New York Times Erroneously Claims ‘Jewish Time Is Circular’
A New York Times book review begins:
When I was a student in yeshiva, I asked one of the rabbis why Jews talk so much. We were studying Talmud, and I was trying to understand the comprehensive, obsessive inquiry into questions from the minuscule and seemingly pedestrian — are the water cisterns adjacent to a house included in the price of its sale? — to the transcendent, like what is the nature of God.
“Jewish time is circular, so we work to make things perfect for the next time around,” he replied, before adding world-wearily: “Also, we don’t believe in perfection.”
It’s wonderful that the Times is reviewing the book “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem,” by George Prochnik. And it’s wonderful that they hired a non-hostile reviewer — a friendly acquaintance of mine — to write a review that ends on a particularly insightful note.
But the claim by this unnamed rabbi that “Jewish time is circular” seems questionable to me. The review’s beginning would have been better if some editor at the Times had been knowledgeable and alert enough to catch the claim and fix it.
For a corrective explanation, one can consult Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book “Future Tense,” which the Times did not review. Rabbi Sacks writes:
Time, for ancients, was cyclical, a matter of the slow revolving of the seasons and the generations, an endlessly repeated sequence of birth, growth, decline and death… Until Israel appeared on the scene, all cultures were like that. Some still are.
Cyclical time is time as it appears in nature…
The Hebrew Bible is a radical break with this way of seeing things. God is to be found in history, not just in nature. Things do change… Until Abraham and Moses, no one thought of time as a journey in which where you are tomorrow will not be where you were yesterday…
In Judaism a new concept was born, of a future substantively different from the past.
Or, as Heinrich Graetz put it in his essay on the Structure of Jewish History, “Judaism is not a religion of the present but of the future.”
Jewish time, in other words, is not “circular,” as the Times book review’s anonymous rabbi claims. It’s linear and progressive, albeit bumpy and sometimes familiar-seeming. Leave it to the Times to somehow manage, even in a friendly review of a Jewish book by a Jewish reviewer, to convey to readers an erroneous understanding of Jewish time.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.