Detailing the Unknown: Dante and Zechariah


Detailing the Unknown: Dante and Zechariah

Hermione, you spoke just a few minutes ago about some of my favourite texts: Zechariah, which you chanted beautifully from for your Haftarah, and the Book of Job. They’re not easy books. They’re tricky, difficult, emotionally-wrought texts dealing with some of the most difficult aspects of being human. And you spoke about them, and Satan - the cynical, duplicitous character, as you said - with remarkable maturity.

With your permission, I want to continue to explore the world you led us into. 

See, these kinds of books - books like Zechariah and Job, with their complications and their emotional depth - change as we read them. As we grow and learn, they reveal new concepts that we haven’t seen before. At least, that’s my experience, and I hope it will be yours, too. And I’ve been reading another book, another book about the cynical and duplicitous character of Satan, which has in some sense re-coloured parts of your Haftarah for me. 

It’s not a book about your topic - Jewish concepts of what it means to satan someone - but rather, a book about the Christian vision of Satan you don’t believe in (and nor do I). I’ve been working my way through the landscapes of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

If you’re not familiar with the Comedy, you might at least know something of the first book: Dante’s Inferno. It is an epic poem written in the 1300s about a pilgrim - Dante himself - being taken on a guided tour through the Christian Hell. It is a classic and well worth the read, and I’m sure some here have worked through it already. Dante lays out his vision of Hell as existing in concentric circles, very clearly influenced by the Greek philosophers he thinks end up there. Each circle is based on the sin that brought people there, and they have their own in-set rings. It all gets more serious - both the sin and the punishment - until the pilgrim reaches the centre, where - spoiler alert - Satan lives. Dante’s Satan is a three-faced demonic figure trapped in a lake of ice, gnawing on the bodies of the sinners Dante understands to be the worst of all. 

You probably don’t need me to convince you, since it’s considered one of the best literary works of history, but… It’s a really, really good book. 

I must admit, I am not all that interested in the theology of Hell itself. I don’t believe in it, after all. But Dante’s theology is fascinating to me nonetheless, because it reads to me so clearly as coming from a place of internal turmoil. Dante, as both the poet and the fictional self-inserted pilgrim, feels lost. The whole adventure even begins in a dark wood, with Dante-the-pilgrim unsure how he ended up there in the first place. And the result of that lack of certainty about where he is or what his purpose is, Dante is presented with the mysteries of the afterlife in extremely strict, regimented, orderly terms. And he tells that story through incredibly strict, regimented, orderly poetry. The subject matter can feel emotionally intense, and the imagery can be disturbing (to say the least), but it is tightly controlled and structured. 

It will come as no surprise, then, to know that Dante the poet had found himself on the wrong side of political upheaval, and spent the rest of his life wandering. It was in that exile that he wrote the Comedy. 

It’s a tale as old as theology: when presented with great upheaval, some of us will respond by focusing on theological order. Even evil must be ordered and controlled and somehow understandable. If we could only go on a pilgrimage through the afterlife, we would see how it all, ultimately, makes sense. 

There is much more going on in Dante’s theology than simply control, but that is what stood out to me. And it stands out to me partly because of the contrast with Zechariah. 

What the poet Dante and the prophet Zechariah have in common is exile. In the words of Robert Edwards, in an essay on medieval exile writing: “By its very nature, exile is a psychological experience… [a] response of mind and spirit…” Both Dante and Zechariah respond with mind and spirit by detailing encounters with the mysteries of the universe. But their approaches to that mystery, to afterlife and mysticism and the things beyond human comprehension, are quite different indeed. 

Zechariah’s exile was the Babylonian Exile. He was of the generation of returnees, and his writing is largely about what it meant to be exiled and what it means to be returning. And it is a messy book. Zechariah does not shy away from the chaos. Even when describing a heavenly courtroom or a strange, self-sufficient Menorah, as in the Haftarah today, the text is confusing and off-putting. It’s almost like it wants you to be on the back foot, a little unsure of what is happening as the vision manifests and then disappears. Zechariah’s other visions will include a flying scroll and a woman in a tub being carried off by winged creatures. Other such prophetic writings in exile include Daniel, with his apocalyptic visions of beasts, and Ezekiel, with his many-eyed angels and valley of dry bones. There’s something about the instability of exilic existence that gets captured in these kinds of visions, which could not, I think, be further from the incredible rigidity of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

And lest we be inclined to think that it is simply a matter of culture, it is worth recalling that Zechariah’s inheritance, the inheritance of Torah, tends towards order. We are a people of law. When God creates the universe at the beginning of B’reishit, it is with a sense of pattern, a sense of controlling the chaos of the tohu vavohu into a world made piece at a time, day at a time, layer at a time. Zechariah’s heritage was the description of a dwelling-place for God with instructions for the precise lengths of the beams and the curtains. Zechariah is choosing to present his expression of exile this way. 

Dante takes some kind of control in the Comedy, where he turns himself from being an exile to being, at least fictionally, a pilgrim. An exile is defined by the place they have come from (for Dante, Florence; for our exilic prophets, the Holy Land). A pilgrim is defined by where they are going. It’s empowering and I don’t mean to undermine that. Envisioning himself as a pilgrim toward Paradisio is exercising some control over his self-narrative. It’s re-imagining the cosmos and his place in it. 

But it is a stark juxtaposition to what Zechariah seems to want from us. The Prophet Zechariah uses his visions to express some of the emotional upheaval of what exile meant to him - perhaps, admittedly, with some of the privilege of having returned. And in that, he keeps coming back to one important message: not that we should make sense of the cosmos, put it in order and attempt in that way to control it… but that we should consider letting go of the idea that we can. “Not by might,” says God in Zechariah’s vision. “Not by power. But by My spirit alone.” 

In conversation with Dante, the poet and exile and pilgrim, I hear Zechariah - the prophet and exile and pilgrim - saying this: there is no strength that we can place upon the world that will give us full control over it or the broader cosmos. When the ground is shaken, when we’re faced with things we don’t understand, trying to understand it is all well and good. But trying to fit it into how we want it to work is not as helpful as it might initially feel. It might feel like we are grasping something about reality, when in actuality, we might fall into the trap of weaving fictions we find comforting to avoid confrontation with the chaos. 

Sometimes, I hear Zechariah saying, embracing the messiness is more honest than trying to force order into it. 

Not an easy task, perhaps. But a lesson worth hearing. 

Shabbat shalom. 


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