The Holy of Holies On the Constituents of Emptiness Tue, 12 Dec 2006 01:38:32 +0000 en hourly 1 12. A Time for Doubt Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:39:51 +0000 admin The extraordinary poem near the beginning of Ecclesiastes – “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven” – is itself unholy in so far as it seems to speak of all humanity, without regard for cultural difference, without regard for the notion that some people have been “set apart”:

A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing.

We might, in the same spirit, add an additional line:

A time for belief and a time for doubting that belief.

However, the relationship between these two mental states is not merely cyclical. Derrida writes of two siblings of belief and doubt: faith and knowledge. And he notes a much more complex “alternation” between them – “between believing one knows and knowing one believes.” For faith and knowledge are not mere opposites; they depend on each other. If, as I’ve tried to indicate, there is doubt at the center of belief, there is also belief at the center of doubt.

This fault in the distinction between belief and doubt might qualify as an additional element in the emptiness that fills our Holies of Holies and obstructs our efforts to enter and exit cleanly from them.

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11. “Untenanted” Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:38:41 +0000 admin The arguments against belief outlined here have all been negative: the evidence is missing, evil exists, all is vapor, the room remains dark. But there are positive arguments, too. Let me introduce what may be the oldest of them: the idea that we should enjoy this world now rather than wasting thoughts on the possibility of supernatural worlds later. Here is a version from the Epic of Gilgamesh, written about a millennium and a half before Exodus. A young woman – a maker of wine named Siduri – has just advised the hero that eternal life is not for humans, instead she commends to him mortal life:

Fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace.

This anacreontic alternative to the privations of religions, carpe diem, is also espoused by Koheleth – “eat and drink and enjoy” – and by the Carvaka: “Can begging, fasting, penance…be compared with the ravishing embraces of women with large eyes?”

Tacitus uses an additional term for what Pompey saw of the Holy of Holies. It was, he reports, “untenanted.” In other words, the absence of life, too, can be said to have helped create that emptiness at the center of religion. The Jews actually focused on death less than some other post-literate faiths (particularly the faiths that branched off from theirs). Still – while outside this most holy of sanctuaries people dance, hold children’s hands and embrace – inside there was, by all appearances, no life.

Death is an empty room.

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10. A Room Without Windows Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:36:32 +0000 admin According to the Talmud, during the “four hundred and ten years” of the first temple, “there were only eighteen high priests”; however, during the “four hundred and twenty years,” of the second temple – presumably less righteous times – “more than three hundred high priests succeeded each other.” The Talmud subtracts the long terms of three second-temple high priests it likes, then does the math and concludes of the rest: “You will see that not even one high priest completed his year.”

One interpretation I have seen of this is that all these unrighteous fellows – the Talmud suggests that they were “appointed for money” – were struck down for presuming to appear before Yahweh in the Holy of Holies. Or maybe – if these numbers are to be believed – the position just was rotated.

Still, one can imagine the trepidation each of these high priests must have experienced when it was time to enter that sanctuary on Yom Kippur for the first time. The Holy of Holies had no window or other source of light; God was presumed capable of providing more than sufficient illumination. If he did not fear death, perhaps such a new high priest feared, as he enunciated the proper prayers in this room, that he would be standing there in the still and the dark.

Would this have shaken his faith? The anthropological literature I have seen on failed witch doctors, medicine men, sorcerers, wizards, magicians, rainmakers and priests, including outright frauds, suggests that they see this as their individual shortcoming not as a shortcoming of the supernatural in general. “It does not occur to a witch doctor,” writes Evans-Pritchard, “that because he himself cannot perform the miracles which are traditionally supposed to be within the powers of a witch doctor therefore all others are equally deficient in magic.”

Belief systems, once again, prove resilient. But they can shudder, and they can lose strength. The various emptinesses that tend to open at the core of such systems can add up to doubt or even disbelief.

It is not difficult in the anthropological literature to find examples of this: the old Ifugao man in the mountains of the Philippines, observed by Roy Franklin Barton, who notes that young boys manage to plant camotes without checking the omens and that they grow just fine; the old woman in the Bahia area of northeastern Brazil who pauses in the middle of a ritual dance to wink at an anthropologist, Inger Sjorslev; the king on the Tonga Islands, later poisoned by a priest, who shares with a stranded Englishman, William Mariner, “his doubts that there were such beings as the gods,” as well as his observation “that men were fools to believe what the priests told them.”

