It hasn’t been an easy year, decade or early century for organized religion. Books by atheists proliferate, some meaner than others. Fewer men and women attend church or synagogue services. The season highlights Christmas and, in recent years, Hanukkah, but the cultural emphasis is more materialistic than meditative. Confidence in organized religion has declined to 44 percent, as measured by Gallup.
When tragedy strikes, as in Newtown, Conn., prayer resides mostly in the shadows of those personally affected. The public ritual requires politicians to assure survivors of their thoughts and prayers — what one cynical commentator calls “political T&P.” The media are saturated with discussions of what to do about guns and how to put more money in mental health programs. These are appropriate for a secular society in search of public solutions. Solace is harder to find.
If we look at a larger world picture, we focus mainly on the divisions between the three major religions. They’re easy to find. The Internet, with its speedy technology, animates conflicts in the Middle East in real time, and we all become witnesses to the different ways the Arab Spring skipped summer and soured into Arab Autumn. It’s hard to avoid the fear that accompanies the knowledge that Iran continues to develop a bomb, animated by the rhetoric of its leaders vowing to wipe Israel off the map.
In the Middle East, where Judaism, Christianity and Islam identify their roots, current events focus on conflict, not harmony. Although Pope Benedict XVI tweets and writes a book about the ways the holiness of love encompasses universality, that we’re all related in God’s image, we’re increasingly aware of the shifting relationships between the three major religions. The shifts cloud the image.
The three religions have rarely enjoyed true love for long in one another’s company, but now the Jewish Museum in New York City offers an oasis for the contemplation of beauty in the Middle Ages, when a conversation could be conducted through sacred texts. The exhibition is called “Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting Place of Culture,” and its website of digital images could usefully be required reading for high school students and adults — or anyone eager to see both the medium and the sacred messages of another time, another place, before the invention of the printing press revolutionized communication.
Style and substance are both important in the manuscripts, which were inscribed in the period from the end of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages up to the beginning of the Renaissance.
There’s legal commentary in Arabic with Hebrew letters from the 12th century, written by the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides. There’s a beautifully decorated Koran from the 16th century as well. The whimsical unicorn of folk art appears in different manuscripts as a transformative religious symbol for suffering and redemption. Moral fables, biblical stories, prayer books filled with abstract art and illustrations of Adam and Eve and the Virgin Mary demonstrate “fertile exchanges among Christians, Muslims and Jews in the fields of religion, art, science and literature.”
Though they often speak in different languages, Hebrew, Arabic and Latin, the manuscripts show that cultural exchanges and practical cooperation sometimes occurred between Jews and gentiles in both Muslim and Christian communities. They drew on one another’s skills and contributions, brilliantly expressing artistic minds from overlapping faiths.
Although computer technology had not entered the fantastic imaginations of even the most brilliant artists and inventors, the museum’s curators have scanned and put online the entire text of the jewel of this exhibition, the 922-page Kennicott Bible. It is described as “the most lavishly illuminated Hebrew Bible to survive from medieval Spain.” Its scribes and artists were Jews who drew on Christian, Islamic and popular motifs. A Jewish observer inevitably will note that it was completed in 1476, just 16 years before Jews were expelled from Spain. The copying and illustrating of Hebrew texts brought Jews and Christians together but could not keep them together.
All of the works in the exhibition come from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, founded by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598 after he retired as a foreign diplomat for Queen Elizabeth I. Although he was a Protestant whose father took his family into exile during the Catholic reign of Queen Mary, the son’s vision was to include works transcending the boundaries of ideology and theology.
A large online section encourages teachers to inspire their students with the accounts of how manuscripts were taken from scrolls that read from top to bottom, like today’s tablets to the codex. Those first books were printed on parchment inscribed with text on both sides. Some things, however, don’t change. In three separate manuscripts, Euclid’s “Elements” appears in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. With a computer search engine, we find it in English, too. Illumination thus comes to those who seek it.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.