The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

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?