What is difficult is finding anthropologists who take such examples of doubt seriously. Here is Evans-Pritchard on the Azande’s allegiance to the tribe’s belief system: “It is the texture of his thought and he cannot think that his thought is wrong.” Most studies I have read take a similar position on the possibility of disbelief in preliterate cultures.

I am working on a theory about this: The Europeans who reported back on “primitive” cultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were good Christians, and many concluded that those “savages,” since they clearly were not Christians, must not believe. Many twentieth-century anthropologists, on the other hand, were themselves not religious but they were sensitive enough to note and take seriously the fact that the peoples they studied, in their own ways, were.

Could they have been too sensitive – so disposed to be fair to different religions and unfamiliar mindsets, to the holy, that they brushed off indications that these societies, too, had their doubters, had individuals who were able to wink at their beliefs? Did they look in disbelief for what they never would have demanded in belief: logical consistency? Is it possible, in other words, that these anthropologists were unable to recognize disbelief that wasn’t as fully realized as their own just as earlier observers had been unable to recognize belief that wasn’t similar to their own? Even Evans-Pritchard admits about the Azande, “His beliefs are not absolutely set but are variable and fluctuating to allow for different situations and to permit empirical observation and even doubts.” Even doubts.

Logically consistent disbelief arrives, along with the notion of logical consistency itself, with writing. We see evidence of disbelief, properly thought out, in Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. But the best historical example of early disbelief arrives in India probably before the time of the Buddha with a sect probably called the Carvaka – a sect that lasted, in some form, for a couple of millennia. Here, from a ninth century text, is a summary of their philosophy:

  • A person is happy or miserable through [the laws] of nature; there is no other cause.
  • Who paints the peacocks, or who makes the cuckoos sing? There exists here no cause excepting nature.
  • The soul is but the body characterized by the attributes signified in the expressions, “I am stout,” “I am youthful,” I am grown up,” I am old,” etc. It is not something other than the body….
  • There is no world other than this; there is no heaven and no hell.

Such ideas, according to my unholy speculations, may have sprouted upon occasion among Hebrews, too. Certainly, given the means of dissemination, deracination and delocalization available in Pompey’s time and earlier, such ideas must have wafted through their land.

They must have leaked into the Holy of Holies, too.

I return to our second-temple, short-term high priest standing in this empty, windowless room in the dark. The Jews, it might be said, had cleverly designed their religion so that Yahweh was only expected to appear in one place, on one day, before one person. Was the high priest being asked to function as an odd kind of scapegoat: sent all alone into this room – a room into which no one else could peek – to handle, on behalf of the whole nation, the non-appearance of God?

It is my deeply unholy thesis that a spiritual emptiness survives in the windowless room inside most humans. With the spread of writing and abstract analysis, that emptiness had deepened by Pompey’s time. Was the Holy of Holies “set apart” as a place where that emptiness could be contained?

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9. “The Nothing” Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:33:13 +0000 admin If God is the Absolute, the profoundly not nothing, then Martin Heidegger – in his essay “What is Metaphysics?” – may have come up with the opposite of God, what he calls “the Nothing.”

Emptiness can be a creative force: The universe begins, in the first lines of Genesis, with a “void.” (Although how precisely the Absolute might interact with such an absence is, Heidegger suggests, a difficult ontological question; what standing Heidegger himself might have in a discussion of Jewish texts, given his political history, is itself a difficult ethical question.) A new kind of Christianity is created, it might be said, with the marvelous discovery, made by Mary Magdalene, that Jesus’ burial tomb is empty. The absence of representations of God, the absence even of God – these emptinesses, too, can be fertile. Heidegger, for his part, sees all Being as being dependent upon the Nothing: “Being means: being held out into the Nothing.”

Heidegger is not free of the temple builder’s impulse to “set apart.” He can’t resist distinguishing the apprehension of this Nothing from what he calls “the public superficies of existence”; “the “Oh, yes” and the “Oh, no” of men of affairs”; “the comfortable enjoyment of tranquilized bustle.” It is as if he, too, wants to escape from the profane into a private, inaccessible, sanctified room.

