Three Faiths, One Hymnal

THREE FAITHS: JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM is two things at once. To the eye, it is a stunning exhibition of historic manuscripts, incunabula and printed texts of great rarity and beauty. On that level, it is nothing short of breathtaking. This is an uncommon opportunity to greet antiquities of incomparable scholarly and aesthetic value.

Unhappily, the rarities on show, all from the New York Public Library’s permanent collection, are not displayed for their own sakes. Nor are they here to instruct us in the necessity for civilizational stewardship, the true purpose of a magnificent library. Rather, they are a stalking horse for an ideological agenda that blunts historical realities with the pieties of religious tourism. Packaged by the British-based Coexist Foundation—a major sponsor—and its media partner Global Tolerance, the exhibition is designed to lull well-intentioned, largely secular Westerners anxious to hold their place in the multicultural hymnal.

But first, the exhibit. It begins with the sacred texts of the three “Abrahamic faiths” side by side in one vitrine. A 13th century Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) from the Lower Rhineland—where Jews had lived since Roman times— sets next to a 9th century Christian Bible from a Breton abbey. Influenced by Celtic pictorial culture prior to Viking invasion, this is the oldest manuscript in the library’s Bible collection. It is thrilling to stand in its presence and to compare the graphic approaches of Christian and Jewish scribes.

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Passover Haggadah

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Whereas Christian manuscripts flourish an elaborately decorated majuscule, Hebrew ones enlarge the entire first word of the page or a particular passage. Since the Hebrew alphabet has no capitals, amplification is a lively, available means of graphic enhancement. Alongside these rests a large 14th century Koran, probably Turkish. The linear grace of Arabic script, written from right to left like other Semitic scripts, is accompanied by gilded vocalization cues. These systematic aids for public recitation are still in use.

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St. Gallen, Stiffsbibliothek

Starting here, in this alignment of texts, is a built-in suggestion of equivalence that carries throughout the exhibition. Yes, all three traditions have their text, a canon of sacred knowledge and a vehicle for teaching. To paraphrase the old gospel spiritual, all God’s chill’un got scripture. But these scriptures diverge significantly over the things to be taught. Absolute differences between the sons of Isaac—among whom Christians count themselves together with Jews—and of Ishmael, a patriarch of Islam, seem lost only on diffident Westerners. Muslims, by contrast, are not hesitant in asserting the superiority of their claimed patrimony. Harvard’s biblical scholar Jon Levenson demurs from exaggerated appeals to Abrahamic kinship. In the Jewish Review of Books, he quotes a recent imam: “Abraham is the father of one religion, and that religion is Islam.” It is not surprising, in feel-good projects like this, that the burden of understanding leans only one way.

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Arabic script

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Nevertheless, reductive and evasive tutorials are no bar to delight in the treasures on display. The variety of Jewish material is particularly compelling and wide-ranging. Here are things seldom seen, from a 14th century Ashkenazic German prayer book to the first printed Mahzor Roma, the prayer book used in the Jewish Roman rite. The printers of this Italian text were founders of a prolific Hebrew printing dynasty that spread across Italy to Istanbul, Salonika and Cairo. The book is open to an illustration of a stylized Passover matzah, copied from the manuscript tradition. It looks wonderfully similar to a pressed Communion wafer, derived from unleavened matzah.

A 15th century Italian prayer book is distinguished by the painting of a delicate tree, or bush, indicating the maror (bitter herbs) eaten at a Passover Seder. While illustrations of maror are frequent, this is the only known source that depicts it as an entire plant. Of considerable interest is the 15th century Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctum (Pilgrimage to the Holy Land), translated into Latin from the original German. The first illustrated travel journal ever to be printed, it is open to a remarkable hand-colored woodcut panorama, assembled in panels, of the Holy Land. Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is clearly indicated by a domed structure labeled Templum Salomonis (Solomon’s Temple). The library is careful to identify it as the al-Aqsa Mosque without explaining why, in the 1480s, the illustrator named it otherwise.

An entry entitled “The Whole Megillah” is not a put-on. Megillah, meaning scroll, is the common name for the biblical book of Esther written in the format of a scroll. This lushly ornamented, horizontal scroll dates from 17th century Amsterdam, a Sephardic center for megillah decoration. This is the first time the library has unrolled it full length for public display. That in itself is as historic as the scroll. Read from right to left, Esther’s saga is accompanied by a glory of animal and floral motifs, cherubs and a medley of distinct cityscapes signifying the breadth of the Persian Empire.

The array of beautiful calligraphies in languages from North Africa and the Levant is marvelous to see. Besides the Hebrew, Arabic and Latin, are Persian, Cyrillic, Aramaic, Syriac, Amharic, Slavic, Greek, language families of the Levant and North Africa. Nowadays, with cursive script falling into disuse, it is chastening to have these lovely reminders that script was—and still is—the hand’s first experience with disciplined drawing.

Among the most delightful displays is a small 16th century guide for Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. An Arabic forerunner to Baedeker, its conventionalized drawings indicate the key sites where tents are pitched and camels parked. Another delectable entry, one of many medieval lectionaries and psalters, anticipates the pocket Bible. Before pockets existed, carriables were held in purses tied to a cincture around the waist. A “girdle” binding wrapped around a small Bible and ended in a leather loop through which the owner’s belt could pass.

If only the tutorial were not an embarrassment of platitudes. A wealth of bibliographic information covers for a shallow, middlebrow exercise in misleading ecumenism. The physical beauty of these three sacred texts and their ritual uses tells us nothing about the conceptual universe each of them represents. Superficial commonalities distract from the complex particularities of each of the three “Abrahamic faiths.” Soothing bromides mask those specific beliefs, behaviors and practices distinguishing Islam from the Judeo-Christian heritage that informs Western civilization. Shared claims to the legacy of Abraham are hardly indications of a shared soul.

Straining for comity, the tutorial erases the radical self-understanding generated by these texts. Instead, it magnifies superficial correspondences in the modes and manners of worship while it turns a blind eye on the theological imperatives and ethical systems derived from them. The ethos of one of these “Abrahamic faith communities” inspires the conquest or annihilation of the other two. That is no small distinction.

Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam at the  New York Public Library, Fifth Ave. at 42nd St., 917-275-6975. This essay appeared first in CityArts, November 23, 2010.

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© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey

Note: The St. Gallen psalter, above, is in the famed Abbey Library of St. Galen, not in this exhibition. But it is representative of the NYPL’s holdings.

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