Rabbi Fern Feldman

Revolutionary Time, Teshuvah, Shmitta and Yovel

DSCN00470033Rosh Hashanah morning 5775

R. Sholom Dovbear of Lubavitch wrote that “whenever someone wants to ascend from a lower level to a higher level there must be something delineating between the two levels.” He talks about a “river of fire” in which a soul can immerse to transition from level to level. I think this is one of the reasons we mark time—one of the reasons we have Rosh Hashanah. Today is not the same year as yesterday. Yesterday it was 5774; today it is 5775. We have made something to delineate between the two levels. We have an opportunity to live at a new level. As we cross the river of fire that marks the change from year to year, the future is open. How we live this embodiment of time is full of possibilities.

To explore this further, I want to share with you from an article I recently read by Swedish Jewish feminist philosopher, Fanny Söderbäck called “Revolutionary Time: Revolt as Temporal Return”. Her ideas provide a beautiful way of looking at what is going on in Jewish time, especially at this time of year.

Söderbäck discusses the importance of deconstructing the binary distinction between the two ways people tend to look at time—cyclical time and linear time. She points out that “women, so often relegated to the natural realm and to embodiment, have become the bearers of cyclical time, while men, who have taken upon themselves the task of subordinating nature and the body in the name of culture and reason, have come to lay claim to linear time and the progress associated with it. The two models thus correspond, respectively, to the conception of woman as an embodied creature and to that of man as a rational subject not bound to his body.” She adds that “black subjects, queer subjects, disabled subjects, laboring subjects, …[and] female subjects—have been reduced to immanence and presence in the service of building the future of those (white, heterosexual able-bodied men) who have laid claim to transcendence and freedom.” Söderbäck explains that “political projects that follow the linear model of time end up replicating the past through a repression of sorts. Those that, instead, follow the cyclical model repeat the very same past by idealizing it.”  I would add, that this binary of linear and cyclical time tends to be mapped onto all the other troubling binaries we can think of—light and dark, mind and body, good and bad. So, there is a lot at stake in troubling this way of understanding time, both in terms of how we think about the world, and in how we live in the world.

Now I am going to shift back and forth between my understanding of how this is relevant to us as Jews, and more about Söderbäck’s article.

We might notice that the binary distinction that Söderbäck delineates has often included Judaism on the side of cyclical time and Christianity on the side of linear time. Some segments of Christian thought see Judaism as existing in a non-progressing time, while Christianity involves linear, progressive messianic time—in which sin has been redeemed. Judaism and Christianity also are often mapped onto the body/spirit binary, where ritual practice that addresses our bodily acts, food and work, is devalued in comparison to religion that primarily mandates thoughts and prayers. Put simply, some see Judaism as being about law, and Christianity about love. We might respond by considering the ways in which Jewish law gives us guidelines for manifesting love in the physical world.

Conversely, patriarchal branches of Judaism have often made the claim that the Jews invented progress, that is, linear time—that the idea of a G-d that acts in history, who redeems us from slavery, points to a progressive march through time, where “real” transformation can occur, as opposed to early matriarchal cultures that lived cyclical time, where deities represented aspects of the agricultural cycle, which were the same from year to year.

I would claim, rather, that Judaism is a merging of these two ways of looking at time, and in itself is a deconstruction of the linear/ cyclical binary. One way of seeing this in Judaism is the way in which we integrate the solar and lunar calendars. Solar calendars, in which months are based on fractions of the year, without regard to phases of the moon, have tended to be associated with linear time. And lunar calendars, where each month starts on the new moon, and the year begins again after twelve moon cycles, regardless of the solar season that falls in, have been associated with cyclical time. The Jewish calendar integrates the two, so each month begins on the new moon, and the new year, as well as all the other holidays, maintain their solar seasonal associations, so Passover is always in the spring, and Sukkot is always in the fall.

