Biblical time travel with the Chief Rabbi

By Dr Diana Liption, December 29, 2009
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Genesis: The Book of Beginnings — Covenant and Conversation
By Rabbi Johnathan Sacks
Maggid £16.99

I opened this book on the weekly Genesis parashiyot expecting to find a collection of sermons and shiurim delivered over many years. Instead, I found a book that gives the sense of having been written in one sitting, not necessarily because it was, but because its powerfully interwoven themes transform years of careful reflection into the fresh insights of a moment. I shall highlight here one of these themes: time. It is central in this endeavour, and shows Jonathan Sacks at his philosophical, exegetical best.

Sacks highlights time in his brief introduction. A rebbe tells his disciples that they must live with the times. They associate this kind of advice with the enemies of Torah —the past is dead, look to the future. What I mean, explains the Rebbe, is that we must live with the parashat hashavuah, the weekly Torah portion.

As the book unfolds, Sacks unpacks the connection between time and interpretation in many fascinating ways. One of them is methodological. Like rabbinic commentators before him, but unlike many “critical” scholars (to their loss), Sacks concertinas time. He collapses the distance between past and present, so that dialogue partners separated by hundreds of years are as if in one room. He thus hosts a timeless conversation between ancient rabbis, medieval philosophers, and modern anthropologists and scientists — exhilarating company.

Time is invisible to many of us most of the time (except when we run out of it!), but it serves to become a fascinating interpretative lens once we notice it. Sacks shows repeatedly how Jews understand the past from the standpoint of the future.

The oracle about Jacob and Esau that appears in Toledot is ambiguous. Read in Hebrew (in the absence of the object indicator, et), it is unclear whether the older son will serve the younger or vice versa. Rebecca probably understood the former; why would an oracle announce the obvious? Read in light of rabbinic identification of Jacob with Jews and Esau with Rome, we might see this as a description of their own reality or, alternatively, a divine reassurance (Rome will one day fall).

Another important point that Sacks makes about time is that we should nuance our standard contrast between past as closed and future as open. We can change the past, not what happened, but what it signifies. Joseph’s brothers commit the despicable crime of selling him into slavery in Egypt. Nevertheless, time reveals their action to have been the working out of divine providence. Their crime remains a crime, but its significance changes in hindsight.

Elsewhere, Sacks discusses the significant implications for teshuvah, repentance, of this unlikely notion that we can change the past. By repenting a past action, we can actually change the way it appears in God’s eyes. Returning to Joseph, Sacks sees his behaviour in Egypt (disguise, the hidden cup) as designed to allow the brothers to make teshuvah.

These ideas are important, and even transformative, but they raise some difficult questions. What is the difference between changing the way we think about the past in the positive ways that Sacks describes it, and revising history?

One answer may lie in a distinction Sacks makes between Exodus, our beginnings as a people, and Genesis, our beginnings as a family. In the context of a family, it can pay to forget what actually happened — the last move in an argument, for example — so that we can break a destructive dynamic and move forwards. In a national setting, collective memory is at the core of identity, and we must promise never to forget. But are there ever contexts in which a people should, for its own benefit, behave like a family? Read Sacks on Exodus!

Sacks performs a valuable service in complicating the notion of Jewish time. Jews, he claims, have linear time (pointing forwards), cyclical time (repeating patterns), and tragic time (pessimism), and also covenantal time. I think he means by this that the Jewish future depends upon Jewish past actions, but I am not sure. I advise my students to avoid theological terms reserved mainly for the very texts they are describing. Covenant is such a term; we know what it means, but it is hard to pin it down.

For the most part, the Chief Rabbi expresses his thoughts with crystal clarity in this book, but I would have welcomed a term from everyday English for his discussion of covenantal time. I would also welcome an explanation of this claim about the Jewish future: “That [the ability to act differently in the future than in the past], surely, is why Judaism is the only civilisation whose golden age is in the future” (page 352). Surely this applies equally to Christianity?

A good question to ask of speakers and writers we encounter is, do they write to make us think they are correct, or do they write to make us think? It would be understandable if Jonathan Sacks did the former — made pronouncements for posterity and wrote closed books of his own ideas “for the record”. Yet he does make us think. In that sense he is not past-oriented, but initiates a conversation that projects firmly into the future. Long may he converse.

Dr Lipton is lecturer in Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies, King’s College London

    Last updated: 12:47pm, December 29 2009