However, if there is a Holy of Holies at the heart of Heidegger’s philosophy – a place where we might contemplate this candidate for anointment as the opposite of God – it would not be exactly empty or, more precisely, it would not contain the emptiness that functions as “negation.” Instead, it would be a place of “anxiety” – not an anxiety based on a specific fear, Heidegger explains, but on a generalized feeling of being “ill at ease.” It would be a sanctuary filled with “nihilation.”

Perhaps that is similar to a sanctuary filled with Koheleth’s vapor.

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8. The Wholly Holey Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:32:04 +0000 admin The Hebrew word hebel appears in more than thirty passages in Ecclesiastes (that oddly unorthodox inclusion in the Hebrew Bible), where it is always attributed to Koheleth, the skeptical sage who speaks in this book. The word is first used in the book’s first passage:

Utter hebel! – said Koheleth -
Utter hebel! All is hebel!

Numerous translations have been proposed for this word: from “vanity” (though not our current understanding of “vanity” as a kind of mirror-fixation) to “meaninglessness,” “futility,” “absurdity,” “insubstantiality,” “transience,” “foulness,” “unreality” or “emptiness.” Perhaps the best alternative is to accept what appears to be a more literal translation of hebel: “vapor,” which seems to cover, metaphorically, most of those other possible meanings. According to the “wisdom philosopher” of Ecclesiastes then, toil is vapor; worrying is vapor; wealth is vapor; even wisdom is vapor.

“Who can possibly know what is best for a man to do in life – the few days of his fleeting life?” the world-weary Koheleth wonders. Well, Yahweh – as heard by Moses, as recorded in the Bible – is supposed to have determined and spelled out precisely “what is best for a man to do in life.” Deuteronomy says this over and over: “Do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Do not turn aside to the right or to the left: follow only the path that the Lord your god has enjoined upon you.

Surely, one of the great glories and gifts of God – as post-agriculture, post-writing religions develop – is His having “suspended…over emptiness” an understanding of what is best for His followers to do. And what begins as law also starts to be appreciated as purpose, direction, meaning: He “maketh my way straight,” the Eighteenth Psalm declares, gratefully. The Lord fills the philosophical, existential void with substance. For two or three millennia people have been looking to religion for this sort of thing. That is why the vapor released in Ecclesiastes – vain, meaningless, futile, absurd, insubstantial, transient, foul, unreal, empty – is so dangerous.

In Ecclesiates God, far from being a path straightener, is a confounder: “Who can straighten what He has twisted?” Koheleth asks. Instead of justice, Koheleth sees “frustration”: “Sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright.” Instead of men thriving and things going well, he sees lives that “amount to nothing”: “Men’s hearts are full of sadness, and their minds of madness, while they live; and then – to the dead!” Instead of purpose and direction, he sees “doom”: “The same fate is in store for all: for the righteous and the wicked; for the good and pure, and for the impure; for him who sacrifices and for him who does not.” Instead of meaning, Koheleth sees “the pursuit of wind.” Koheleth’s exit line repeats his opening line: “All is vapor.”

Ecclesiastes, in its skepticism, provides another perspective on the empty room Pompey found at the heart of the temple in Jerusalem: Perhaps the absence of knowledge of “what is best for a man to do in life” contributed, in some unintended but unavoidable way, to that emptiness. Perhaps, in other words, an absence of meaning haunts that emptiness. Perhaps the Holy of Holies was filled with vapor.

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7. “Powers of Abstraction” Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:29:01 +0000 admin All Pompey’s intrusion into the Holy of Holies will leave behind is one sentence in Tacitus; still, it is not hard to imagine it as a media show. As he enters this hidden room in the Temple of those weird, unGreek, Asian, tribal Jews, this cosmopolitan, sophisticated Roman is not just the insensitive anthropologist. He wants, to continue our imagining, to display the lack of contents of the Holy of Holies in a museum, to take them, like the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb, on tour. This all-powerful Roman wields klieg lights; he brings the press. He exposes. His expedition is something of an exposé. The whole scene feels as if it might have been filmed: like Dorothy’s peek behind the curtain at the diminutive Wizard of Oz. It feels as if it might have been televised: like Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s “secret vault.” Pompey has in common with all journalists a desire to shove a microphone in God’s face. He wants to rant about what he has learned on his blog.