But the connections between what Söderbäck talks about as revolutionary time and Jewish time run much deeper. So let’s go back to Söderbäck. She explains her ideas in terms of feminism, but she writes “I ask the reader to understand my discussion being relevant beyond questions of gender and sexual difference”.  Drawing on the work of philosopher Julia Kristeva, Söderbäck develops an alternative temporal model—rather than the linear/cyclical division of time, she talks about “revolutionary time”. She writes “Revolutionary time is modeled on a perpetual movement of return that is meant to retrieve the very body that was repressed in order to construct the linear-cyclical dichotomy and paradigm”; it is a model of time that “recognizes embodiment as the condition of possibility for …projection into futures as yet unknown to us.” Söderbäck writes “the movement of return…is indispensable for the possibility of a different future.”

I do not think it is a coincidence that this theory is coming from a Jewish thinker. Perhaps if she were writing in a Jewish context, she would call this model what we call it–Teshuvah. Teshuvah also tells us that return is what makes change possible, that return is what opens up the future. Söderbäck points out that a linear-progressive temporal paradigm runs the risk of making us forget the past—that is, if we can’t return to the past, we are likely to forget it—and for that reason, it also leads to a repetition of the past. Rather, she advocates “a view of time and our being-in-time as a perpetual displacement and renewal through the movement of return.” She means to “set in motion a temporal movement that neither forgets nor repeats the past, a model of time that allows us to redeem the past and the present without instrumentalizing them in the name of a future always already defined in advance.” That is, a model of time in which we return, and redeem the past and the present, allows for a future that does not repeat the past, a future that is not a pre-determined goal where we use the present as a means to justify the future, but rather, when we truly return, fully integrate the past, and embody the present, we make way for a future that is open. This open, redeemed future in Jewish thought is called “olam haba”—the world that is coming. “Olam haba”, usually translated as “the world to come”, literally has a present tense meaning, that is, “the world that is coming”, coming now, in each moment, as we engage in what Söderbäck calls “a perpetual displacement and renewal through the movement of return”.

She talks about a “successful revolution”—and by revolution she isn’t only talking about politics, but rather about the root meaning of the world to revolt, the Latin volvere, which has spatial meanings as well, like the revolution of the stars—she says “ a successful revolution—one that opens new doors into a future not already governed by the past—depends on a nonidealizing and continuously interrogative movement of return to the past as well as a chance to experience the dynamic and active processes of the present as they unfold. Both of these depend on a thoroughgoing return to the repressed of our current linear temporal model: the body.”

So if we are to live time in a way that can open up possibilities for the future as a process of perpetual return, the question is, return to what? Söderbäck tells us we need to return in two ways. First, we need to be perpetually interrogating, continually returning to questioning. This is what the process of Teshuvah is all about. In the cycles of day, week, month, and year, the Jewish calendar sets aside time to question ourselves, to take a “heshbon hanefesh”, a soul accounting. We take this time, right now, during the Days of Teshuvah to ask ourselves what we are doing. Some of us have been engaging in this process since the beginning of the month just ended, the month of Elul. Some of us are starting to question ourselves right now: What am I doing here? How am I living my life? Am I doing what I want to be doing? What acts have I have committed that need amends? Where am I going? This perpetual return to questioning our actions and our lives redeems the past, and opens the future.

Seccondly, when Söderbäck talks about return, she means return to the body, and return to materiality. She tells us that “time must be understood as inherently linked to embodiment.” And, “whenever time is conceptualized in terms of cyclicality or revolution (rather than linearity), there is an implicit connection between temporal movement and corporeality or materiality.”

We can read this return to materiality in relation to the sabbatical, in hebrew called shmita, and the Jubilee, in hebrew called Yovel—these returns to the body of the earth are revolutionary moves, bringing egalitarian social change. Today, this Rosh Hashanah 5775, is the first day of a shmita year, the sabbatical that takes place every seven years. The Torah tells us that every seventh year, the land in Israel is to be left to lie fallow. Any produce which grows of its own accord is deemed ownerless, and may be picked by anyone—human or animal. All debts, to people participating in the shmita system, are to be cancelled.  The shmita year is a reminder to us that we don’t actually own anything. Our material possessions are not with us due to what good people we are, or even how hard we worked, but rather, we have what we think of as our possessions because we are borrowing them. It is all a gift. And as such, it is not ours to hoard, waste or destroy.

