Friday, July 10, 2009

The Book of Ezra

One of the main themes in the book of Ezra, and perhaps most relevant to Zionism today, is that the Jews make immense efforts to return and rebuild the land, but these efforts are severely impacted by the blessings (small 'b') of imperial rulers. Cyrus says they could rebuild their temple, they rebuild. Artaxerxes says they should stop, they stop. Darius says they can start again, they start again. Ezra repeats the idea heard first in Exodus, "Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph". What happens in the corridors of power, whether they be in Pasargadae or Washington, impacts Jewish interests. The Jews did well, both in ancient and recent times, to accept what they were offered.
If Jewish submission to imperial power is a major theme in the book, what are we to make of the book's ending? Ezra orders Israelite males who have taken foreign wives to send them away. It's not clear how a heroine like Ruth would have fared in this difficult story, but a larger question on my mind is - what's this story of divorce en masse doing next to the story of the rebuilding of the Temple? Is there a connection?
If there is a connection, it might be the underlying theme of Jewish power (or lack of power) that we see in the book.
The unprecedented order to divorce non-Israelite wives could have been an attempt to strengthen a new power-less Israelite identity. With a temple rebuilt at the grace of non-Israelite rulers, and Israelite prayers (and possibly taxes) now directed towards his well being, the powerful political position Israel enjoyed during the first temple period was clearly over.

The strong identity that members of a powerful group naturally enjoy - an identity not threatened by foreign cultures - was at stake. Going forwards, the way to marry a non-Israelite woman would therefore involve either an act of conversion or one of desertion (marrying 'out'). One could perhaps go as far as saying that this was a step towards the creation of a religious-Jewish identity, from a national-Israelite identity.

No comments: