Ezekiel

The controversial Book of Ezekiel nearly didn't make it into the biblical canon, but it has had a lasting impact on both liturgical practice and mystical traditions.

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Ezekiel:  A Return to Ecstasy

What bewilders and disturbs modern scholars about the book is, in a way, analogous to what puzzled the rabbis in talmudic times. The book certainly does differ from the Torah, but modern scholarship is not troubled so much by this as by the fact that, because Ezekiel is so different from the other prophets, the scholarly conclusions and consensus derived from studies of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah do not seem to apply to him at all.

The great literary prophets themselves differed greatly from the schools and bands of prophets that preceded them in Israelite history. The earlier prophets were ecstatics (such as those Saul joined, and was moved to prophesy with, upon leaving Samuel--1 Samuel 10:9-10).  Here the word "prophesy" does not mean that Saul made some great and meaningful utterance, but simply that he spoke words which came out of him in his semitrance.

The literary prophets (besides Ezekiel) did not need mass hypnosis of a band or school of prophets. They spoke with passion, indeed, but a passion born of conviction. Ezekiel, like the literary prophets, teaches high ethical ideals, often in a poetic and eloquent manner; but he also falls into trances, struck dumb sometimes for days, unable to speak. He sees grandiose, multiform visions. He is a literary prophet like Isaiah and Amos, but he is also an ecstatic prophet, a reversion to an older time.

A New Focus on the Individual

There is another difference. The other prophets always addressed the nation as a whole, denouncing it for social sins, calling upon it to achieve social justice. Ezekiel, like the literary prophets, also addressed the nation, but in addition he developed a new doctrine of personal responsibility for right and wrong. This, by the way, was one of the contradictions which the rabbis found between Ezekiel and the Torah. Moses said "…visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children" (Exodus 20:5), and Ezekiel said that children shall not be punished for the sins of the fathers--"only the soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezekiel 18). Ezekiel resembled the literary prophets in that the nation was his audience, but he differed from them in that the individual too became his audience.

A Greater Emphasis on the Temple

Finally, while it may still be disputed whether the great literary prophets completely opposed the ritual observances of the Temple‑-the sacrifices, the incense‑-there is no doubt that they gave it a secondary place in the order of man's duties: "Wherewith shall I come before the Lord ... with burnt‑offerings?…It hath been told thee, 0 man, what is good ... to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." (Micah 6:6, 8). These words of Micah were typical of all the great literary prophets.  Social ethics and monotheism were the cardinal virtues for the literary prophets.

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Dr. Solomon B. Freehof

Dr. Solomon Bennett Freehof (1892-1990) was a prominent Reform rabbi, posek, and scholar. Rabbi Freehof served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Beginning in 1955, he led the CCAR's work on Jewish law through its responsa committee.