Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why is Jewish Time Different From All Other Times?

Back on September 19th, the Jewish Standard published another op-ed by Adas Emnuo President Lance Strate, just in time for Rosh Hashanah. With the Jewish new year just a few days away, the piece entitled, Jewish Time, seemed very, well, timely. The subtitle ran, "Where memory, nature, and history combine," and here is how it went:

Have you forgotten that the seasons have no regard

for the sovereignty of the sun

and instead attend upon

the grace and glory of the moon?

have you forgotten that the day begins

with evening’s song

and ends with shadow’s conquest of the hills?

I never heard any talk about “Jewish time” until I moved to New Jersey. When I was growing up, my family belonged to a Reform temple in Forest Hills, New York, and maybe it still retained a strong sense of its German-Jewish origins. Punctuality is a value, some say an obsession, present in powerful form in British as well as German culture, and by extension the Anglo-Saxon-dominated culture of the United States. And it was marginalized groups that were known to possess a different sense of time from the mainstream.

That’s why, back when I was a college student in the ‘70s, I heard references to stereotypes about “Indian time” for Native Americans, “Spanish time” for Latinos, and “Black time” for African-Americans. But back then, I never heard anyone talk about “Jewish time” or “Hebrew time” to explain why, for example, services scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. might not actually start until 8:15 or 8:20.

I’m not sure if it’s because the times have changed, or because New Jerseyans are different from New Yorkers, or because of a different mix of ethnic influences, but the reasons don’t matter. What matters is that it’s possible to have more than one sense of time. Just as there can be many different times, so that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” there can also be many different senses of time. We may think of clock time as the time, but it is a form of machine time, and there are alternatives that are forms of natural time and human time.

As an undergraduate, learning about intercultural communication, I recall hearing that in many non-Western cultures, if someone asks you for help and you respond with, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” it would be considered an insult. To us five minutes is a very short time, and the point is to emphasize a speedy response. But in non-Western cultures, that response is taken to mean that you consider those five minutes, however short a time that may be, to be more important than the other person who is asking for help. Instead, the reply should be, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.” By not quantifying time, we instead are providing quality time. And true quality time is about making human relationships our priority.

Mircea Eliade, a scholar of comparative religion, argued that there are two different senses of time, which he referred to as sacred and profane. Profane time is what we experience in ordinary, everyday life, and clock time is one example of it. Sacred time, on the other hand, is the sense of time that is associated with religious, spiritual, and mystical experience. During sacred time, we depart from the ordinary passage of time and stand outside of history, connecting instead to eternity. And sacred time often is associated with an act of creation or foundation. The exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai are examples of sacred times that cut across all of our history. That is why we say that every generation of the Jewish people participated in these events.

On Shabbat, we enter into a sacred time that connects us to the origin of the world according to Genesis. In keeping the Sabbath, we ritually re-enact God’s resting on the seventh day, following the completion of Creation. And we also connect to the sacred time of “in the beginning” every year during the High Holy Days, reflecting the ancient idea that God is continually renewing the act of creation.

Rosh Hashanah provides us with a different sense of time as well, because the Jewish New Year, which we sometimes refer to as the birthday of the world, begins at the end of summer, not the dead of winter. Admittedly, there are good reasons to start the year in January, after the winter solstice, as the days begin to get longer. But you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the fact that there is a different sense of time associated with the “school year” that begins every September. It’s a sense of time that teachers, students, and their parents all are quite familiar with. And it’s a sense of time that Rosh Hashanah fits in with quite well. There is something at least as natural (if not more so) about beginning the new year at a time when summer vacation and summer doldrums have come to a close.

We follow different senses of time in celebrating both the Jewish New Year and the secular New Year, and we may also observe (but probably not celebrate) one or more fiscal new years for any businesses or organizations with which we are associated. Of course, the idea of having several new years rather than just one is nothing new for us; traditionally, the Jewish calendar has four different new years days. Each new year represents a somewhat different sense of time.

For most of us, the secular calendar is the calendar, and therefore the time, in the same sense that clock time is the time. It’s how we think about and experience time. And that’s why you always hear people commenting about how the holidays are coming early, or coming late. Some years ago a colleague of mine observed that Chanukah was coming early that year, and I replied that, no, it was Christmas that was coming late. He did a double-take for a moment, and then nodded in understanding.

When we talk about the holidays coming early or late, we mistake the measure of time, the calendar, for the phenomenon it measures, the passage of time. We confer upon the secular calendar an authority it does not deserve, as if it were itself an absolute time, and not a human invention. Religious beliefs aside, the solar and the lunar calendar are different ways of keeping track of the days, providing different senses of time, neither more or less correct than the other.

I can’t help but conclude that Albert Einstein’s encounter with the sacred time of the Jewish calendar, juxtaposed to the profane time of the secular calendar, played a role in his arriving at the theory of relativity, that the passage of time is relative to the speed at which you’re moving, and there is nowhere in the physical universe where anything is at rest. In other words, there is no place in the physical universe where time is absolute.

