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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While Ezekiel preached ethical living, he also laid great emphasis on the ritual. The whole second half of his book, from chapter 40 on, is a description of the Temple that will be built after the restoration and the details of the duties of the priests and the sacrifices which should be offered. It is inconceivable that Amos or Isaiah would have recorded such a picture of the future.

Ezekiel's Career

Very few details of Ezekiel's life are known, since the Book of Ezekiel contains only a few references of a biographical nature. We are told that he was a priest, the son of Buzi, and evidently a member of the Zadok family of priests who were in charge of the sanctuary in Jerusalem (1: 3). Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, first captured Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and carried off King Jehoiachin and the leaders of the people to Babylon (11 Kings 24: 14). Ezekiel was one of those who were led away in the first captivity, and he dates his book from the years after the exile of Jehoiachin.

 In Babylon Ezekiel lived in the city of Tel Aviv on the Chebar Canal. He was married and widowed (24: 16‑18), and he preached his sermons in the exile. The last date in the book is the twenty‑seventh year of his exile, and therefore he preached for twenty‑two years.

Ezekiel was revered by subsequent generations. The traditional tomb of Ezekiel was a shrine for many centuries. Further evidence of his importance to succeeding generations is the frequency with which sections of his book are used as prophetical readings in the synagogue. In spite of the fact that the Mishnah specifically forbids the public reading of two sections of Ezekiel (Megillah 4: 10), there are ten prophetic readings from Ezekiel.

That Ezekiel was chosen so frequently for prophetical reading seems somewhat strange, considering the doubts the rabbis had about the book because of the laws in it which seem to contradict the analogous laws in the Torah and also because of their feeling that the mystical portions of the chariot had to be kept from public reading.

A Powerful Union of Priestly and Prophetic

It would seem that Ezekiel came to occupy so large a place in the synagogue service precisely because of the characteristics that awakened Wellhausen's scorn [Wellhausen was an early source-critical scholar, who maintained the rather anti-Jewish conviction that Judaism had been "corrupted" by the "dead" ritual of the priestly system, which he considered to be a late development -Ed] and led him to say that Ezekiel was really only a priest in prophetic clothing. All the great literary prophets before Ezekiel had a negative attitude toward the Temple and its ritual, and this fact gave rise to the popular sermonic phrase, "priest versus prophet," which implies that we must make a choice‑following either the priest or the prophet, believing either in ritual or in righteousness.

Ezekiel indicates that such an opposition between ritual and righteousness is unrealistic. As far as he was concerned, the true worship of God involved both the prophetic emphasis on social justice and the priestly ritual observed in the sacred Temple. He emphasized both in his book, combining the drama of ceremony and the dedication of ethics. This dual emphasis exerted a powerful influence on Jewish history.

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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.