The Holy of Holies; or, the Architecture of Absence [EN]

Question : “[Le] signifiant (...) reste problématique, chargé d’une signification certaine, mais on ne sait pas laquelle. Signification dérisoire, qui indique la béance, le trou, où rien de signifiant ne peut répondre chez le sujet[1].

To what extent does this description of the signifier by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan apply to the sacred as it is conceptualised in Jewish theology, and more specifically to the notion of an empty Holy of Holies?

“Dieu n’a pas fait son exit[2]

Jacques Lacan

What is the point of a Lacanian analysis of the sacred? In other words, what is the role of religious signifiers in the Lacan psychoanalytical framework? A common and probably mistaken view would have it that psychoanalysis effectively got rid of the God concept as early as in Freud’s time, which Lacan himself contested[3]. Indeed, the French psychoanalyst is said to have asserted that meaning was always religious (in the reference article, “tout sens est religieux”)[4]. One way to interpret this enigmatic formula would insist of the fact that thinking the sacred (or holiness) implies positing a big Other (le “grand Autre”), or major singifier, that shapes our relation to all other signifiers. This was explicitly formulated by Lacan in his third seminary: “poser les autres, les petits autres, dans la lumière de l’Autre dernier, absolu”[5] (he goes on to define these “little others” as others that could somehow be us: “[le] reflet dans le miroir, [le] semblable”[6]). In this context, we will describe God as an instance of the big Other, namely, alterity itself, the not-us, the unknown: “sujet qui n’est pas connu de nous, l’Autre (...) est de la nature du symbolique, l’Autre auquel on s’adresse au-delà de ce qu’on voit”[7].

Having taken notice of Lacan’s attention to the psychoanalytical resonances of the sacred, the choice of the Jewish focus and its conceptual use remain to be demonstrated. Once more, we will quote Lacan himself: “il y a tout lieu de nous demander si notre rapport à l’autre n’est pas fondamentalement intéressé par la tradition qui s’annonce dans la formule, flanquée, nous dit-on, d’un petit arbre en train de flamber – je suis celui qui suis[8] (324). This tradition is ours, Lacan reminds us in Les Psychoses, whether we claim it as such or not[9]: therefore, it ought to have informed and structured our relation to the sacred, which is epitomised by the big Other (whom we will call, in this context, God, even though we will be led to observe that the notion of this God presents various definitional ambiguities) – and this relation mirrors our link to the other (l’autre). In other words, what Lacan calls our “mode of constructing the Other-God”[10] has an impact on, and is indicative of, the structure of our psychic life. This was quite visibly true for the famous patient Daniel Paul Schreber, whose writings had been analysed both by Freud and by Lacan (in Les Psychoses), and whose delirium frequently gravitated toward the idea of God.

In our attempt at identifying, describing and circumscribing the sacred, we cannot but mention the Judeao-Christian conception of “a God that announces Itself through speech”[11]. Even more importantly, Lacan construes the Hebrew “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (literally, “I will be what I will be”, since, stricly speaking there is no present tense, mode or aspect in Hebrew – yet it is more commonly translated in English as “I am that I am”, and in French as “je suis celui qui est”) as God’s refusal to name Him/Herself[12]. The sacred, as this example suggests, is never bereft of its own negation: in fact, it contains its negation within its presentation (I am, yet, since I will not tell you what or who I am, it is as though I were nothing).

The importance of speech in the elaboration of the sacred in the Jewish theological tradition is strikingly present in the second Hebrew name of the Qodesh haQodashim (or Holy of Holies) namely, debir[13] (“what is spoken”, the oracle) from the root DVR which refers both to things and to speech (“davar” is both a speech act and a thing or an event). The choice of the Holy of Holies as paragon of the sacred in Judaism seemed relevant both in psychoanalytical and in theological terms, as we will expound through our essay. Moreover, the Holy of Holies is still endowed with considerable religious value nowadays, since all observant Jews all over the world pray daily in the direction of the long-lost Temple in Jerusalem, and more specifically in the direction of the Holy of Holies[14].

