Ezekiel, was a prophet/priest from the elite Zadok family, which had provided leadership in the holy Temple for over four hundred years, from the days when King Solomon set them up as the chief priestly family. Ezekiel was probably among the leaders of the people who were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar before the destruction of the Temple, since he prophesied about the destruction of the Temple from exile in Babylonia. He was a dour prophet, taken to pessimism about the human condition. His messages, unlike those of his contemporary Jeremiah, are impersonal and his models for the redemption of his people are more about God’s capacity to redeem His people than they are about God’s people rectifying their ways. (See J. Kugel, How to Read the Bible, p. 599)
When he does prophesy about his vision of the restored nation and the rebuilt Temple, his visions offer a glimpse into the heart of a prophet set upon recreating these institutions on a higher plane than those which existed in his past memories, perhaps with the intent of using institutional life as a means for maintaining the sacred stability of God’s redeemed nation.
Here the details tell the story. Even minute details, like those outlining the particulars of how Ezekiel envisioned the priestly wardrobe tell us a great deal about the “Godly” nation Ezekiel sought to restore: “And when they enter the gates of the inner court, they shall wear linen vestments; they shall have nothing woolen upon them when they minister inside the gates of the inner court. They shall have linen turbans on their heads and linen breeches on their loins; they shall not gird themselves with anything that causes sweat.” (17-18) In addition, according to Ezekiel, the priests were not allowed to wear these priestly vestments outside of the Temple precincts: “When they go out to the outer court – the outer court where the people are – they shall remove the vestments in which they minister and shall deposit them in the sacred chambers, they shall put on other garments, lest they make the people consecrated with their vestments.” (19)
Having the priests serving in the inner court dressed totally in linen vestments marked a move to make all of the priests like the High Priest on Yom Kippur who also served in entirely linen garb. This gives us the sense that Ezekiel sought to increase the sacred nature of all those who served in the Temple. Similarly, his regulation stipulating that the priest had to remove these vestments before coming into contact with “the people” seems intended in some way to remove this sacred nature represented by the priestly garments from the people, both to protect the holiness from the people and the people from the holiness of the garments. (See R. Kasher, Ezekiel 25-48, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 862)
These actions are paradoxical. Ezekiel seems adamant in his pursuit of creating a holier nation – a nation which will be closely allied with God and which will not stray from Him. He does this by fortifying its institutions and its elite with higher and higher levels of sanctity while he seems to have grave reservations about sharing this sanctity with the people. This paradox is disquieting and should offer us grounds for introspection on the challenges which faced Ezekiel and caused him to draw these conclusions.
In some sense, the tradition of the rabbinic sages was a reaction to his attitude in its call for the democratization of Jewish practice and learning, which gave all Jews the opportunity to be “major players” in the Jewish tradition. (See Gerson Cohen, ‘The Rabbinic Heritage’, in Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures)
The pull from these two polar positions will always be with us.