The Holy of Holies: 
On the Constituents of Emptiness 

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.