The Holy of Holy is thus a centre in a centre in a centre: in ancient times, it was the innermost and most sacred area of a sanctuary, the Temple of Jerusalem (Beit haMiqdash). Owing to its extreme holiness, it was curtained off[15] and inaccessible to the public, with the notable exception of the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) who entered it once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) in order to ask for forgiveness for his own sins as well as those of the priesthood and those of the Israelites. Yet, throughout the Second Temple era (circa 515 BCE-CE CE), the Holy of Holies was empty[16]. Interestingly, it had not always been the case: as long as the First Temple (circa 957-586 BCE), or Temple of Salomon, was still standing, it is said to have enclosed the Ark of the Covenant (which contained itself a symbolic reminder of the failure of the word and of language, namely, the broken tablets)[17]. The Ark was then stolen or, according to the Jewish exegetical tradition, hidden away[18]. Thus, for more than five hundred years, the quintessence of the sacred in Judaism was what was not there – and it remains so to this day, since now even the Temple is no longer visible: “[Le] signifiant (...) indique la béance, le trou”: its signification is still to be puzzled over (and possibly never to be found).

“L’Autre est un lieu”[19], Lacan asserts in Les Psychoses. Here this declaration is verified quite literally : in Biblical terms, the Temple may be described as the residence of God (the big Other)[20]. Nevertheless, the Temple is but a material representation of the inherent spatialisation of the big Other to which Lacan alludes: in Hebrew, God is frequently called haMaqom, “the place”. The Holy of Holies itself is the signifier, which points to its own emptiness. As for the sacred, we will attempt to read it as an instance of the Lacanian quilting point (“point de capiton”): “le point où viennent se nouer le signifié et signifiant”[21], surrounded by the unstable array of possible significations[22]. “Autour de ce signifiant, tout s’irradie et tout s’organise, à la façon de ces petites lignes de force formées à la surface d’une trame par le point de capiton”[23]: in our equation, the signifier, as we alluded to, is the Holy of Holies. Yet, what is to be signified remains unclear.

This essay attempts at underlining, contra the traditional exegetical interpretation of the emptiness of the Holy of Holies as a sign of spiritual degradation[24], that this emptiness is in fact more revealing than any presence might have been, insofar as it is indicative of the profound nature of the signifier (there is nothing behind the signifier, it is void). It will enable us to present the Holy of Holies as quintessential absence (of something that we might have expected, a ritual object for instance), and to study the constituents of this emptiness.

This study will use a driving paradox, which will take the form of a confrontation of anecdotes, both related to the Holy of Holies. The first one (the earliest conclusive source can be found in the Kabbala[25]) recounts that, whenever the High Priest lacked the required level of purity to perform his service, he died a supernatural death (not unlike Nabad and Abihu, the sons of Aaron the first High Priest[26]) on entering the Holy of Holies and had to be dragged outside. Emptiness and absence are thereby described as potentially lethal.

Yet, it is also mentioned that, when Pompey conquered Jerusalem and entered this sacred place in 63 CE, “he was amazed to find only emptiness”[27]. The next day, Jewish historian Josephus notes, he ordered the cleansing of the Temple, and reestablished the Jewish cult – he was awed by what he had seen[28]. This account is confirmed by Cornelius Tacitus: "Roman control of Judaea was first established by Gnaeus Pompey. As victor he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and (...) it contained no representation of the deity - the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted"[29]. How could Pompey survive the impiety of entering the Holy of Holies, which was considered a blasphemous act among Israelites? What it is, in an empty room, that could have made the High Priests die[30]? What it is that makes emptiness deadly (or not)? In other words, how close can you get to the Real that the big Other/God safeguards?

I) “Le signe est justement là pour ne signifier rien”[31]: Unveiling the Empty Signifier

