From the Archives: No Hope, No Problem: Reflections on Pesach, Time and Paradox.

Author’s note: This post was originally published on April 19, 2019.

In “Time Telling in Feminist Theory,” Rita Felski suggests that there are four main ways feminists discuss and use time: redemption, regression, repetition and rupture.  They are aptly named as they behave similar to their labels.  Redemption is the linear march of time, hopefully progressing step by step towards a redeemed, or at least better, future even if sometimes things get momentarily worse.  Regression is the want to go back in time or at least return to idyllic and/or imagined pasts: to matriarchy or to a time before patriarchy’s violent arrival.  Repetition is a focus on the cyclical nature of time in bodies, in daily chores, in seasons and so on. Rupture posits a break in time in a way what was before no longer makes sense or doesn’t exist.   Think utopia or dystopia.

While she speaks of them individually, she also acknowledges that no one is bound to one manner of speaking of time and that, in many ways, they overlap and intertwine.  Most feminist theorists use more than one although she asserts that feminism as a whole, “Unlike Marxism or liberalism… does not fold a temporal vision into its very core” (22).  What she means exactly by this is unclear.  Yet, if she means that feminism doesn’t share one unified vision of time or of the future, then I would agree with her.  If she is suggesting that feminism isn’t really all that concerned with time, then I disagree.  Feminism is all about creating a better world for us and for future generations.

That being said, let us return to Pesach.  There are several notions of time that we can see in our Pesach celebrations and the week itself.  Most obvious is repetition: we celebrate Pesach every year and remind ourselves of the joy of liberation and the work still needed to be done.  There is redemption: we were freed and now we must work to free others.  There is an aspect of regression in our reminders of slavery although without the nostalgia to return to it.  Finally, we discuss rupture in a few varied ways: the liberation, the exodus and even our wish at the end of the Seder: “next year in Jerusalem.”

Yet, none of these understandings of time really hold the paradox of Pesach: we’ve been redeemed but so much in our lives and in our world hasn’t been.  Likewise, Pesach instills a reminder of the work to be done but is rather non-specific as to when this works might be completed.  It is not really hopeful either that the need for liberation may one day end.  In fact, the most hopeful moment in the Seder is the wish at its end that we may celebrate Pesach next year in Jerusalem.

In many ways, then, Pesach is realistic in its perspective about liberating work.  Liberation doesn’t require hope.  It may be helpful.  It may be motivating.  But, it is definitely not necessary.    For example, we may run low on hope, yet remain mindful of the need to work for liberation.  Furthermore, even when hope seems lost, we need to keep working.  Pesach doesn’t tie hope to liberation.  Rather, our experience of freedom (and not our hope in a better world) is what should motivate us to work for others’ liberation.

Here, then, I would suggest a fifth notion of time: paradox.  Paradox doesn’t require hope.  Paradoxical time captures the tension between progress, stagnancy and backward steps.  When backwards steps happen, hope isn’t lost.  More importantly, hope is not a prerequisite for action.  Therefore both the loss of hope and its lack thereof do not affect one’s ability to work for change.

In fact, Pesach doesn’t say work for others’ freedom because they hope for it, but work for more freedom in the world because you know what it is like.  Therefore, liberating work doesn’t require us to believe in hope or hold onto hope to do the work that needs to be done.  Liberating work just requires our effort.  Perhaps it is unrealistic perceptions of hope or unrealistic expectations of (or hope in) our ability to affect change that holds us back and makes us hesitant to do the required work.  In that regard, then, hope is ineffective, even counterproductive.

So while we may be consistently discussing time in terms of redemptive, regressive, repetitive and rupture, it is important to leave some space for paradox both in feminism and in Judaism.  Liberating work doesn’t require hope from us; it only requires work.  Paradoxical time may best motivate us to keep up the work.  Yet, we don’t necessarily want to always consider time as paradoxical.  But, if we occasionally think of our efforts paradoxically, hopefully, we can keep the motivation to do the work.

Author: Ivy Helman, Ph.D.

Jewish feminist scholar, activist, and professor living in Prague, Czech Republic and currently teaching at Charles University in their Gender Studies Program.

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