The following article is reprinted from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.
Is there such a thing as a “Jewish” perception of time? Judging by Jewish attitudes to history from the Middle Ages on, apparently there is. Jews have never perceived time as progressive, but rather as a fragmented line. Its parts–past, present, and future–were not perceived as a continuous process in which one stage is a sequel to its antecedents; Jewish history was not an evolutionary flow but a three-part drama in which each act was viewed as independent form the others.
The Past was the era of glory during which Jews had experienced a collective existence and had been able to express fully their national identity. Philosophically-inclined Jews in the Middle Ages perceived themselves as inferior in virtue (though not necessarily in knowledge) to preceding generations. This inferiority complex was not simply a reflection of the general medieval view of history as an ongoing process, but rather a specific Jewish belief that the ancient Hebrews had the advantage of political independence in their own land, while the spiritual resources of “modern” Jews were depleted in exile and dispersion.
The Present was the long era of Exile. Its beginning was a well-defined point in time (the destruction of the Second Temple); but its end was shrouded in mist (as rabbinical Judaism rejected all eschatological calculations or detailed descriptions of the End of Days). Whether the trials and tribulations of exile were represented as part of the divine plan, or, on the contrary, as evidence of God’s abdication, the “present” was in any event just an insignificant interlude.
The Jewish perception of the Future was most revealing of all: it was at once the most enduring element in this unique collective mentality, and the most contradictory. An impatient expectation for imminent cosmic upheaval which would transform the nature of Jewish existence was combined with resignation–acceptance that these events might be postponed until the end of time. It is irrelevant whether this near-distant future was perceived as a return to the past (a restoration of political sovereignty), or as an era which would transcend all that has ever been; whether it would be attained by an apocalyptic lead to an a-historical time through divine intervention, or rather–as stipulated by “realistic” messianism–accomplished by human efforts alone and not very different from present reality.
The thrust of the matter is that rabbinical Judaism adopted a view of the future which was a compromise between two seemingly incompatible attitudes: on the one hand: an eschatology which promised deliverance in the foreseeable future, and a strategy designed to ensure the evasion of a history of suffering by posing (as an American historian put it) the question of “how” rather than “when,” on the other. This compromise formula was apparently powerful enough to become a fixed element in Jewish culture: a frantic search for signs of imminent redemption combined with caution and circumspection which prevented bitter disillusionment in the face of delay.
Jewish culture from the Second Temple period to the nineteenth century produced relatively few historiographical works. Was this apparent lack of interest in history the outcome of a perception of time as discontinuous, of regarding past, present and future as nonsequential? A passage from Maimonides commentary on the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, is often quoted in this context: “It is sheer waste of time; as in the case of books found among the Arabs describing historical events, the government of kings and Arab genealogy. or books of songs and similar works which neither possess wisdom nor yield profit for the body but are merely a waste of time.” This paragraph has at times been interpreted by some modern scholars as indicative of the influence of Greek rationalist philosophy which considered the single individual to be unworthy of scientific inquiry. Others claimed that these words attest to the fact that Maimonides, one of the greatest representatives of Judaism of all times, was totally indifferent to history.
Yet the significance of this passage for the understanding of the Jewish attitude to history is, in fact, rather limited. First, because Maimonides, like many Muslim philosophers, was afraid that the historical narrative might sanction admiration for bloodshed and glorification of futile battles and would thus be injurious toethical education. Second, because Maimonides shared the philosopher’s repudiation of the kind of humanistic culture which assigned an important place to poetry and history–these anecdotal writings, they said, were mere spiritual vanities which made no contribution to true knowledge.
In Christian Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there were indeed many learned Jews who expressed a similar view: they equated historical works, which they considered no better than adventure novels, with light fiction which had no intellectual or moral merit. At best, some held, history books could provide a refreshing diversion for the man who had exhausted (as one should) his intellectual energies in arduous religious studies. However, this scorn for historical writings should not be interpreted as indifference to the past.