As evidenced by our liminal quote, the signifier that the Holy of Holies embodies structurally points to its own vacuity. Firstly, we may underscore that the signifier is not the thing-in-itself, the noumena, which remains forever inaccessible. It is even dissociated from the signified that may (or may not) be associated to it: for the High Priest and the Israelites, the Holy of Holies signifies the possibility of supernatural death, but to Roman general Pompey, it is not endowed with such meaning. The signifier is nothing else that an empty shell caught in a network of symbolic relations. Hence the circularity and self-reflexivity of the name itself (a Hebrew idiom usually used to express a superlative form, as in “Song of Songs” or “vanity of vanities”[32]), which precludes the subject from ascribing a fixed signification to the signifier (“rien de signifiant ne peut répondre chez le sujet”[33]). This is reminiscent of the ehyeh asher ehyeh phenomenon: the redundant naming is, in Lacanian terms, a refusal to name, or perhaps an assertion of the pointlessness of naming, which prevents anybody from ascribing a given signification to it: “à celui qui dit Je suis celui qui suis, nous sommes hors d’état de répondre”. There is nothing behind, or beyond, the signifier: it can only point to itself, it is deadlocked. Interestingly enough, according to various Talmudic and Kabbalistic texts[34], the Temple itself is located above “the great abyss, the deep” (in Hebrew, tehom), as though constantly threatened to be swallowed back into its original state of inexistence (see Gen 1:2, which generally refers to tehom as “the deep”). It is always on the verge of giving body to a void, and it is structured in a way that constantly draws attention to this risk.

This revelation (and “revelation”, in that case, is to be understood not as the unveiling of a transcendent principle or reality beyond the “reality” that we perceive, but precisely as the revelation of the fact that there is nothing behind things, i.e. a negative revelation) creates a tension between the presence and the absence of God within the Holy of Holies. It is of course a theological paradox to presuppose that God could have been in the Temple in the first place: how could a ubiquitous, omnipotent God enter a Temple and fill its walls with His or Her presence? As Mircea Eliade put it, “ce qui est paradoxal, ce qui est inintelligible, ce n’est pas le fait de la manifestation du sacré (…) mais le fait même qu’il se manifeste et, par conséquent, se limite et devient relatif[35]. In his analysis of Schreber’s delirium, which involves representations of God, Lacan wonders : “ce Dieu, donc, qui s’est révélé à lui, quel est-il ?”[36]. His first supposition is the following: “il est d’abord présence”[37]. If God is present, He or She must be present everywhere; His/Her presence exceeds the boundaries of the Temple, and the sacred becomes diffuse. This option is confirmed by God’s announcement that the children of Israel will make Him or Her a Temple to reside among them (and not within it)[38]: according to this hypothesis, sacrality is within the people; it is made ontologically accessible, if only the Jew will make himself or herself a sanctuary. Yet, were we to accept this definition of divine presence without restrictions or additions, this would tend to neutralise the notion of specific areas of sacrality, such as the Temple or the Holy of Holies. Strikingly enough, in his interpretation of the God concept through Schreber’s writings, Lacan shifts from the observation of a presence to “the notation of an absence”[39]. We may similarly define the sacred as the notation of an absence, as the emptiness of the holiest place on earth in the Jewish tradition would evidence. Thus, the role of the Jewish sanctuary may be thus: it serves as a reminder of the unbearable absence and void that our whole symbolic system aims at disguising.

Yet, the description of the Holy of Holies as unadulterated nothingness does not seem fully satisfactory either. Indeed, this revelation cannot be withstood on its own (its lethal potential is hinted at through the anecdote of the death of the High Priests) – it has to be mediated and, to some extent, tampered with, through the reassertion of the presence of the big Other that God represents. This hypothesis may be an explanation of Lacan’s declaration that “God is unconscious”[40] – if the unconscious, as Alenka Zupancic suggested[41], is based of the unknowing of the primordial yet terrifying fact that there is nothing (what we may refer to as “emptiness” or, in Zupancic’s terms, a “minus one”; namely, the essential void underlying all things that threatens to undo their apparent consistency. The Real is perhaps nothing else that the consciousness of this void; hence our impossibility to live within the Real). God, in other words, may be understood as what shields us from this potentially deadly revelation. This is the hypothesis that I will explore through the second part of my essay.

