This cannot be the first time I’ve ever been to synagogue for the first day of Shavuot, but there is no other way to explain my surprise at finding that the first chapter of Ezekiel, perhaps the most enigmatic and esoteric of biblical texts, the one that, according to the rabbis, almost didn’t make it into the canon of Hebrew Scripture, a text which the rabbis in Mishnah Haggigah expressly warn us about, is read aloud in the synagogue as the day’s haftarah reading. Apart from cheesecake and an all-night study session for the most intrepid, the holiday that commemorates the giving of Torah at Sinai, has almost nothing to distinguish it. The actual day of the holiday is one of the dullest, with no special ritual curiosities, except for this little bit, tucked discretely into the special order of scriptural readings designated for the holiday.
The main reading for the day is Exodus 19. The familiar and hackneyed scene in Exodus 19, where God gives the Torah to Moses to Israel at Sinai, it pales in comparison to Ezekiel’s vision of the wraithlike chariot figures, those four head creatures, the wheels within wheels, the din, electric dazzle, amber colors, and their rider, the burning power of the enthroned divine anthropos, “the appearance of a semblance of the glory of YHWH.” Are you supposed to see such spectacle? or even hear about it in the synagogue?
The public reading of this mystical text scrambles what I thought I understood about the esoteric and exoteric in Judaism. Viewed historically, perhaps the rabbis, or at least those rabbis who were uncomfortable with the revelations in Ezekiel, were not the people who assembled the order of additional scriptural readings in the synagogue. Once again, we see how little influence the early rabbis had on ancient synagogue practice? Or perhaps this particular text, the one that was always thought to be the most enigmatic of esoteric texts, is not an esoteric text, or was not always considered to be so. More philosophically, perhaps the firewall between esotericism and exotericism is not always a hot one. The line between esoteric and exoteric is contingent and labile, meaning that it is configured in different ways by different textual communities at different historical times and in different geographical places. Or more to the point, perhaps the esoteric and the exoteric always collapse into each other, are always on the verge of doing so; a meta-commentary to the relationship between the revealed and the concealed tout court.
In the text itself, there is no direct vision. The sense of God’s presence has been mediated by “appearance,” “semblance,” and “glory.” In the synagogue, perhaps “textual space,” “liturgical space” and “synagogue space” provide additional frame-sets with which to mediate the event of revelation, to bring one close to it at a distance. Every year, I teach this strange text in my Introduction to Judaism. So I guess this book, for all its strangeness, is kind of familiar. But this was the first time I ever encountered it liturgically in the synagogue, and that made it strange. You see and hear the words at the same time, while the plastic frame of ritual space lends the text an additional level of illumination.