Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mos Def – Time vs. Space

I just finished reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I thought it was really great. I had so many observations, that I think I will split them up into two posts. So here is the first one.

The whole book rests on the division Heschel makes in the beginning between time and space. He sets up the contrast between the two in an interesting way. “Technical civilization” he writes, “ is man’s conquest of space…we expend time to gain space.”[1] This is fine, because gaining space is how we enhance our power, and it is a crucial part of our existence. But the problem is, we can easily start to think that gaining power is all that matters, and when we do this we ignore the realm of time, and we do this at our own expense. He writes, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[2]

Heschel says that to the “primitive mind” space is all that matters. It is all that can matter. What you see before you is what you get. “Of the gods it must have a visible image; where there is no image, there is no god.” Because of this, idolatry was (and is) common all over the world. Idolatry, of course, is not a practice confined to those who tend towards the religious, as Heschel makes clear. “The reverence for the sacred image, for the sacred monument or place, is not only indigenous to most religions, it has even been retained by men of all ages, all nations, pious, superstitious or even antireligious; they all continue to pay homage to banners and flags, to national shrines, to monuments erected to kings or heroes.”[3]

In the name of our god and our country we fashion our idols. And, generally speaking, we do a pretty good job. But our incessant need to build monuments and memorials says more about us than it does about God or any sort of eternal truth. “To retain the holy, to perpetuate the presence of god, his image is fashioned. Yet a god who can be fashioned, a god who can be confined, is but a shadow of man.”[4]

And if experience teaches us anything, we know that it does not last. Monuments fall, and the few that survive often come to represent the opposite of what they originally stood for. That is our fate, to be either forgotten or misunderstood. I am not sure which is worse. This is because when we have a monument we think we are free to forget, because it will remember for us. Thus, “the shrine may become so important that the idea it stands for is consigned to oblivion. The memorial becomes an aid to amnesia; the means stultify the end.”[5]

We are limited because of our “primitive” understanding of the world. “Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing.” Therefore, we do not get God, for God is spirit, and we do not get time either, for time is “thingless and insubstantial,” and “appears to us as if it had no reality.”[6]

By having this attitude towards time, we miss out on a lot of richness, because time matters. “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” This is because, “What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass.”[7] This does not mean that space and place does not matter. But it has been given too much emphasis, especially in our Western culture where there is never enough time.

Because of this, according to Heschel, one of the biggest advancements in the religious and spiritual life of humanity was “the transformation of agricultural festivals into commemorations of historical events.” So, “While the deities of other peoples were associated with places or things, the God of Israel was the God of events…Thus, the faith in the unembodied, in the unimaginable was born.”[8] Yes, God promised to bring the people of Israel into the land, and give them a place to live, but the emphasis was on their dependence on him. It took them a while to figure it out, actually it took the jarring effect of exile and Diaspora to really make it sink in (remember, monuments lull us to sleep and make us forget), but eventually they did, which is why Heschel could say (with blistering awesomeness), “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement.”[9]

But in spite of these temporal monuments we have managed to make, on a fundamental level, we do not understand time. And, like most things we do not understand, we have started to fear time. “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”[10] It eats away at our lives. We may talk about killing time, but that is just a clever trick we use to make ourselves feel better. Really just the opposite is true. Time kills us, or rather, it outwaits us. “Time,” Heschel writes, “that which is beyond and independent of space, is everlasting; it is the world of space which is perishing. Things perish within time; time itself does not change. We should not speak of the flow or passage of time but the flow or passage of space through time. It is not time that dies; it is the human body which dies in time.” [11]

This sentiment is captured beautifully by Mos Def in The Hurricane, a song from the soundtrack of the 1999 film The Hurricane, a biopic on the life of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. The whole song is cool, but look specifically at Mos Def’s verse:

“Yes, I am the inescapable, the irresistable,
The unnegotiable, the unchallenged
I am time
I scroll in measurements, control the elements,
I hold the evidence, I tell the story
I am time
I know no prejudice, I bare no sentiments
For wealth or settlement, I move forward
I am time
You can’t recover me, conceal or smuggle me,
Retreat or run from me, crawl up or under me,
You can’t do much for me besides serve
Me well and have good dividends returned to you
Or attempt to kill me off and have me murder you
Many have wasted me but now they are facing me,
Treated me unfaithfully and now endure me painfully
Plaintively, I wait to see what
history will shape to be,
Whose hearts will never die inside the sake of me
Angel’s scribe the page for me,
Keep a full account of all the names for me”

Bottom line: “Monuments of stone are destined to disappear; days of spirit never pass away.”[12] We need the Sabbath in our lives. We need to slow down every once in awhile, and take time to think about things that do not concern our conquest of space. We need to take time to think about our lives, time to think about the lives of others, and time to remember. We need time to rest and time to recognize that creation is good. We need to take time to think about time. We need to be able to say, along with Common, another great rapper (no this does not mean that you are forgiven for doing a song for a GAP commercial) who has some very insightful lyrics: “Never looking back, or too far in front of me, the present is a gift, and I just want to be.”

“Man transcends space,” and we think we are awesome because of it. However, what we often forget, that ultimate game-changer/perspective-giver, is that “time transcends man.”[13] This book is an excellent reminder.


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1951) pg. 3.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, pg. 3.

[3] Heschel, pg. 4. Obviously to use the word “primitive” here is rather controversial, but it is important to clarify that Heschel is taking aim at a materialistic worldview, one that totally ignores the spiritual realm.

[4] Ibid., pg. 5.

[5] Ibid., pg. 5.

[6] Ibid., pg. 5.

[7] Ibid., pg. 6.

[8] Ibid., pg. 7-8.

[9] Ibid., pg. 8.

[10] Ibid., pg. 5.

[11] Ibid., pg. 97.

[12] Ibid., pg. 98

[13] Ibid., pg. 98.

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3 Responses to Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mos Def – Time vs. Space

  1. I love it and I haven’t even read it yet!

  2. Joe Korn says:

    Good stuff! It is especially relevant to me in the aftermath of Grandpa Bob’s passing. I like A.J.H. although I don’t agree with him on everything, (ie. the literal, physical, geographical land and its importance to God and ultimately the human race).
    Loved the pictures of group art time. I think Julie must be in “hog heaven”, not that she is a hog or that you guys even like hogs. How about we just forget that expression?

  3. Pingback: A. J. Heschel #2 | joshjulieblog

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