II) Fencing Off the Real: Law and Awe

« La crainte de Dieu est un signifiant qui ne traîne pas partout. Il a fallu quelqu’un pour l’inventer, et proposer aux hommes, comme remède à un monde fait de terreurs multiples, de redouter un être qui ne peut, après tout, exercer ses sévices que par les maux qui sont là, multiplement présents, dans la vie humaine. Remplacer les craintes innombrables par la crainte d’un être unique qui n’a d’autre moyen de manifester sa puissance que par ce qui est craint derrière ces innombrables craintes, c’est fort ».[42]

What role does the God concept play in the economy of the sacred? It seems to me that God (understood as an instance of the big Other) is both what indicates the signals the location of the Real and bars the entrance to it. In spatial terms, He/She is a frontier, a bridge between the realm of the symbolic and that of the Real – it precludes us from accessing the latter while hinting at its existence. This is evidenced by several statements attributed to God in the Bible, such as “as Moses hid his face; for his afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6) and “we shall surely die, because we have seen God” (Judges 13:22). It is confirmed and enhanced by the fascinating dialogue between Moses and God in Exodus 33:18-23: “and [Moses] said: ‘Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory. (...) And God said: ‘Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live (...) My face shall not be seen”. The Real is here conceptualised as forbidden knowledge; it must remain inaccessible to the Hebrews, God argues throughout the Torah, in order not to be lethal to them – so much so that the Moses himself will only come to a partial revelation of God’s presence-absence by seeing His or Her back, but never His/Her face (Exodus 33:23). Seeing God, or even seeking him too ardently, would be immediate death, as the demise of Biblical priests Nadab and Abihu underlines. Moreover, the Holy of Holies, being the center of a sanctuary, is naturally associated with the possibility of an initiatic experience[43] and of a baffling revelation. Yet, this revelation is very likely to be deadly, as the anecdote of the High Priests of the Second Temple suggests – precisely because, in point of fact, it can only give way to a void. In other words, the revelation of God is not for the living : this is how I choose to interpret this enigmatic statement from Lacan in Les Psychoses: “en fin de compte, Dieu n’a de rapport complet, authentique, qu’avec des cadavres. Dieu ne comprend rien aux êtres vivants”[44].

Thus, God is conceptualised as an unbearable presence pointing to an even more intolerable absence, an entity that is endowed with a secret (the secret of secrets) and that knows infinitely more than we do (without this assumption, we would not be able to posit God as the big Other par excellence) and whose commands we are ready to follow. In the Torah, the foundation of God’s covenant with man is the Law, namely, the establishment of a symbolic system that features hundreds of prohibitions (as well as positive commandments). At the heart of this legal system lies the impossibility of gaining access to what underpins it, and to the entity which created it (it is forbidden to see the face of God). Even so, the Jewish observant man or woman generally assumes that the Law is significant (“chargé d’une signification certaine”[45], in Lacan’s words) even though it seems to elude their grasp. God’s Law thus fences off the traumatic Real, whereas the awe of God, while forbidding entrance, hints at its presence – a presence that negates itself, an essential gap, “la béance, le trou”[46]. Yet, the Law itself, like any other symbolic system, displays glitches in the system: entering the Holy of Holies is forbidden under penalty of death, but Pompey walked in and out of it unharmed. The Talmud[47] recounts an even more puzzling instance of desacration of the Temple: another disrespectful interloper, Roman emperor Titus, is said to have defiled the sanctuary of the Jews and committed acts of debauchery within its holy walls. The mere fact that the supernatural agency which was said to punish corrupted priests should remain ineffective at times may be presented as one of these “glitches” or “bugs” (since it was probably obvious to the Jews of the Second Temple era that God could indeed intervene in their lives through supernatural means). In other words, God (along with the Law that originates from Him or Her) is both the sign of a primordial repression (Urverdrängung) and the mark of its partial failure.

