“Radical Hope,” Lament, and Textualization: Judaism after 70 CE

Instead of foreseeing a human reconstruction of the Temple, 4 Ezra prophesies the revelation on earth of a heavenly Temple that can occur only in a place where there is no human artifice whatsoever.

See Also: Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

By Hindy Najman
Yale University
September 2014

How did ancient Jewish communities characterize their experience of the divine after the destruction of the Temple and exile from their land? Could the relationship with the divine be reimagined after this loss? Could revelation be reimagined outside of the land? Could worship be rendered independent of the Temple? Was efficacious prayer still possible? Ancient Judaism had to solve this problem twice: once after 586 BCE and again after 70 CE.

To some extent, 586 BCE was never overcome. For example, in the traditions of Ezra-Nehemiah, there is tension between responding to the rebuilding of the temple foundations with mourning and greeting it with joy. This reflects confusion about how to respond to a “Second Temple” that does not come close to matching the glory of the first.

Ezra 3:10-12

Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first house, wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this house. Many others shouted joyously at the top of their voices. The people could not distinguish the shouts of joy from the people’s weeping, for the people raised a great shout, the sound of which could be heard from afar.

Was this the beginning of recovery, or an acknowledgment that recovery was impossible?

In the Damascus Document (CD), found at among the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Geniza, we see that some rejected the restored Temple. Members of the desert community could participate in the new covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31, if they obeyed the law according to specific interpretations. However, this new covenant is constructed “in the land of Damascus,” that is, in an exile that was still ongoing. It would seem that, while some criticized Temple service as improper, as documented in MMT, others treated the Temple as if it had never been built at all.

Texts such as Lamentations 2.9 describe a community that was frozen, as though nothing could ever happen again: “Torah is no more; her prophets too receive no more visions from the Lord.” Yet new hope was formed nevertheless. In Psalm 137, the psalmist describes the impossibility of song outside of Zion:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.

There on the poplars we hung up our lyres, for our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors for amusement, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?

To say that one cannot sing is to say that one cannot pray and cannot communicate with the divine. Yet the second half of the Psalm introduces a way of going on nevertheless. It is the way of lament: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem.” While joyful song is impossible, lament is not. The covenantal relationship between God and Israel, revelation and worship, would have to be reimagined in ways that internalized lament for the past so that movement toward the future could be possible again.

Jonathan Lear has written about the importance of writing for cultural regeneration in the case of the Crow Indians, who had been frozen after the end of their traditional way of life:

For in a time of cultural collapse, living memory of that living way of life will last only a few years. The most important artifact the white man could offer the Indian–much better than the guns–was writing and printing. In the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that writing can function as a form of forgetting rather than remembering: for it can lull one into thinking that one is remembering when one is only moving the phrases about. Whatever the dangers here, when one’s whole way of life is on the verge of collapse, the worry about writing becomes a luxury. The entire culture is in the process of being forgotten; the only hope is to write it down in the hope that future generations may bring “it” back to life. (Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope, 52)

So too for ancient Judaism, writing played a central role in the reimagining of life after destruction. There were many possible paths, some leading to Christianity, some to rabbinic Judaism, and some to unexplored or lost destinations.

A striking example is found in the text known as 4 Ezra, the topic of my recent book, Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2014). While the text was composed after 70 CE, it purports to describe the response of Ezra to the destruction of the first Temple. Ezra struggles to understand, not how God could have punished the sinners of Israel, which seems just, but how God could have permitted them to sin in the first place. He must learn how to lament for those who are lost without losing faith in the covenantal promise of redemption. Eventually, after dialogues with an angel that culminates in a vision of Zion as a mourning woman, he takes up his rightful place as leader of the people.

We see here an old strategy, deployed during the Second Temple if not before, and now put to use after the second destruction. If contemporaries could not be seen as capable of claiming authority and exercising leadership, then long-dead figures could be reimagined in ways that made them relevant to the questions of the day. (On the development of this strategy with respect to Moses, both in Deuteronomy and in later texts such as Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, see my Seconding Sinai (Brill, 2003).) As usual, what is especially noteworthy is not only what is included but also what is omitted from familiar narratives.

The most remarkable omission is nothing less than the rebuilding of the Temple. Ezra-Nehemiah begins with Cyrus’ proclamation of a divine charge to rebuild God’s house in Jerusalem. Only in chapter 7, once the restoration is underway, does Ezra emerge as a learned scribe who leaves Babylon for Jerusalem in order to instruct the people in the Torah of Moses. In stark contrast, 4 Ezra makes no mention of rebuilding the Temple at all.

To be sure, in one of his visions, Ezra sees “a city that was built and the place was seen as from immense foundations.” (10.27) But this city will be built by God’s hands alone, without any assistance from human hands:

13:36 And Zion will come and will be revealed to all when it is prepared and built just as you saw the mountain that was hewn without hands.

Instead of foreseeing a human reconstruction of the Temple, 4 Ezra prophesies the revelation on earth of a heavenly Temple that can occur only in a place where there is no human artifice whatsoever.

