blood and Belief, the Circulation of a Symbol Between Jews and Christians. He has deservedly won many awards and accolades for his work as an historian, scholar and educator. David and I met as we both are members of the advisory board for The Blood Project. I am delighted he agreed to be a guest on this podcast. Welcome, David to Talking About Blood..

DAVID: Thank you, Helen. It’s great to be here.

HELEN: I’m fascinated by this, an historian who’s interested in blood. Tell us what inspired you to be focusing on that as an historian and a historian on Jewish history. Where did all this start from?

DAVID: There are different ways historians can approach this subject. There are of course historians of medicine and they look at ideas about blood from a medical point of view. I’m a cultural historian and I’m very interested in the way in which different themes play out in history in different human cultures. In particular, my expertise is in Jewish history and to a somewhat lesser degree in the history of Christianity. So I really look at blood and how it’s seen in these two religious cultures as they developed over time.

HELEN: Okay. So blood in religious cultures. I know that we have some rights and rituals in all of these that have something to do about blood, but be more specific. What is the meaning of blood in religious ways over time?

DAVID: So we have to start with the Hebrew Bible where blood is considered the force of life, and therefore, in a religious context, blood has to be handled as a sacred fluid. When an animal is slaughtered for meat, then the blood has to be poured out on the altar. This is in ancient Israel. Later on in early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, which are two religious kind of cultures that emerge out of the Hebrew Bible, blood begins to acquire other meanings. In Christianity, it is seen as the blood of Christ, is salvific or redemptive. And later in the Middle Ages, of course, the doctrine of the Eucharist. That is that one drinks the wine and it is transubstantiated to use the technical term into the blood of Christ. For Jews, on the other hand, blood continues even when they no longer had a temple where they could perform sacrifices, the blood of circumcision. This ritual of initiation into Judaism, the blood of circumcision becomes an important sign or symbol of this covenant.

HELEN: I’m just fascinated and I had this image and I, you know, for kosher foods to process a food in a kosher way, that means getting rid of the blood, correct?

DAVID: Yes, that’s correct.

HELEN: And I’m more familiar with that from the Jewish perspective. But then in the Christian perspective, I’ve attended, you know, I’m not Christian, but I’ve seen, I’ve gone to Catholic mass and seen people drinking what represents the blood. So one group seems to be getting rid of it and doesn’t want any part of it as far as ingesting it, and the other group is choosing to ingest it. Is that correct?

DAVID: That’s a fascinating insight, Helen. It is correct. That is in the case of Judaism, and this goes back already to the Bible, to the book of Leviticus, which contains some of the laws pertaining to blood. When an animal is killed, the blood, because it is this sacred life force has to be disposed of in the correct way, and you can’t eat it or drink it because the blood really, in a sense, belongs to God and has to be returned to God. Now, for Christians, a different dynamic is at work. In Christianity, Christ is seen as the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice that ends all other sacrifices. In other words, Christians do not practice animal sacrifice. So the, the sacrifice of Christ is seen as redemptive. And in the case of Christianity, you partake in what it’s called the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ by eating a wafer that is magically as it were, turned into the body and drinking wine, which is magically turned into the blood of Christ. So you become one with the body of Christ in performing that ritual. For Jews, on the other hand, you don’t want to become one with God. It’s very different in Judaism. Instead, you want to give back to God what is God’s, and that is the process which you referred to in eating kosher meat where the blood is drained away and then the animal is salted in such ways to absorb the blood so that you don’t actually eat blood with the meat.

HELEN: What disparate ways. You know, I know our contemporary society, we so many people see the world in such different ways today, but here you’re going back to biblical times, our origins, we see even this very fluid that goes through all our bodies that we all share, that we all have in common. We interpret it and use it in different ways. Can you move us ahead to more modern times? How do Jews and Christians and anyone else you want to talk about understand and see blood?

DAVID: So what happens in the 19th century and then on into the 20th century is that the symbol of blood becomes secularized. That is, it is detached from its religious meaning, which we’ve just been talking about, and it’s now given new meaning that is not necessarily theological. So in particular, starting in the early 19th century, people began to think about the human race as consisting of different races. This is really the product of modern anthropology. And because in the 19th century science did not know anything about DNA, about genetics, the blood was seen as carrying the different characteristics of different races. So people spoke about the case of Jews having so-called Semitic blood, Aryans or Europeans as having a different kind of blood. And so blood becomes the carrier, as it were, of different racial characteristics. Now, of course, we took…

HELEN: I’m just going to ask a very naive question. Does it? Is my blood different from somebody else’s blood other than, you know, my type of blood because I’m a white woman, does that mean my blood is different than someone else? I’m a white Jewish woman?

