Ezekiel, Exodus, and Babylon

Exploring Babylon Chapter 17

Recent scholarship concerning the prophet Ezekiel touches on some fascinating questions about the extent to which Judeans in Babylonian exile were acculturated and how cultural contact between Babylon and Israel might have affected Jewish sacred text. Much of the discussion revolves around links between the Book of Exodus and Ezekiel’s visions. And this week — which includes both the final readings in the Book of Exodus and a reading from Ezekiel — seems a good one to begin exploring some of the scholarship.

Background on the prophet Ezekiel comes exclusively from biblical evidence (i.e., no extra-biblical references have been found). He lived first in Judea, part of a priestly family, and was then forcibly relocated as in the first Exile to Babylon in 597 BCE. Because he served in the Temple, it is assumed that he was at least 20 years old while still living in Jerusalem. The visions he records encompass both Jerusalem and Babylon.

A brief scan of scholarship — at this point, using only free sources accessible on-line; more to come, and suggestions for resources most welcome! — includes several views about the life in Babylon available to someone of Ezekiel’s background.

Ezekiel and Babylonian Literature

“Ezekiel in and on Babylon,” by D. S. Vanderhooft discusses acculturation of Judean exiles, pointing out the difference between acculturation and assimilation and raising a number of possibilities for what Ezekiel might have encountered. (Here’s Vanderhooft’s paper, via Academia.edu, from TRANSEUPHRATÈNE 2014,)

Vanderhooft and many others cite the work of Laurie E. Pearce, Assyriologist in the Dept. of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at University of California-Berkeley. She looks at “Identifying Judeans and Judean Identity in the Babylonian Evidence” in the collection Exile and Return: The Babylonian Context (Jonathan Stökl & Caroline Waerzeggers, eds. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2015 — available in part through Google Books.) More specifically, she posits several suggestions for if/how Ezekiel would have learned cuneiform and gained familiarity with Babylonian literature (Ezekiel: A Jewish Priest and a Babylonian Intellectual).

In “Ancient Jewish Cultural Encounters and a Case Study on Ezekiel,” Mladen Popović discusses the relative strength of proposed literary parallels between Ezekiel and Babylonian literature as well as other evidence for knowledge sharing across cultural boundaries during Ezekiel’s time. His article introduces the Jewish Cultural Encounters in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern World which he edited with Myles Schoonover and Marijn Vandenberghe (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2017 — also available in part through Google Books).

Ezekiel’s Visions and Babylon

In “Ezekiel’s Temple in Babylonian Context,” Tova Ganzel and Shalom E. Holtz discuss the possible influence of Neo-Babylonian temples on Ezekiel’s visions. Their focus is on how both Babylonian temples and Ezekiel’s visionary architecture are designed similarly to separate sacred from profane. They conclude:

We cannot say with any certainty that Ezekiel borrowed these features from his environment. We may say, however, that Ezekiel and his audience might have understood the plan for the rebuilt temple by looking to their surroundings. They had, in short, a working model not too far from their homes in exile.
Ganzel/Holtz paper, from Vetus Testamentum 64 [2014], via Academia.edu

Abraham Winitzer raises a more radical suggestion in his article, “Assyriology and Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv: Ezekiel among the Babylonian literati.” He notes that other scholars have found similarities between images in Mesopotamian mythology, visions of Ezekiel (1:26–27), and descriptions in Exodus (24:9–10). He continues, however, suggesting that parts of Exodus (chaps. 25–31, 35–40) not only “share important features with Ezekiel but in fact may be derivative of it.” Winitzer then adds:

The ramifications of this proposal – if it finds acceptance – are considerable, and would further the basic claim made here concerning the place of Babylon in the formation of early Jewish tradition. For not only would it shed new light on the place of Ezekiel and, more broadly, of the biblical prophets in a way presciently anticipated by early modern biblical scholarship, it would also highlight exposure to Babylonian culture as a productive force behind this evolution.
— Winitzer, IN Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.
Uri Gabbay and Shai Secunda, eds. (Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014)

Ezekiel's Vision

from freebibleimages.org

Shabbat Parah

This week’s Torah portion concludes the Book of Exodus and the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex 40, in the double-portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Ex 35:1-40:38). Special readings for Shabbat Parah, one of the special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, are Numbers 19:1-22 and Ezekiel 36:16-38.