This is connected to 4 Ezra’s emphasis on the role of God’s “right hand” in the planting of Eden (3.6), as well as to a tradition preserved in para-biblical and midrashic texts on the Song of the Sea that, whereas God created the world with one hand, God will build the ultimate Temple with both hands, and thus without human assistance. In the Song, God’s right hand is associated with military power, hence with the need to overcome a foe and to establish divine rule, which is still incomplete. Some versions of the tradition appeal to Isa 48:13, according to which it was specifically with God’s right hand that the heavens were spread out.

Isa 48:13
My own hand founded the earth, My right hand spread out the skies

And of course the text of Exodus 15 also becomes central to the rabbinic imagination:

Exod 15:6
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power. Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe!

15:17-18 You will bring them and plant them in your own mountain, the place you made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands established. The Lord will reign for ever and ever!

Some subsequent rabbinic discussion calls upon both the Exodus and Isaiah traditions:

Exod 15:6
15:16 Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power. Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the foe! 15:17 You will bring them and plant them in your own mountain, the place you made to dwell in, O Lord, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands established. 15:18 The Lord will reign for ever and ever!

Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael, Mas. Shirata, 10
The Sanctuary, O Lord, which Thy Hands Have Established. Precious is the Temple to Him by whose word the world came into being. For when the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world He created it with but one hand, as it is said: “Yea, My hand has laid the foundation of the earth” (Isa 48:13). But when He came to build the Temple, He did it, as it were, with both His hands, as it is said: “The sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.”

Rashi, the pre-eminent medieval Jewish commentator, also stands in this tradition when he comments on Exodus 15.17:

The Temple is beloved since, whereas the world was created with “one hand,” as it is said, “My own hand founded the earth, My right hand spread out the heavens,” the sanctuary with two hands. When will it be built with two hands? At the time when “the Lord will reign for ever and ever.” In the future to come, when the entire ruling power will be His.

A similar set of interpretive associations is found in 4QFlorilegium (4Q174) Col. I (Frgs. 1-3). This marks the most significant distinction between Ezra as portrayed in Ezra-Nehemiah, which focuses on the human rebuilding of the Temple after the first destruction, and Ezra as portrayed in 4 Ezra.

Instead, 4 Ezra culminates with a scene that recalls the reading of the Torah to the people in Nehemiah 8.1-8, which in turn recalls the giving of the Torah to Moses at Sinai:

4Ezra 14:27-48
Then I went as he commanded me, and I gathered all the people together, and said, "Hear these words, O Israel: At first our fathers dwelt as aliens in Egypt, and they were delivered from there, and received the law of life, which they did not keep, which you also have transgressed after them. Then land was given to you for a possession in the land of Zion; but you and your fathers committed iniquity and did not keep the ways which the Most High commanded you. And because he is a righteous judge, in due time he took from you what he had given. And now you are here, and your brethren are farther in the interior. If you, then, will rule over your minds and discipline your hearts, you shall be kept alive, and after death you shall obtain mercy. For after death the judgment will come, when we shall live again; and then the names of the righteous will become manifest, and the deeds of the ungodly will be disclosed. But let no one come to me now, and let no one seek me for forty days." So I took the five men, as he commanded me, and we proceeded to the field, and remained there. And on the next day, behold, a voice called me, saying, "Ezra, open your mouth and drink what I give you to drink." Then I opened my mouth, and behold, a full cup was offered to me; it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire. And I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my breast, for my spirit retained its memory; and my mouth was opened, and was no longer closed. And the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turns they wrote what was dictated, in characters which they did not know. They sat forty days, and wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night. As for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. So during the forty days ninety-four books were written. And when the forty days were ended, the Most High spoke to me, saying, "Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge." And I did so.

The path forward for Israel after the second destruction, this text seems to say, lies not in the rebuilding of the Temple, but in the reconstitution of Torah as a corpus of writings, some intended for all, some for the wise alone. The textualization of Judaism will be its salvation. But this salvation, as Ezra’s encounter with lamenting Zion tells us, will never forget Israel’s losses.

4 Ezra was preserved among Christians, not among Jews. But modern Jewish scholars have pointed to its proto-rabbinic aspects. Its expression of rupture with the past has appealed to Christians, while its emphasis on Torah study and continuation after destruction have appealed to Jews. In my view, the text contains both elements and fits neatly within neither tradition. It is a potent reminder of how ancient Judaism found “radical hope,” and of the humbling fact that it was not inevitable that history would culminate in the claims to inherit its legacy with which we are familiar.

Comments (2)

Thank you for this rare emphasis on contingency and diversity in the experiences that led to contemporary religions. Very often there's an implicit (and often unintentional) teleology that comes across in writings about the ancient origins of modern religions. This looks like a much-needed corrective to that approach.

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/05/2014 - 19:38

Apologies for digressing, but do you think there is any indication in the original texts that the two hands of God were considered one to give (e.g. create) and the other to take away (e.g. through war)—with the rebuilding of the destroyed temple an example of the use of both—or is this a later construct?

#2 - Matt Gilson - 09/07/2014 - 10:07

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