III) Underlying Ambivalence and the Structrure of the Sacred

We will finally analyse the consequences of the aforementioned ambiguity (God is both what partakes of the Real and what aims at negating it by the institution of the Law) on the structure of sacrality itself: how does the Holy of Holies (understood as the paragon of holiness) make opposites co-exist by integrating them within its framework? How are the impossible revelation of an essential nothingness (or vacancy at the level of the signifier) and our problematic interaction with absence mediated? One may argue that, in theological terms, such ambivalence has often been understood as a defining trait of the sacred. For instance, according to Mircea Eliade, “le sacré attire et repousse, est utile et dangereux, donne aussi bien la mort que l’immortalité”[48]. He adds, quite significantly: “le sacré est en même temps sacré et souillé”[49]. This is corroborated in various cultures and religions by various etymological parallels; we may mention, for instance, that both the Latin “sacer” and the Greek “hagios” are endowed with the double meaning of “sacred” and “soiled”[50]. Eliade does not extend this observation to the religion of the early Semites, but it may be interesting to note that, strikingly enough, a Hebrew word for “prostitute” was qedesha, which is borrowed from the same root (Q-D-SH) as qodesh (“sacred”) or qedusha (“sanctity”). Thus, the sacred is frequently endowed with negative qualities, so much so that it may prove lethal to those who approach it unprepared: “on ne peut pas approcher, sans risque, d’un objet souillé ou consacré”[51].

Moreover, various thinkers have theorised this ambiguous presence-absence as the essential modality of eroticism, since it endlessly heralds and delays the impossible jouissance of the big Other. Marc-Alain Ouaknine, drawing inspiration both from Emmanuel Levinas and from Lacan, developed this idea extensively in several of his works.[52] He also applied his theory (according to which the sacred is to be construed as the very essence of eroticism) to the Holy of Holies itself. According to him, the sensual significance of the Qodesh haQodashim gravitates around the parokhet, the veil through which one could catch a glimpse of the interior of the (empty) room, yet without perceiving it clearly. Interestingly, Lacan underlined that this erotic relation was one of the striking characteristics of Schreber’s psychosis; this is what he described as “divine erotomania”[53]. Schreber, Lacan added, stages himself as “the woman/wife of God” (la femme de Dieu)[54].

Yet, this “erotic relation to God” remains one-directional: eroticism can never give way to actual jouissance. The love of God is – and must remain – unrequited. Indeed, God is not in, nor of, the world (even though he might emerge in it through the mode of the trace). As Lacan suggests, the “mode of presence” of God is precisely that of ex-sistence[55], i.e. a primary retraction (or, to put it in Kabbalistic terms, tsimtsum) from His or Her creation. Thus, it is only by remaining outside of the world (ex), or, to put in Lacan’s world, outside of the symbolic system, that God can uphold (sistere) and revitalise it. It is the exclusion of the Real that God hints at that founds and ensures existence. In other words, ex-sistence is founded on the following paradox: emptiness (the nothingness that lies below the structure of things, which results from the failure of the primordial deceit of the signifier that the sacred gives way to by pointing at its own reflexive hollowness) can be a creative force. This is what the Genesis seems to suggest by foregrounding that the universe began with a void[56], and that creation derived from the structural unknowing (or suppression) of that void.

To conclude, far from being a token of spiritual degradation and moral corruption, the emptiness of the Holy of Holies is revealing of the essential lack, or gap, that lies below the surface of all signifiers. Indeed, its signification must remain uncertain and undecidable (“signification dérisoire, qui indique la béance, le trou”[57]). In our analysis of the sacred as the erotic quilting point around which signifiers such as the Holy of Holies (the paragon of the self-reflexive signifier, pointing at its own lack of substance) or the Awe of God (which was relevantly commented on by Lacan in Les Psychoses) gravitate, we attempted to reconcile two apprently contradictory dimensions of the God concept (“deux exigences de la présence divine”[58], as Lacan put it): “celle qui justifie le maintien autour de lui du décor du monde extérieur et celle du Dieu qu’il éprouve comme le partenaire de cette oscillation de force vivante qui va devenir la dimension dans laquelle désormais il souffrira et palpitera”[59]. In other words, God may be simultanously conceptualised as ex-sistence, i.e., as what both confirms (-sistere) and removes from sight (ex-) the Real by establishing the world and the symbolic system that serves as its mainstay, and God as the big Other to whose jouissance we endlessly aspire (what Lacan termed “divine erotomania”, and which, as the example of the Holy of Holies underscored, partakes of the death drive – for eroticism, driven too far, may prove lethal). According to Lacan, God is the sign of a primordial subtraction or retraction (or Urverdrangt): hence his remaning “a hidden God, who does not reveal His face”[60] whose status remains ambivalent, since He or She both partakes of the Real and negates it.

Selective Bibliography


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