And then there’s the different sense of time that comes from living in the year 2014 and the year 5774. On the plus side, come Rosh Hashanah we won’t have to get used to dating our checks and the various forms we fill out with 5775 instead of ‘74. On the minus, we lose something very significant in not following our traditional way of counting the years, and following a numbering system that originates from a religion other than our own. It makes perfect sense in Christian theology to bifurcate history into before and after periods. And Jewish scholars adapted to the practice of the majority by adopting the alternative terms, “Before Common Era” (abbreviated as BCE) in place of BC, and “Common Era” (abbreviated as CE) in place of AD. That terminology has been adopted widely in the scientific and scholarly community.

Even so, the division of calendar years makes it difficult to talk and think about events that occurred before the Common Era. Consider the awkwardness of the statement that King Josiah reigned in Judah from 641 to 609 BCE. How many years would that be? More importantly, this division of history serves as a subtle form of delegitimation of most events that happened in antiquity, including the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the enormous intellectual achievements of ancient Greece, the extraordinary military accomplishments of Alexander the Great, and the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and its transformation into the Roman Empire, as well as most of the history of the Jewish people before the diaspora.

Of course, saying that we are about to embark upon the year 5775 naturally leads to the question, 5,775 years since what? The traditional answer is, since the creation of the world, which relates to Rosh Hashanah as a sacred time of eternal return. But science has shown that that estimate is more than a little bit off, the planet Earth estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, and the universe itself clocked in at 13.8 billion years. If ever there is cause to marvel at the glory of Creation, isn’t that cosmic time scale reason enough?

But if our calendar does not stretch back to the origin of the world, the question remains, 5,775 years since what? An easy answer would be, since someone began counting. And that’s not such a far-fetched response. We trace the invention of the first writing system, cuneiform, to somewhere around 5,500 years ago. That only puts us off by approximately 275 years, and often these dates are pushed back after new archeological finds. But more importantly, the introduction of the written word by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia was the product of a slow evolution of various systems of notation, dating back about 10,000 years ago, to the beginnings of the agricultural revolution. In other words, dating back to what we understand to be the beginnings of civilization, as opposed to nomadic, tribal, hunter-gatherer ways of life. These systems of notation were used to keep track of property, so that numerical notation came first, before the development of a complete writing system. Writing was invented by accountants.

What this means is that it’s been 5,775 since the origin not of the world, but of civilization. Our calendar marks and celebrates the beginnings of civilization, the first steps on the long road forward from tribalism, a journey that takes narrative form in the story of Abraham as God tells him to go forth from the Mesopotamian city of Ur “to the land that I will show you.”

We say that Rosh Hashanah and all our holidays begin the night before, but that too does not recognize the special quality of Jewish time. In our tradition, the day begins at sundown, not at some arbitrary point in the middle of the night. And of course that follows again the archetype of Creation, in which first there is darkness, and then God brings the light into being. The 24-hour day is derived from the Earth’s rotation, but the point when one day ends and the next begins is also relative, the product of different conventions. Similarly, the concept of the month is based on the cycles of the moon, even though the naming and days allotted to various months can vary in different calendar systems. And likewise, the year is associated with the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Of all our calendar categories, only the 7-day week is more or less arbitrary, having the least to do with any natural phenomena. We therefore can understand that the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work,” does more than direct us to observe Shabbat, as well as engage in labor on the other six days. And it does more than ask us to take part in a ritual re-enactment of creation, and act as a means of separating and thereby sanctifying the sacred time of the Sabbath from the profane time of the other six days. The fourth commandment also establishes the 7-day week as a unit of measurement. There was no need to turn to God’s authority for the day, the month, the year, or the seasons for that matter, because they are based on the observable cycles of nature. But the 7-day week required outside legitimation to gain popular acceptance. And while we were not the only people of the ancient world to use this time measurement—don’t forget the Babylonians of Mesopotamia—it’s due to its appearance in Jewish tradition that the 7-day week is now in use throughout the world.

Jewish time is different from secular time. Jewish time is not homogenous, not like clock time, and not like our contemporary movement towards a 24/7/365 society. Jewish time is a sense of time that distinguishes between the sacred and the profane, and that measures the days, the months, and the years in its own way. Jewish time includes a sense of relativity, whether it’s Einstein’s theory, or a rabbi waiting 10 more minutes before beginning the evening’s prayers. It follows that Jewish time emphasizes relationships, and especially I-You rather than I-It relationships, as a human time, a natural time, and a sacred time, and not a machine time. Jewish time is historical time, looking backward through the history of civilization, and looking forward in hope and in faith for better days to come.

And Jewish time is above all else a sense of time based on memory. The repeated commandment to remember goes to the heart of our sense of time. Without memory, there is no history, no sense of the past, nor any anticipation of the future. Without memory, there is no knowing, no understanding, no learning. Without memory, there is no keeping time, there is only serving time, becoming servants of the monolithic time of our clocks and calendars. How do we achieve our exodus from our bondage to these instruments of our own design?

Through the miracle of our memory, by remembering to treasure and embrace our own special sense of Jewish time, in this season of renewal, and all year round.

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