The extra Torah reading speaks of the ritual of the red heifer, which purifies after contact with a corpse. As My Jewish Learning explains, this theme is tied to Passover because “only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice, in ancient times a public announcement reminded anyone who had become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

The haftarah includes a different view of purity, linked with Judea returning from Babylonian exile:

וְזָרַקְתִּ֧י עֲלֵיכֶ֛ם מַ֥יִם טְהוֹרִ֖ים וּטְהַרְתֶּ֑ם מִכֹּ֧ל טֻמְאוֹתֵיכֶ֛ם וּמִכָּל־גִּלּ֥וּלֵיכֶ֖ם אֲטַהֵ֥ר אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes.

וְנָתַתִּ֤י לָכֶם֙ לֵ֣ב חָדָ֔שׁ וְר֥וּחַ חֲדָשָׁ֖ה אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וַהֲסִ֨רֹתִ֜י אֶת־לֵ֤ב הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ מִבְּשַׂרְכֶ֔ם וְנָתַתִּ֥י לָכֶ֖ם לֵ֥ב בָּשָֽׂר׃
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;

וְאֶת־רוּחִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן בְּקִרְבְּכֶ֑ם וְעָשִׂ֗יתִי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי֙ תֵּלֵ֔כוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַ֥י תִּשְׁמְר֖וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶֽם׃
and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
— Ez 36:25-27

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Sukkot and Babylon

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.1

“As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.” — from “Ani Va-ho,” a Sukkot prayer

Prayers begging for rescue and mercy often take the format, “You helped them; help us.” The unusual aspect of this prayer, recited each day of Sukkot in Conservative and Orthodox Jewish liturgies, is its implication that God needs saving, too. Long before Eleazar Kallir (c.570–c.640 CE) developed this poem, however, Jews were teaching that God follows the People into exile.

“These bold interpretations are a way of saying that when there is suffering in the world, God is not to be found on the side of the oppressors” (Or Hadash festival supplement; link below. Click here for basics on ancient Sukkot practices).

Fragility and Sukkot

Many centuries of prayers linked the fragility of Sukkot with exile. For example:

…In the merit of the Mitzvah of Sukkah, redeem us from exile,
protect us, that our enemies not reign over us.
And gather us from the four corners of the earth
and rescue us from captivity and from false imprisonment.
Let no evil eye rule over us ever.
Rebuild Your Holy Temple and restore your presence to Jerusalem….
– from Machzor Rav Peninim (R. Moses ben Hayyim Alshekh c1508-1600)

A different perspective appeared with Haskalah [“Enlightenment”]:


For thousands of years
Israel has been a wandering people.
Our houses are but fragile huts –
And these huts have been torn asunder too many times
By unrest and the hatred of others.
We have only your mercy to thank
That we have not perished from the earth.
Your compassion has held us and carried us
Through storm and flood, over every abyss
That has threatened to devour us,
And now, after generations of wandering,
You have allowed us to taste the sweetness of home.
Thanks to you, we have found a homeland –
A beautiful, wonderful country
That recognizes us as its children.
Safe and free, like ancient Israel
In the shade of its palm and fig trees,
We rest beneath the tent of peace
Provided to us by the law,
Along with all our brothers and sisters in this land….
– “On the first days of Sukkot”
in Fanny Neuda’s Hours of Devotion (1855)

The “homeland” Neuda had in mind was her native Moravia. The first edition of Hours of Devotion was published in German and included a blessing specifically naming Emperor Franz Joseph. Neuda’s family supported Haskalah, promoting the limited citizenship then allowed to Jews as well as sermons in the vernacular, modernizations of of prayers, and other religious adaptations that led to the Reform Movement. The prayerbook was later translated into Yiddish and was being reprinted in both languages up through the early part of the 20th Century.

Some Questions for Consideration

  • Where does the fragility of your personal Sukkot experience take you?
  • In what ways do you feel protected by a “tent of peace, provided to us by law”?
  • In what ways does your experience reflect exile, as expressed by Machzor Rav Peninim?
  • What about the fragility of the Jewish community, locally and worldwide?
  • And what about the wider world?
  • Are there lessons to be drawn from identifying ourselves and God as together in need of rescue?


sukkah78

Spatz-O’Brien sukkah, Oct. 2017

NOTES

In Temple days, hoshanot were recited while circling the altar on Sukkot; some denominations still recite them, while circling the bima — once on the first six days of the Sukkot and seven times on the seventh day, Hoshana Rabba. Hoshana is a contraction of hosha [save] and na [please]. Eleazar Kallir’s hoshana poem is known by its first line: “ani va-ho.”

ani va-ho hoshi’a na” from Mishnah Sukkah 4:5 is variously translated as “Save Yourself and us,” “I and You, may You deliver us both,” or “Please rescue me and the divine name.” Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 104a) explains that “ho” is one of God’s names.

