What does 'Jewish time' mean?
And can it change the way in which we tend to view past, present, and future?
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In modern-day Western society, the past is increasingly becoming, well, a thing of the past.
According to a 2018 article in the Smithsonian Magazine — and the trend continues today — since the 2008 financial crash, the number of history majors at U.S. colleges and universities has dropped by more than 30-percent.1
Benjamin Schmidt, a history professor at Northeastern University, wrote in a recent AHA Majors Report that “of all the major disciplines, history has seen the steepest declines in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded.”2
Writing for The New Yorker, Eric Alterman commented on the decline of historical thinking and what it means for society today. History, he wrote, “locates us and helps us understand how we got here and why things are the way they are.”3 History helps us to read society, to decode it, to understand which traditions stand the test of time and which require updates. This knowledge is crucial.
Alterman quoted Walter Lippmann, the late U.S. writer, reporter, and political commentator who perceptively wrote:
“Men who have lost their grip upon the relevant facts of their environment are the inevitable victims of agitation and propaganda.”
As Alterman concludes, “A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans, and jingos.”4 An intelligent society then, is one that understands its past, that realizes that the past is never disengaged from the present — and indeed from the future.
James Grossman further decried this trend in The Los Angeles Times, arguing that studying history teaches critical thinking, a crucial skill in the functioning of a healthy society. He suggested that “historical thinking prepares one for leadership because history is about change — envisioning it, planning for it, making it last.”5
History is not always a linear line of progression, but rather a series of peaks and troughs, of progressions and regressions. This is not to say that we cannot and have not moved forward as a society, but that in order to create sustainable change, we need to be able to analyze the triumphs and tragedies of the past, to simultaneously figure out both how to reenact and reinvigorate that which our predecessors got right, and how to avoid making the same mistakes and tripping over the same hurdles.
So how does Jewish time come into this? What does “Jewish time” mean? Can it change the binary and static way in which tend to view past, present, and future? How can it provide us with a positive framework through which to view the past, and even a dynamic prism through which to view the future?