Heschel’s Antidote to Land Obsession

April 25, 2019 in Guest Post, Rabbi Greg Harris

This week is the fourth week of the month. For Reflections Off the Bimah, the fourth week features thought leaders from throughout the Jewish world. These special posts give you the opportunity to consider important opinions you may not readily encounter.  As we are in the midst of Passover, I am bringing a piece by Rabbi Shai Held who is president and dean at Hadar, a pluralistic learning community in New York. He is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence and The Heart of Torah: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion. He is at work on a book about the centrality of love in Jewish theology, spirituality, and ethics.  Passover sits at the nexus of conversations about land (leaving one place to become free and settle in the Promised Land) and of time (each generation is to collapse time and regard himself as leaving bondage).


It is one of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s most famous and influential claims: Judaism’s central concern is time rather than space. As he puts it in The Sabbath, “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time” (italics Heschel’s). For Heschel, “The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days.” Accordingly, for Heschel, Jewish liturgical life is an “architecture of time”; Judaism’s “great cathedral” is Shabbat, built not in space but in time.

Heschel’s prioritization of time over space is so profound that even when, in the wake of the 1967 war, he writes a book about the meaning of the Land of Israel for Jews, he titles it Israel: An Echo of Eternity and writes that Israel is “a land where time transcends space, where space is a dimension of time.”

Heschel grounds his vision for humanity in a commitment to self-transcendence. He distinguishes between “reflexive concern,” which is a focus on the self and its needs, and “transitive concern,” which is a focus on the interests of others. We become most truly human, Heschel contends, when we are genuinely committed to the well-being of others and not just ourselves. This contrast between reflexive and transitive concern, according to Lawrence Kaplan, a professor at McGill University, is the key to understanding Heschel’s privileging of time over space. For Heschel, “Time is linked to transitive concern and space to reflexive concern.” Whereas the realm of time is about giving, yielding, and sharing, the realm of space is about owning, possessing, and controlling. As Heschel describes it, “We share time, [but] we own space.” In other words, whereas space is associated with self-assertion, time is connected to self-transcendence.

Heschel’s insistence that Judaism is about time rather than space is grounded in a beautiful midrash about the first creation story in Genesis (1:1-2:3): God creates the heavens and the earth and the multifarious and wondrous life forms that inhabit them. But the story culminates in God’s sanctification not of the earth as a whole or of any parcel thereof, but rather of the seventh day. As Heschel notes in The Sabbath, the word kadosh (holy) is introduced for the first time to describe time rather than space: “There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed with the quality of holiness.”

It is extremely hard to reconcile Heschel’s claim with the rest of the Torah. At the very core of God’s covenant with Abraham is the promise of land (for example, Genesis 15:18-21). Much of the Torah, in fact, is focused on the people’s journey toward the land and God’s revelation of laws to govern their life in that land. Heschel’s stark contrast notwithstanding, for the Bible, and for Judaism more broadly, space matters a great deal. And contra Heschel, the messianic hope of Judaism is not just “the expectation of a day, of the end of days”; it is also about the return of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel. It is a dream of time as well as of space, not of one as opposed to the other.

It is striking that until recently Heschel’s ideas did not have much resonance in Israel. After all, for people engaged in a reclamation of the land after thousands of years of separation from it, a thinker who insists that Judaism is about time rather than space may well seem marginal, or even irrelevant. But recently in Israel, there has been a burgeoning interest in Heschel’s thought with several volumes of his writings translated into Hebrew for the first time and new monographs by Israeli scholars. I get the sense that many young seekers are interested in engaging deeply with his thought. This contemporary enthusiasm seems to stem at least in part from the same “demotion” of space (in this context, land) that had once yielded indifference to him. At a time when many religious seekers are hungry for a religiously serious and passionate alternative to the land-obsessed theology of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his religious Zionist followers, a thinker such as Heschel represents a welcome breath of fresh and restorative air.

More generally, Heschel’s anxieties about an excessive focus on space have turned out to be tragically well-founded. To read the daily newspaper is to be reminded time and again that a preoccupation with space can indeed be a massive obstacle to self-transcendence and transitive concern. Space is integral to Judaism, and we should honor that idea and take it seriously. But Heschel’s words remind us that some things — like peace, human life, and human dignity — are indeed more important than space.