In his desecration of the Holy of Holies, Pompey has with him, in other words, what Jacques Derrida, in his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” calls the “powers of abstraction”: “deracination, delocalization, disincarnation, formalization, universalizing schematization, objectification, telecommunication etc.”

After conquering their territory and making his forced entry, Pompey actually will leave the Jews and their religion mostly alone. Their first Roman ruler will prove among the most benevolent of Israel’s many foreign rulers. Nevertheless, because he has defiled – with his fiber-optic, high-definition, hyper-text Roman eyes – Pompey seems to represent one blow of the wrecking ball. And it is true that in about a century, along with many of the rituals performed around it, this more than six-hundred-year-old temple – this grand fortress of the rooted, the “set apart,” the holy – will be gone.

There is, however, one problem with this attempt to see Pompey as bringing the powers of modern media into the Holy of Holies: the problem is that they were already there.

The Hebrews in actuality had access to two media. That was enough.

Yahweh communicates with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and then the Israelites in the desert primarily with His voice. The Ten Commandments, for example, are first announced. This means God’s words have already been echoed, amplified, disseminated – often through His spokesman, Moses. It means they escape Yahweh’s mouth, His location, His context, and would escape His control, were it possible for anything to escape His control.

Yahweh’s ability to speak means all the ruses and veils of language are already available to Him. This, after all, is the God who, when Moses asks how to refer to Him, chooses to name Himself: “I Am That I Am.”

Yahweh’s compulsion to speak also means all the tangles and traps of language are already there to ensnare Him. God must be, like the rest of us who traffic in words, subject and object, connected but alone, in one spot at one time yet with a consciousness as large as the universe and as long as all of remembered history. He must state and state again and withdraw statements. He must struggle with truth. He must struggle with fidelity. He must explain Himself. He must fail to explain Himself. He must contradict Himself. He must be misunderstood.

Yahweh first experiments with the epoch’s new communication technology in Exodus – writing down the Commandments, soon after they are delivered. He uses His finger and writes on both sides of two stone tablets. These tablets do not survive. Moses, not normally a hothead, smashes God’s original draft in anger over the golden-calf incident; then, at Yahweh’s instruction, he rewrites the commandments; those are the tablets that are to be placed in the Ark. They, the story goes, were lost with it before the return from Babylon. Still, writing – in the form of texts like Exodus, always said to be divinely inspired – remains at the heart of this and most of the other major religions that have endured. The Hebrews are predominantly and preeminently a people “of the book.”

So Yahweh and His tribe already have access to all the powers of writing. Their taboos, inscribed on stone, have gained the hardness of laws. Their messages, their texts, can travel over great distances and retain their shape. Ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire – living in Alexandria, living in Rome, living almost everywhere – will be Jews who read the Books of Moses and worship Yahweh. But the religion’s center – the Temple, Jerusalem itself – will be lost.

And, through mastery of this trick of turning words into objects, Yahweh and His people are already able to remove them from situations and analyze them abstractly – looking for correspondences and contradictions. Few, before or since, will do this as obsessively as the authors of the Talmud, but surely this turn of mind is already evident in the doubts on where to locate God of the impeccably literate Solomon.

The result of all this mediation will be a God who has already been subject to various forms of “deracination, delocalization, disincarnation, formalization, universalizing schematization, objectification and telecommunication.” So, though it may not have been obvious at the time, the Holy of Holies Pompey entered had been emptied, in part, by film, the press, television and the Internet.

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6. “The House for the Name of the Lord” Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:26:15 +0000 admin I Kings describes King Solomon’s construction of the first temple, with its Holy of Holies, and it calls this most sacred space “the House of the Lord.” Solomon, having finished the job, then declares to his God, in verse:

I have now built for You
A stately House,
A place where You
May dwell forever.

However, a few lines later Yahweh has departed, and this sanctuary has been given a new inhabitant. It is now not “the House of the Lord” but “the House for the name of the Lord.” For Solomon has come to doubt the original Holy-of-Holies project as outlined in Exodus: “But will God really dwell on earth?” he asks. “Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built.”

If Solomon himself has now concluded that there is no space anywhere that can house such an elusive God, how could Pompey expect to have found Him in that little room? How could even a high priest expect to meet Him there? The Holy of Holies must, in this view, be empty of God. And – based on what Solomon, “the wisest of all men,” has suggested here – even the heaven’s may be empty of such an uncontainable God.

