Off the Pulpit

The Great Innovation

The Roman historian Tacitus relates that when Pompey and his troops entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem in 63 BCE, they found it “untenanted.” It was a mystery to them to find nothing inside the sacred shrine of the Jews. They assumed there would be a statues, but as the Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “in the sanctuary stood nothing whatever.”

Judaism declared even to an uncomprehending world that the greatest reality was intangible. Nothing produced by human hands could begin to adequately represent the Creator of the universe. God was literally no-thing, and any object was a betrayal of that reality.

We may be amused at Pompey’s surprise but things have not changed that much. We too are enchanted by the tangible and give most of our lives to contemplating that which we can measure or acquire. Yet again and again Judaism wrenches us out of the mire of material, and back into the space that the Roman soldier saw. You cannot touch transcendence. The God of Israel remains beyond depiction and beyond comprehension. How astonishing that one small tribe of people was able to recognize that truth thousands of years ago and stubbornly hold onto it in a hostile and unenlightened world, until it became part of the legacy of humanity.