See commentaries on this prayer in Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem and Orthodox The Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur. Or Hadash: A commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom‘s festival supplement is (available for download here).
See also pages 110-111 in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah (more here).

Many Jews, including the Reform movement, do not observe Hoshana Rabba — or perform the hoshanot prayers during the rest of Sukkot.

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Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah [“going up” Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?
To what are you opening?

Entering the Torah Service
Here in this Torah Service we travel the wilderness in the company of the Ark, stand again at Sinai, and re-enact the process of transmission and interpretation as multiple individuals rise to bring the Torah from script to voice. Time collapses. We join the ageless chorus reciting verses that challenge and comfort, awe and enrage, perplex and command. We feel the presence of Jews who have experienced much, in endurance and in celebration, preserving these words. We feel the call of future Jews depending on us to grasp this Tree of Life and hold it for them.

At this expansive point we pray that our hearts open to the essence of Torah and ask for the gift of God’s good light to guide us through our daily lives.

In this precious, liminal moment, fear and need merge with strength and hope. May we all, particularly those observing lifecycle events at the Torah, emerge from this service with a renewed sense of blessings. Let the divine flow of communication represented here bring to us, and to all whom we touch, peace, mercy, sustenance, and gratitude. Thank you for this good teaching. Amen
–Virginia Spatz

More on Opening the Ark

My prayer, above, is based in part on language and themes found in several prayers, including B’rich sh’mei [blessed is the Name], recited at the start of the Torah service.


בריך שמה דמרא עלמא
Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe

(from Zohar, parashat vayakhel)

The Zohar says, “Rabbi Shimon said: When the scroll of Torah is removed from the ark to be read to the congregation, the heavenly gates of mercy are opened and love is aroused in the world above. Here a person adds….”B’rich sh’mei d’marei alma…. [Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe!…]”

Blessed is the name of the Master of the universe. Blessed is your crown and your place [v’atrach] May You love your people Israel forever. Reveal the salvation of your right hand to your people in your sanctuary. Lead us to discover the goodness of your light, and accept our prayer in mercy. May it be your will to prolong our lives in happiness.

I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I relay, nor upon angels [or “messengers”] do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
–See My People’s Prayer Book


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אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרֹג כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַּעֲרֹג
Soothing songs and poems I weave because my soul longs for You.

I was also inspired by a woman’s kavvanah [intention] associated with Anim Zemirot. This hymn is recited when the Ark is open, sometimes early morning, sometimes in concluding prayers; sometimes on Shabbat, often on Festivals. It is not included in the Shabbat Mishkan T’filah, but it does appear in the Weekday/Festival edition. Here’s a link to the full text of Anim Zemirot, sometimes called “Shir HaKavod [Song of Glory],” as well as several recordings.

Here is the women’s meditation from Aliza Lavie’s collection:.


Master of the universe. Just as the Holy Ark is opened here, so may a window be opened in heaven: the gates of mercy. May my prayer be accepted among the other pure prayers that are surely accepted before You, and may it be a crown for Your head….Remember me, my husband, my beloved children, and dear ones, at the time that is called a time of favor and a time of success, so that our lives may be called lives of joy, lives of sustenance, lives of blessing, lives of peace, lives of mercy, and of Your good teachings. Bless us with the three keys that have never been handed over to any emissary, but come about only through Your own blessing. With this I conclude; hurry to my aid, God of my deliverance.

…Protect us all from that which my heart fears, and spare me, my husband, and my children from mortal charity. Hear my prayer [name of worshipper], daughter of [mothers name], as You heard the righteous Hannah and the other righteous women. Amen. Selah
A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Aliza Lavie NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2008


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More Thoughts on Opening the Ark

A few more thoughts, from two different prayer books, on opening the Ark and taking out the Torah…

We approach the Torah slowly. First we open the ark so that the Torah is visible. We look at the Torah but refrain from touching. Next, the Torah is removed from the ark and held by the service leader. Later the Torah is carried through the congregation, and everyone can touch the Torah. This demonstrates that the Torah is not the property of those leading the services; the Torah belongs to the Jewish community. Finally, the coverings of the Torah scroll are removed, allowing us a privileged intimacy with the words we hear.
– Dan Ehrenkrantz, Kol Haneshamah [Reconstructionist] siddur

The verses we sing when we take the Torah scroll from the Ark and when we return it recall the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, when they carried the Ark with them….We are a people defined by history. We carry our past with us. We relive it in ritual and prayer. We are not lonely individuals, disconnected with past and present. We are characters in the world’s oldest continuous story, charged with writing its next chapter and handing it on to those who come after us.
–Jonathan Sacks in Koren Sacks [Orthodox] Siddur, p.xxxiv-xxxv

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Key Footnote

I asked local scholar Norman Shore for help with understanding the “three keys.” Here are the sources he provided, shared with gratitude.

