Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The various biblical and rabbinic narratives of the destruction of Jerusalem seem to agree about a few things:
  • It was Israel's fault.
  • It was a tragedy -- both Israel's suffering and Israel's actions that led to that suffering.
But there are two different schools of thought as to how this tragedy came about:
1) God made it happen, and the humans who carried it out were simply God's agents.
2) God stepped out of the way so that humans could make it happen.

The biblical accounts in II Kings 24-25 and Jeremiah 52 fall into the first category: the Babylonians are acting "al pi Adonai" / "at God's command" [II Kings 24:3]. Ezekiel 8-11 presents a very different type of narrative (referenced in aggadah 1:7:10). Rather than talking about how many people were killed and how many were taken captive and the other historical details, Ezekiel addresses the event on a spiritual level, leading up to the departure of God's presence and of the heavenly beings.

The aggadot line up similarly into two camps.

In category 1:
In 1:7:5, Nevuzaradan seems to be taking direct orders from God: the time has come for the Temple to be destroyed, and it's his job to destroy it. He isn't really doing anything himself -- he is killing a people that is already killed, burning a Temple that is already burned (language which repeats in 1:7:8). In 1:7:6, God intervenes to prevent Egyptian troops from coming to Israel's defense.

In category 2:
In 1:6:175 and 1:7:2, Nebuchadnezzar is described as a rasha, an evil person -- an odd description of someone who is simply carrying out God's plan, but a description that makes sense if he is pursuing his own ends and God is turning Jerusalem over to him in an act of "extraordinary rendition". In 1:7:11, God says that God's presence is protecting the Temple, and so God turns away and allows the enemies to come in and destroy it.

These two strands represent two approaches to the problem of evil. Is God responsible for everything that befalls the world, good and bad? Or is God good, and evil is made possible only by God's absence?

Of course, I'm not going to resolve those questions here, but only point out that both of these approaches (and more) turn up in the ways that we have tried to place our historical tragedies into a coherent narrative.

Meanwhile, to turn our thoughts back to the happy festival of Chanukah, I'll link to another midrash that I blogged about a couple years ago, whose message includes the message of the Ezekiel narrative about the departure of God's presence, but also its inverse, in which we rededicate the Temple by bringing God's presence back to earth.

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