That which, according to Solomon’s reformulation, will occupy the sanctuary he has build is, to be sure, a distinguished resident in its own right: Yahweh’s name is treated with great delicacy and respect by the Hebrews; it is to be pronounced, according to some versions of the tradition, only on that one day of the year in the Holy of Holies. Still, the name of the Lord is a very different tenant from the Lord Himself.

According to this new version of the lease, Solomon’s Holy of Holies would contain no cloud or fire, just a word. This was more than a millennium before the arrival of silent reading, so Yahweh’s name may have been among the first pieces of writing in human history that were not to be read out loud. The Holy of Holies – by this reckoning and on the assumption that the silent is less tangible than the enunciated – was the House of the world’s most abstract word.

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5. Pompey’s Failure to Die Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:25:01 +0000 admin The punishment for an improper appearance in the Holy of Holies had been made quite clear by Yahweh. Aaron himself had to wear a specified robe with a golden bell when entering this chamber “that he may not die.” The Talmud explains that a “layman” attempting to perform a service in the Holy of Holies would be condemned to “death.” And a later tradition held that high priests entered the Holy of Holies with a rope tied around their ankle – in case they were struck down by God for some transgression and their bodies needed to be removed without anyone else daring to enter the space. No doubt, a disrespectful interloper – like the Roman Pompey – into God’s own sanctuary, this most private and rarified of places, would suffer at the hands of the Lord a terrible death, a punishment no amount of earthly power could resist.

And Pompey did die under terrible circumstances – he was stabbed while seeking sanctuary in Egypt after being defeated by Caesar. However, this was in the year 48 BCE – about fifteen years after his transgression. And in the interim Pompey had had many successes. It sure looked as if he had gotten away with it.

Belief systems often have to deal with unpleasant facts like this intruder’s survival. Good things happen to presumably bad people. Bad things happen to presumably good people: King Josiah, for example, although much beloved by the authors of the Bible for his fidelity to the Yahweh-alone cause, died ingloriously at the hands of Egypt’s pharaoh in 609 BCE. This is the problem of evil – one the most powerful of the traditional arguments against belief in a just Deity (or deities).

Believers usually manage to come up with explanations for such apparent glitches in the system of divine reward and punishment: God, they conclude, decided to wait for the proper moment to bring Pompey to justice. Or, when all else fails, they mutter: God works in mysterious ways. Still, the fact that Pompey walked out of the Holy of Holies alive itself contributed to its emptiness.

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4. The Absent Ark Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:21:16 +0000 admin The Holy of Holies actually was not supposed to be, as Pompey found it, empty. The Ark of the Covenant – a gold-covered box containing those tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, originally designed for the Tabernacle – was meant to be kept inside this space at the heart of the Jewish temple. Indeed, the Ark was said to be the highlight of Solomon’s legendary first temple. Lamentations calls it “the beauty of Israel” (although that “beauty” would have been seen by only one person on only one day each year). Somehow the Ark and the tablets had gotten misplaced by the time the second temple was constructed – as material evidence of miraculous events always, somehow, gets misplaced.

In this the experiences of the Hebrews are far from unique. When asked for proof, the supernatural usually fails to produce.

Here, from I Kings, is how we want it to be: Elijah, prophet of the God Yahweh, challenged the prophets of the competing (but lowercase) god, Baal, to prepare a bull for sacrifice but leave responsibility for the fire to cook the meat to their god. Baal’s prophets “invoked Baal from morning until noon.” They “performed a hopping dance about the altar….They gashed themselves with knives and spears.” But the meat remained uncooked on the altar. Then Elijah places meat from his bull atop twelve stones (for the twelve tribes of Israel) on an altar to Yahweh and prays. Presto! “Fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering.”

More commonly, however, if I may begin my unholy leaping from one culture to another, the supernatural fails to rise to such challenges. Mbira, a member of the Azande tribe in the Sudan, once decided to give some of the local witch doctors a test. According to the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard, writing in 1937, Mbira placed a knife in a covered pot and invited four witch doctors to use their powers to divine what was in the pot. Three danced themselves into a properly ecstatic state for “the better part of the day” and then made “wildly incorrect” guesses. The fourth kept dancing until, since the sun was going down, Mbira insisted that he make his guess. Then Mbira went into a hut. The witch doctor snuck in behind him and, “so that he could save his reputation,” pleaded with Mbira to tell him what was in the pot.