DAVID: Of course not. We now know, of course, that all human beings share blood. It is the same thing in all human beings. Of course there are, as you mentioned, the different types of blood, but these types really are not related to the races that we speak about, African American, Asian, etc. The real issue today is no longer blood, but is there any difference between these so-called different races in genetic terms? And of course, there too, geneticists have pointed out that the difference between the so-called races is so small that actually the difference between you and me, two people who are actually white in terms of our skin coloring, the differences between us are actually greater than the difference between me and someone whose origins are in Africa. And so the language of blood was replaced by DNA, but the language of blood, of course, led to some terrible, terrible things. Nazi antisemitism, which led to the Holocaust, is actually based on this idea of different racial blood.

HELEN: Okay. And I’m thinking in the US history too, the history of African Americans or when there were slaves, you know, came over from Africa, and then what constitutes someone who’s black and what percentage of the blood and you know, how many drops of it? So that was in the 1800s, wasn’t it? In there or early 1900s?

DAVID: I don’t know the exact date at which this idea of the one drop rule began to circulate. I would suspect the end of the 19th, early 20th century. The idea that if someone has one drop of African blood in them, that is a tiny, tiny amount relative to the total amount of blood that we have in our bodies, that that meant that you were in fact, African. Now this is of course, nonsensical because if someone had an African ancestor 10 generations back, that doesn’t make you more African, you know, than someone who has no blood of that sort. So this however, symbolizes the idea, and this is very prevalent in various racial theories, that certain kinds of blood are much more powerful than other kinds of blood. So that it was thought that the blood carried by African Americans is so powerful that one drop of it would turn a white child into a black child, even though they might actually appear to be white.

The same thing actually happens in Nazi anti-Semitism, actually anti-Semitism that originates before the Nazis in the 19th century. They believed that Jewish blood was so powerful that any kind of intermingling between a European Christian and a Jew would result in someone who was polluted by Jewish blood. And the Nazis were actually quite obsessed and paranoid about such things. And as a consequence, they passed the Nuremberg laws in 1935, which stated that someone who was a Jew who had one Jewish grandparent. If you had one Jewish great grandparent, then you were already… in that case, it was not a one drop rule, it was rather a one quarter rule. If one quarter of your quote blood was Jewish, that made you Jewish. Actually, the SS, the elite military formation of the Nazi party, you could only join if you could prove that you had no Jewish ancestor going back to 1750. So that actually looks a little bit more like the one drop rule.

HELEN: It sounds to me, it’s almost an origin of hate and difference and suspicion of each other, you know, to be looking at this same fluid flowing through all of us to be used as a tool of hate and discrimination. I’m just appalled at that. I mean, I know I’ve read bits and pieces, but you’re putting it all together for us.

DAVID: Yes. I think that what, what’s interesting here, and this is part of racial theory, is that the way somebody looks, although it may signify a belonging to a race, for example, the Nazis had all kinds of pictures of what a Jewish head or Jewish nose looked like, so that you could distinguish who is a Jew from outside appearance. But underlying this racial theory is that even someone who looks like they are a pure, so-called Aryan could be harboring inside this Jewish blood. And this Jewish blood actually would then be expressed in behavior and all kinds of cultural manifestations. So that in a sense, what you see is not necessarily what you get because the blood is inside. You can’t actually see the blood. If you extract the blood and do a chemical analysis of it, of course you will find there is nothing there that distinguishes the Jewish person from a non-Jewish person. So it is a kind of a mystical idea of blood. That blood contains certain characteristics that we can’t actually see or, you know, determine scientifically.

HELEN: Thank you so much for that. Wow. I mean, to go from our origins and biblical times.

DAVID: Blood actually has another characteristic that does go back, I would say to the biblical ideas, and that is the well blood is a substance, you know, it’s when you cut yourself, it comes out, it’s red, it’s that red liquid that it, you know, if you lick at it tastes kind of ferrous because it has iron in in it. But blood also, it seems, going back to the Bible, going back to early Christianity has a kind of a spiritual substance as well. It contains something that is intangible that conveys a spirit. And I think that that idea gets secularized in modern racist thinking. It’s not just that the substance of blood is different from certain races, but also the spirit as it were, that’s contained I would say mystically or magically within the blood that also contains these differences.

HELEN: Wow. I’m kind of blown away by all of this. Okay. You talked earlier, uh, and you and I talked a little bit on before we started this podcast too, about what’s happening now. So you’re talking about now, you’re talking about races, you’re talking about all the different elements of this and how it’s pitting people against people, it sounds like. But you mentioned the science and now we have DNA. Scientists are learning more about our bodies. What’s that doing to our understanding about blood from this cultural perspective?