The practice of shmita has had a number of positive influences in the land of Israel. Since Talmudic times, there has been a structure that allowed for communal harvesting and storage of crops, to be distributed to the community during shmita years, so the shmita has taught us how to feed ourselves collectively. In addition, since observant Jews can’t eat produce purposely grown by Jewish Israeli farmers during the shmita year, in practice, during shmita years, orthodox Israelis shop at Palestinian produce stores, building economic and social bridges between communities. In addition, even during the shmita years hydroponics are allowed, so the shmita has led to an increase in the exploration of alternative agricultural methods.

And even though the requirement for the land to lie fallow during the shmita only applies in the land of Israel, there is now a movement to consider what we can learn from it in the rest of the world as well. Yigal Deutscher of the Shmita Project of Hazon, a national Jewish organization working for sustainability, writes “The values inherent in
the Shmita tradition challenge a contemporary world striving for continual economic growth, development, and individual gains, which more often than not come with a loss to long-term ecological and social integrity. Shmita offers an old/new context in which to turn to the Torah for guidance, to learn timeless values for the real issues we face today. Perhaps there is a message embedded within Shmita that we can use right now to strengthen the movement for creating a healthier, more holistic and sustainable culture.”

So right now, today, we are beginning a shmita year. We are invited, all of us, to ask ourselves what this could mean for our own return to the earth: what can we contribute to its sustainability?

After every 7 shmita cycles, there is a Jubilee, or Yovel. The Torah teaches that on the Day of Atonement, at the opening of the Yovel, the shofar is to be sounded, all slaves freed, and every family is to return to its original landholding. Thus, every 50th year, all economic inequalities are to be resolved. The Jubilee Year is not observed in modern times because it only applies when representatives of all twelve tribes, and a majority of the world’s Jews, live in the Land of Israel. At this point, since 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel have been lost, it would be impossible ever to carry out the actual commandments of the Yovel. And there are differences of opinion about when the Yovel is to occur. But some who still keep count of it say that the next Yovel is a year from now, 5776. So we are now entering a shmita that may be leading into a Yovel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “Here the Torah whirls time into its loftiest spiral: the fifty-year rhythm of the Jubilee. The Jubilee…teaches about time and timelessness, about the rhythms of doing and being, wealth and sharing, work upon the earth and healing with the earth, inward ritual and outward action. In it is the verse (Lev. 25:  10) that found an echo in the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”” The idea of Jubilee has recently inspired a movement: the Jubilee USA network, an alliance of hundreds of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith communities working for debt relief for the world’s poorest people. For anyone who is interested, the Jewish branch of Jubilee USA has declared this October 11, two and half weeks from now, as Jubilee Shabbat, and is providing resources for communities who want to learn more.

On a more individual level, Söderbäck tells us, we open the future by return to the body, to awareness of our embodiment. And, when she says body, she also means soul. Citing Kristeva, she talks about the “various elements that transcend the dichotomy of body and soul.” The soul “allows you access to your body and to other people…While being an internal space, the soul is a space that, insofar as it is alive, connects us with others and with our own living bodies. To have a vital psychic space means to be capable of intersubjective relations, to desire, and to feel…” When we engage in the process of return, we heal the body soul split, we continually return our awareness to the whole of our being. We need to return to our own past, to what Söderbäck calls “the depth continent of her individual prehistory.” We would not return, she says, “in order to linger in the past or repeat it but to make possible new beginnings…allowing for continuity and rupture.” She tells us “bodies as well as the natural realm—both commonly associated with repetition and immanence—are in fact marked by variation, differentiation, and change….the body is born of difference and generates difference. Far from being a stable ground, the body is that through which displacement and interruption becomes possible…Why not return to the body and reclaim it for what it is: a locus of change displacement, and alteration?”

R. David Wolfe-Blank z”l taught that sometimes, like Balaam’s donkey, our bodies see more than our minds. I invite us today, and throughout these days of Teshuvah, this time of return, to keep returning our awareness to our bodies, to the awarenesses of the body, the visions of the body, the messages our bodies are waiting to tell us about how, in living fully into our embodiment, we can become more whole, and we can move into a future that is open.



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