I do not mean to imply that supernatural beliefs never receive confirmation. Sometimes after the shaman holds a s̩ance the patient does improve. But outside of the hazy, legendary realm of Moses, Solomon, Elijah and the distant ancestors of innumerable peoples around the world, unassailable proof of the supernatural Рthe tablets with the Ten Commandments themselves, fire from the Lord descending and consuming when requested Рgenerally fails to arrive.

Some anthropologists have suggested that, as a result, many human believers sense that witchcraft and gods do not belong to the same reality as men, women and animals. “The everyday world of common sense objects and practical acts is the paramount reality in human experience,” states Clifford Geertz. For all its drama, the world of spirits and omens represents, by this way of thinking, something less than that. “The majority of men live in it only at moments,” Geertz adds.

His example is a member of the Bororo tribe in South America who announces, “I am a parakeet.” Such supernatural beliefs are taken very, very seriously. People, as we have often enough seen, are willing to kill or die for them. However, Geertz argues, they are taken seriously in a different “province of meaning” than that which “makes up the commonsensical.” That Bororo man, as Geertz notes, never seeks to mate with parakeets.

When Pompey barged into the Holy of Holies, the Ark was already missing. This absence of physical evidence of God’s existence, this negation, helped create the emptiness Pompey confronted. That void may have been deepened by a sense even among the Hebrews, with all their tales of divine intervention, that the “province of meaning” occupied by their God is not a province that can provide physical evidence, that the Holy of Holies, had it not been destroyed, would have remained forever empty.

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3. “The Denunciation of Gods” Mon, 04 Dec 2006 04:02:10 +0000 admin While there is no evidence that Pompey understood it, the emptiness he observed upon his intrusion into the Holy of Holies did demonstrate – dramatically – what was so unusual, so holy, about Jewish beliefs.

“The progress of religion is defined,” writes the philosopher A. N. Whitehead, “by the denunciation of gods.” Under King Josiah in Judah in the seventh century BCE and with the support of Deuteronomy (a text newly “discovered” during Josiah’s reign), the Hebrews “denounced” – became atheists with respect to – all gods except one. This was the “Yahweh-alone” movement. Altars – some of which had even shared Yahweh’s temple – to Milcom, Chemosh, Ashtoreth, Tammuz and two particularly popular area gods, Baal and Asherah, were, according to II Kings, “abolished”; “defiled”; “shattered”; “burned down”; “beat…to dust;” their priests slain. Monotheism was, thus, established.

By the time of Pompey’s arrival, the Holy of Holies is, therefore, empty of any trace of worship of other gods.

The Jews also “denounced” the tangible, easily accessible, form in which all gods had been presented. Other temples in the Egyptian/Greek/Roman world featured in their holiest places, their sanctuaries, statues depicting the deities to whom the temples were dedicated. The Jewish religion – with its prohibition, introduced in Exodus and underlined in Deuteronomy, against “graven images” – rested on a more abstract, more elusive view of God.

That prohibition is apparently not absolute. While the second commandment forbids “any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below,” God’s design instructions, later in Exodus, for the Ark that is to be placed inside this chamber include “two cherubim of gold.” Nonetheless, Yahweh himself is scrupulously not represented here – or anywhere.

Indeed, God is very, very rarely seen in the Hebrew Bible, often going out of his way – by coming in a cloud, by ordering people not “to gaze” – to remain invisible. The Holy of Holy is empty – and this is how that emptiness would primarily be understood by those who respected its holiness – of images of God. This is Tacitus’ perspective on Pompey’s invasion of the Jewish temple: “This incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity.”

Whitehead’s “progress of religion” is continuing here. God – a forceful, occasionally violent character in the earliest books of the Bible – becomes, through his invisibility, more ethereal. Consider this intriguing scene involving the prophet Elijah from I Kings:

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.

This is a God who is spending considerable time being “not.” Indeed, the only evidence in this scene that he is not “not” is a “soft murmuring sound” Elijah hears after all the hubbub, followed by a “voice” from a cave. Yahweh, the seldom seen, is now Yahweh, the barely heard.

