The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

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.