When I was at Divinity School in the late 90s, one of the things I was required to do was to take two classes in scriptural studies along with my very free-wheeling program of early modern European history. I didn’t object to this, as it was useful for my studies in Reformation history and religion, but it was extremely new for me. I was a bit intimidated by it. First I took a class on the New Testament, which didn’t make that much of an impression on me other than to boggle at the art of parsing small collections of words to determine who wrote them and what influenced them. After that I took a class on the Hebrew bible, which intimidated me far more. Raised an atheist by devoutly atheist parents, I had at least a cursory understanding of the New Testament, given that our culture is saturated with it; the Hebrew bible was more of a mystery. But in the end, this class was one of the ones that utterly changed my world view.
We started at the beginning, with Genesis, of course. The first big revelation is that we have particular expectations of stories, expectations that are culturally defined, not “natural”. When someone tells us a story, a “history”, we anticipate that we are getting a basic list of facts. This is not the way middle eastern stories were told. Instead, they expressed truths through metaphor; take a familiar narrative and twist it in a particular way. We still do this, of course. But for narratives like this to make sense, you need to be well-versed in the whole culture in order to understand the signifiers. This is the same revelation I had when I took a music history class that finally explained to me why it was impossible to understand hip hop as anything other than an extraordinarily high form of art; to use the culture as your instrument, and manipulate it to say something new, with each note, each tone, coming with its own particular cultural resonance. To tell a story that isn’t just the straight narrative, but is a story that constructs itself in your head based on all the internal meanings of the pieces. To be outside the culture that created these kinds of narratives means that you won’t ever entirely understand all of it, like reading novels based on biblical stories without knowing the bible; you can understand the straight narrative, but not it’s inherent meaning. I was inspired by this form of story telling. I appreciate the depth of it. So my subsequent reading of the Hebrew bible brought me insights I couldn’t have come to otherwise, though I know I’m missing so much else. If you think about it, one of the overriding stories of the Hebrew Bible is that anyone who thinks they understand the will of G-d, the mind of G-d, is bound for failure. G-d cannot be understood by the human mind. To me, this was an important spiritual realization. Men and women since the beginning have been trying to find a way to communicate, to understand.
What followed in that course was a description of the history of the tribes; the nomadic history, the tribes who claimed land, the one who was dispossessed and became the priestly class. The remaining nomadic tradition that brought the key religious objects, the tabernacle containing the holiest of objects, to all communities in turn. I loved this idea; a movable temple, so that no one area laid claim to these precious objects. And how precious those objects were! Imagine: you have found one way to communicate with your creator and benefactor; it’s an unusual way, granted. You carry a seat, and this seat is the liminal space where your G-d’s space and yours coincide. This is the one chink in the wall between you and G-d; being near these objects is being near your G-d, not because they are divine necessarily, but because these are the tools that restructure space and time so that the hear the strains of G-d’s voice. G-d might well be everywhere, but this space, this little string and cans, is the only way you can make direct contact. And then the temple settles and is built in Jerusalem; the centre of that temple contains this special spot, the telephone line between heaven and earth. The communication lines aren’t just initiated by objects anymore, but are linked to this particular place, this special rock, this quality of the planet at this particular location. A tiny footprint of the planet where everything is arranged just right, the riverbed that brings G-d’s words to earth. As time goes on, this place is more and more protected; only the priests can go inside to be near this wonderful and dangerous spot. The course ended with only a mention that the following event is the destruction of the temple in 586 BCE. Just a mention.
Photo by Christopher Chan
The following term I took a course in comparative iconography. And the very first day, the instructor (the wonderful Kimberley Patton) showed us a picture of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. She told us: “according to measurements based on the placement of the remains of the temple, the Dome of the Rock, the oldest existing Muslim structure, sits over the place where the Holiest of Holies would have been.”
I was so struck by this image, by this reality. It’s as if the temple had just been destroyed for me, the implications hadn’t quite been revealed to me until that moment. There are no more prophets after the destruction of the temple, because there cannot be. G-d’s voice can no longer be heard. The means of communication are gone. These two spheres, the mortal and the immortal, still spin around each other, regarding each other, but no voice can be heard. No more fire in the bushes that does not burn its leaves, no more commandments, no more lost and confused youngest sons asked to bring an awkward, unwanted message to his people. No more surprise visits at the well. And here it is, that spot, the broken communication lines. The tools are long gone. The silence is deafening. I had to leave the room to catch my breath and consider it all, let it all sink in. The tragedy of it; a crucial, comforting connection, gone. To be cast adrift like that, never hearing the voice of a loved one ever again.
So in that moment I understood how contested that ground is, how high the stakes can be when history, religious and geography collide. So that’s my story for the 60th birthday of the modern state of Israel. G-d help us all.