The Holy of Holies is emptier because God appears to be growing imperceptible.

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2. Desecrating the Holy Mon, 04 Dec 2006 03:44:50 +0000 admin The first mention of the Holy of Holies is in Exodus. Here it is a curtained-off space within the larger Tabernacle – a tent in which the Israelites, as they travel through the desert, can meet with their God. The Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber, is where the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, is to be placed.

Yahweh specifies the size, the materials and the design of every element of the Tabernacle, including the Ark and the curtain that will hide it. He specifies exactly how Aaron and his sons – the priests – are to behave before him there. As well this God might, for Holy, it must be understood, means here only faintly pure or clean, and not yet ethical, but, as Jewish texts often put it, “set apart from others.” Gods are different from humans and from each other – this, in the ancient Semitic view, is their holiness. “To have relations with a deity,” John P. Peters explained in 1899, “his characteristics, his nature, his holiness, must be taken into consideration.”

Yahweh is helping his chosen people by specifying precisely what will suit his particular needs, what is holy for him – “a curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen,” for example, with “a design of cherubin worked into it.” And, Exodus reports, this, God’s detailed outline of how he should be won, succeeds: “For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” Yahweh has moved in.

Pompey has penetrated into a direct descendent of this veiled, personal space – the holiest sanctuary, within the holy temple, within the holy land of Israel. He is the disbeliever, the infidel, the other, who always exists at the borders of a system of belief – looking in with a cold eye. But he is also the embodiment of the unholy: the indelicate, clumsy, stupid conqueror, taking by brute force what must be won by reverent attention to individuality: “As victor he claimed the right to enter.”

Many of the secrets of the Holy of Holies, consequently, remain unavailable to Pompey. He experiences no “cloud of the Lord”; he feels no “fire.” Instead, he discovers nothing. In his lust to see, he ignores all the rituals of worship, or courtship, by which one might become sufficiently “set apart” to approach the “set apart” – and, therefore, Pompey proves, in a sense, blind.

Which is a good analogy for the situation of the historian who presumes to look at belief and disbelief across cultures, on different continents, across millennia even. Much will remain hidden – will even be obscured – because of a consequent insensitivity to the particular.

Such imperialistic and promiscuous behavior can only be justified in a scholar if there is, indeed, something general to be found. The goal here is to steal a glimpse of the nothings – and, perhaps, the somethings with which they are entwined – that occupy the innermost chambers of human belief; to sample the mix of doubt and belief that germinates in these holy holes. For this emptiness, I will argue, is pregnant.

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1. “Empty”: An Introduction Sun, 03 Dec 2006 10:51:01 +0000 admin In the year 63 BCE, the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, in the process of conquering Israel and all the surrounding territories, entered the most sacred place in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. What he found shocked him. For this temple was different in one crucial respect from all other temples.

Pompey’s incursion was made upon what the Jews called their second temple. The original version of the first temple was supposed to have been a magnificent structure in Jerusalem constructed by Judah’s King Solomon on land purchased by his father, King David. No archeological evidence – not one brick – has been found of anything remotely on that scale existing in what appears to have been at the time, the tenth century BCE, a tiny, sleepy kingdom. But by the reign of King Josiah, in the seventh century BCE, a central temple certainly existed in Jerusalem. It was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in 586 B.C. Construction on a new temple began with the return from exile in Babylon in 537 BCE.

That was the second temple. The sacrifices and purity rituals that were at the center of the Jewish religion were performed in and around such a temple in Jerusalem for more than half a millennium. (Herod, beginning in 19 BCE, built a version that may truly have qualified as magnificent.) And it was into an incarnation of this second temple that Pompey, then perhaps the most powerful man on earth, intruded. “As victor he claimed the right to enter the temple,” the Roman historian Tacitus explains. (Tacitus, the only source for this incident, is writing, alas, more than one hundred and sixty years after the fact.)

The temple’s inner sanctum – the Holy of Holies: Yahweh’s sanctuary – was supposed to be entered by only one person, the high priest, on only one day a year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Pompey forced his way in. And here, according to Tacitus, is what Pompey found:
Nothing. “The sanctuary was empty.”

My goal in this paper – formed of twelve spiraling blog posts – is to consider the elements of belief and doubt that make up that emptiness.

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