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.