R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead. The Key of Rain, for It is written, ‘The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season,’ (Deut 28:12) The Key of Childbirth, for it is written, ‘And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.'(Gen 30:22) The Key of the Revival of the Dead, for it is written, ‘And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves.’ (Ezek 37:13). In Palestine they said: Also the Key of Sustenance, for it is said, Thou openest thy hand etc. (Ps 145:16) Why does not R. Johanan include also this [key]? — Because in his view sustenance is [included in] Rain.
— Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a-2b

And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7). Now, when [God] saw that the world was distressed [because of the drought], it is written, ‘And the word of the Lord came unto him (Elijah), saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath’ (ibid 8ff). And it is further written, ‘And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick’ (ibid 17). Elijah prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, ‘Two are in the hands of the disciple[1] and [only] one in the hand of the Master?’ Bring [Me] the other and take this one, as it is written, ‘Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’ (ibid 18:1).”[2]
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 113

Footnotes, like text, from Soncinco, public domain edition:
1) Since the key of rain was already in Elijah’s possession, and now he was asking for the key of resurrection too.

2) I but not Thou. The whole passage is adduced to shew how God, having given the key of rain to Elijah, obtained its return, and that the illness of the widow’s son was for that purpose.

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The Power of Tzitzit

“Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” posted last week, mentions a 30-day grace period before a four-cornered garment requires tzitzit [ritual fringes].

This ruling is attributed to Rav Judah. It appears in his name in tractate Chullin (110a-110b) within a story that appears to be challenging strictures that serve as barriers to observance. The same ruling is mentioned following a very different story:

It was taught: R. Nathan said, There is not a single precept in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world; and as to its reward in the future world I know not how great it is. Go and learn this from the precept of zizith.

[There follows the story of a pious man visiting a prostitute: he is stopped from sin when his four tzitzit stand up and strike him in the face. As a result of the encounter, the prostitute seeks out the pious man’s teacher and converts to Judaism. Eventually, the pious man and the woman wed.]

Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully. This is the reward [of the precept] in this world; and as for its reward in the future world I know not how great it is. Rab Judah said, A borrowed garment is exempt from zizith for the first thirty days, thereafter it is subject to it.
— B. Talmud, Menachot 44a

This is followed by brief mention of a similar 30-day grace period for affixing a mezuzah to a new residence. The grace-period comments are apropos of nothing apparent to me in the prostitute-convert story, and I’ve never studied this. But the stated context is the reward of “light” commandments and, more broadly, the relationship of effort to commandment and reward.

The concept of “reward in this world and… in the future world” is one I generally steer around. But I have been interested in this idea of “light” commandments ever since Gerry Serotta introduced me to it some years ago.
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Psalm 27 for the season (4 of 4)

“If you’re not 20 minutes early, you’re late,” my ballet teacher, Marie Paquet, used to tell her adult students: Without time to leave behind the outside world and prepare to focus, warm up physically and mentally, class could be frustrating, even dangerous. Over the years, I’ve realized that her adage also applies to worship services. Still, life and public transportation don’t always support early arrival to services.

But necessity, as I’m sure “they” rarely say, is the mother of invention in kavanah [intention]….

This past Shabbat, Shabbat Sukkot, I entered the sanctuary un-early and a little frazzled. Moreover, this particular service skipped over some introductory prayers that ordinarily help me focus. This left me struggling to follow the service. But, then, in a moment provided for silent prayer, I stopped struggling and simultaneously “heard,” quite clearly:

“On Your behalf, my heart says: ‘Seek My face!'” (Psalms 27:8)

I wish I could say that this verse instantly helped me find my way into the service. But I can say that I my inability to keep up became suddenly irrelevant. Moreover, I stumbled into a three-part message encapsulating the fall holidays. I am hoping it will carry — for me and others, I hope — the essence of the season of teshuva into the mundane, post-holiday world.
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High Priest’s Prayer for Those on Fault-Lines

As the ancient Jewish community added a prayer on Yom Kippur for those in an especially vulnerable spot, let us consider doing the same:

May this year that is coming be one of abundance, building, compromise, dialogue, respect and understanding, a year in which all realize their interdependence and work together for the common good.

And concerning the inhabitants of Washington, DC: May it be Your will, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that they find common ground on which to safely build in the days to come, so that the fault-lines of race and class do not become their demise.*


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