Jewish Time: Cyclical, Linear, or Open-Ended?

Jewish Time: Cyclical, Linear, or Open-Ended?

Illustrating time and change: Hokusai Katsishika's painting of the big wave What is Jewish time?

No, I’m not looking for the practical answer. You know — the funny cultural norm. Where we start events 5, 10, or 15 minutes late. Because, even when they tarry, we expect 10 people will eventually drift in.

Instead, I may be looking for an experiential answer. A phenomenological one.

What’s a Jewish sense of the direction of time?

I’ve read that Jews invented the concept of linear time. Through the prophets, God explained there’s a historical plan. Human history is slowly moving towards a glorious end. Jewish national unity. World peace. Ethical political leadership.

Conversely, I’ve heard that Jewish time is open-ended. Our foundational biblical story ends with a beginning. After the Jews return from exile, they start collective life anew.

And I’ve been taught that Jewish time is cyclical. Our holy day calendar walks us along an annual trail of spiritual stations. Repentance, joy, expectation, new life, freedom, revelation, grief, reflection. Our personal experiences of joy and grief may change. But the symbols and rituals we use to explore them don’t.

Of course I can’t choose between them. All three are part of Jewish historical experience. All three move us into personal change. We expect linear growth, open-ended surprise, and cyclical repetition.

Maybe I’m seeking a metaphysical answer. About the true reality that underlies physical reality. In religious terms: which pattern represents divine time? Which one does God use to shape the future?

So, I consult our great metaphysical text, the Tanakh. It’s not a text of linear argument. Instead, it’s a network of clues. Symbols and motifs that repeat here and there across 24 books. To study well, you need to choose a starting point. Pay attention. Connect the dots. Let your answers emerge.

I start with a theory: Creation marks the beginning of open-ended time. Exodus presents the cyclical pattern of Jewish history. Prophetic apocalypse describes the final restoration of Jerusalem.

So I read the three stories, looking for a line of comparison. A common image, theme, or figure. So I can place the three side by side and rank them by importance.

And I find it.

On the second day of creation, God says, “Let the waters under the skies be gathered to one place. Dry land will appear” (Gen 1:9).

At the moment of the Exodus, God acts. “God drove the sea with a strong east wind, turning the water into dry land. The waters separated…and were like walls to the Israelites’ right and left” (Ex. 14:21-22).

As the prophet Zechariah describes the restoration, he predicts. “On that day, the Mount of Olives will split in half along its east-west axis. Half the mountain will move north and half will move south. On that day, living waters will flow from Jerusalem. Half toward the Mediterranean Sea and half towards the Dead Sea. In the rainy winter and in the dry summer” (Zech 14:4-8).

Land and water, shifting.

How shall I interpret the image? I experiment, play with the symbolism.

Let’s say: Land is safe, stable, solid. Water is flowing, changeable, unpredictable.

Then I read the stories, reading land and water as codes for stability and flow.

At creation, God sets an open-ended world in motion. God fills the world with prototype plants and animals. They scatter seeds, reproduce — and start the wild, evolving genetic lottery. How does God start? With a thread of stability amidst the change. As the creation story says, with an island of dry land in the centre of water.

Exodus teaches us how to name cycles of Jewish history. We are oppressed, we cry out, we are freed. When the Israelites cross the Red Sea, the first Exodus is complete. God takes them out of chaos and into stability. To effect the Exodus, water pushes aside and dry land appears.

Prophetic apocalypse describes history’s final goal: the human world, transformed. Jerusalem rises up as a city of peace. It becomes an international spiritual centre. There, people crack open their hardened habits of violence and strife. Justice and kindness flow. As Zechariah says, mountains of rocks split, and purifying waters flow.

So, I return to my question. Which pattern represents divine time?

They all do.

In God’s eyes, all three are the same. All are oscillations of stability and change. We can think of change as linear, cyclical, or open-ended. All three patterns point us to hope.

Hope, Tanakh says, is the essence of time. The experience of time. And the practice of time.

Thanks to the terrific, thoughtful participants in my text-study workshop “Changing Geographies in Uncertain Times” at the 2018 meeting of OHALAH: Association of Clergy for Jewish Renewal.

5 Comments
  1. For some reason, your interpretation above reminds me of the beautiful Vietnamese fable about the crane and the turtle. The fable discusses the cycle of flood and drought, and the spiritual connection between the turtle and the crane, creatures of different species, who help each other out when a weather cycle represents a disaster and sure death for one of them but not the other.

    So thank you for a metaphysical explanation of time which also brought to my mind a story of how changing times, even ones that bring trouble and despair, may also reveal to us the identity of those who are friends to us….and the identity of our friends may be a surprise to us.

    1. Heather, thank you for sharing the connection with that spiritual teaching story! And linking it with the faith that something stable can emerge even in times of great change. – Laura

  2. Late/ late. late again ~~~~ sometimes late in all four worlds ~~~~
    But present? Yes.
    ‘Heneni” , i AM here.

    Thank you for your beautiful transforming of The Words,
    initiating action, new life in an Old paradigm, open-ended ~~~~
    Dancing now, in a New paradigm,
    dropping away distance between names and the naming ~~~~
    Black letters scrolled into the white background, lighting the way of Allness.

    Dear Friend, heart’s delight,
    having too often been spoken of as ‘late’,
    I now find the multiplicity of time sends me spinning, not only out of the box,
    but out of the triangle, and into the circle
    The circle, the Siferah of Tiferet, love.

    There, there is time, never late, never too late
    never too early for new connections to enrich the old

    b’ahavah, galorYa

    1. Thank you, Gloria! Love your ecstatic depiction of the fullness of time!

  3. Time: Late/ late again ~~~~ sometimes late in all four worlds ~~~~
    But present? Yes.
    ‘Heneni” i AM here.

    Thank you for your beautiful transforming of The Words,
    initiating action, new life in an old, open-ended paradigm~~~~
    Dancing now, in a New paradigm,
    dropping away distance between names and the named ~~~~
    Black letters scrolled into the white background, blending, lighting the way of Allness.

    Dear Friend, heart’s delight,
    having too often been spoken of as ‘late’,
    I now find the multiplicity of time sends me spinning, not only out of the box,
    but out of the triangle, and into the circle
    The circle, the Siferah of Tiferet, love.

    There, there is time, never late, never too late
    never too early for new connections to enrich the old

    b’ahavah, galorYa

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