DAVID: So I think first of all, as I mentioned before, the what we now know about races is they don’t exist from a medical or scientific point of view. And for the same reason we all share the same blood, we do not differ from each other with respect to blood. I do think though, and this I think relates to The Blood Project, and one of the reasons that I’m so excited to be involved with it is that we want to think about blood not only medically or clinically, we also want to think about blood as carrying certain cultural meanings for different people. Even though we live in a post religious age, there’s still many people who are religious who may carry with them certain associations with blood. And so understanding the cultural meanings that blood has had over many centuries can even help us in terms of understanding a patient today who may have certain understandings of certain meanings they attribute to blood. So if they have a blood disease, it’s important for the physician not only to treat the physical manifestations of the disease, but to understand how the patient understands the meaning of their blood and what has gone wrong with it.

HELEN: How would somebody find that out? And I’m also thinking of groups, I think, isn’t it Seventh Day Adventists, I think, or another group that won’t have blood, a Christian Scientist that won’t have blood products. How would a physician understand the each person’s cultural understanding of their blood?

DAVID: I’m not a physician, so I can’t say exactly, but I think that physicians need to be open very much to who their patients are and how they understand their disease. There’s this wonderful book by Anne Fadiman called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is about Hmong people living in the Central Valley in California. People originally from from Laos and a particular child had epilepsy and they understood the disease in terms of their culture. And it became essential for the physicians treating this child to have some insight and sensitivity to how this patient and her family understand the disease. So I think that a broader cultural understanding can enhance the work of physicians, and that’s something that we hope to bring to The Blood Project.

HELEN: That would be fascinating to have a resource, a way people can be learning that. Now, when our listeners to this podcast are practicing physicians for sure, and hematologists, they may be people also newer in the sciences, whether they’re in their training, medical training, or other professions and people just curious, curious about blood that runs all through us. What would you want them to know from your historical perspective?

DAVID: I think what I would want them to know about blood is that even when it is detached from its religious meanings, going back to antiquity, blood continues to be socially, culturally a very, very powerful symbol. And that we can’t ignore that power. We can’t assume that everyone sees it only as a fluid that has certain chemical characteristics, but that it also carries all kinds of meanings for us beyond the purely physical.

HELEN: I am getting so many stories and pictures as you’re talking about this, and I don’t know why this image is coming to me. When we get a shot, they always put a little bandaid over it. If we get a vaccine or something and you know, maybe there’s one drop of blood there, but when you see promotional campaigns for vaccines, they often focus on that bandaid. I wonder if that has some kind of a meaning about blood there, because that’s all that it’s doing is catching that little tiny bit of blood that might have been left over. I wonder if that’s symbolism for our time.

DAVID: So I think that one of the things that fascinates me, and I’m certainly one of the people who can say I suffer from this, is that when blood is taken from me, you know, in a laboratory by a phlebotomist, I don’t look at it because if I look at it, I become very queasy. It’s very interesting. Why is it that blood, you know, elicits in many of us, obviously not everyone, elicits in us a kind of a visceral reaction or, you know, if I see someone who has been badly cut and is bleeding, I also react very strongly to that. So I think that blood continues to have, I mean, this is not necessarily a cultural meaning, but a almost psychological meaning. It is, we somehow intuitively understand that blood, when it is not in the body where it belongs, is somehow very dangerous. It signals danger, that danger to the person who is bleeding. And I think that that’s also a meaning of blood that we ought to consider.

HELEN: I’m just thinking about this and again, you’ve engendered so many stories that I, and so much more I want to be knowing, but we’re going to put a closure to this podcast in a minute. But you just brought up how blood could bring up a visceral reaction, a psychological reaction. You talked about blood in culture. You talked about use or misuse about how we understand people who don’t necessarily outwardly look like each other, our religious values, our traditions, and our science. Wow. All those different elements of the blood you’ve given me and I’m sure our listeners so much to consider. David, I want to thank you so much for your thoughtfulness, your wisdom, your history, your research for clueing us in a lot more about what is blood in addition to the scientific chemical part that goes through our body. Thank you for being a guest on talking about blood.

DAVID: Thank you, Helen. It’s a pleasure to have talked with you.

HELEN: And so we just heard from Dr. David Biale. It’s important to consider all that blood means to everyone. That’s much more than just the scientific and medical aspects of it, but what it means to us as people and people throughout the centuries. To learn more about The Blood Project and explore its many resources for professionals, trainees, and patients, go to thebloodproject.com. I also invite you to listen to my other podcast series about health communication. It’s at healthliteracyoutloud.com. Please help spread the word about this podcast series and The Blood Project. Thank you for listening. Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.