Gary G. Porton
University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign
From the rabbinic point of view, Ezra—perhaps because of his relationship to the Torah of Moses, the central symbol of rabbinic Judaism—is the most important figure who lived during the complex and lengthy period which witnessed the transition of the biblical Israelite community from its foundations under the monarchy to its developments after the Babylonian experience.2 The rabbis, this is to say, see in Ezra the biblical foundation of their view of the centrality of Torah as the central symbol of Israelite life. This being the case, this essay examines the rabbinic discussions of Ezra as a means of understanding the rabbis' views of that transitional period, in which the monarchical life of the first temple period yielded, in their view, to the life under the Torah of the second temple period.
What must be clear from the outset is that the rabbis did not comprehend a dramatic chance to have occurred within Judaism with the return under Ezra. The term “restoration” is a common metaphor for that phase of Palestinian Israelite/Jewish history, referring to the return of the “exiles” from Babylonian, the rebuilding of the temple, and the re-establishment of the Israelite community in Jerusalem. But from the rabbinic point of view, this is a time of transition, not restoration, a time when old patterns were changed and new ones created: The Torah was altered, the borders of the land of Israel were finally established, new rituals and practices were introduced. In light of this perspective, they were most interested in comprehending how the new evolved from and could be seen as continuous with, even if different from, the past.
1 I would like to thank Professor Alan Avery-Peck, Kraft-Hiatt Chair in
Judaic Studies at the Holy Cross, for reading earlier versions of this paper and for
his help in producing this final version.
2 By contrast, Ezra plays a relatively minor role in Josephus' writings. See
the essay by Louis H. Feldman in the present volume.