Greek Space and Jewish Time

[From T. Boman, ‘Hebrew Thought Compared With Greek’, 1970]


The old cliché is that the ancient Greeks were visual, the ancient Jews verbal.. Or, image versus word.

However, vision is indeed major to the Greeks. Most of their terms for ‘knowing’ are derived from the stem in Greek for ‘see.’ A thinking with the eyes, proceeding from what is seen; yet it was also necessary to see what is invisible to the eye and inaccessible to the senses. This too is sight, ‘viewing’, theoria.

The Jewish Bible does emphasise the importance of hearing, and the spoken word. Vision is a distance sense, takes in vast swathes and perceives the overall pattern. Hearing is a ‘closer up’ sense, nearer and more intimate.

Vision seems to favour the mind, while hearing favours the heart.

For the Greeks, truth is ‘that which is unveiled’ [unconcealed, unhidden]. That which is disclosed, clear, evident. The concept of truth in Sanskrit is typically Greek: ‘that which is’ is ‘the true’ [and even ‘the good’]. For the Indo-European peoples, stretching from India to Greece, TRUTH IS ONTOLOGICAL.

For the Jews, truth is expressed by derivatives of the verb ‘aman’ – to be steady, faithful; ‘amen’: verily, surely; ‘omen’: faithfulness; ‘umnam’: ‘really’; ‘emeth’: constancy, trustworthiness, fidelity to reported events; ‘omenah’: pillar, door post. For the Jews, and maybe other Semitic peoples like the Arabs, TRUTH IS EXISTENTIAL.

The Jews do not ask what is true in any objective sense, natural or super-natural, but they ask what is personally certain– what can be depended upon personally because it has proved itself reliable; what is faithful in the existential sense.

The Greeks are interested in what is in agreement with impersonal being; ‘seeing into’ this being does not require any personal relationship to it. The Jews are interested in the disclosures, or events, that are personally relevant to them; addressing such disclosure, or events, requires a personal ‘face to face’, or ‘heart to heart’, relationship.

When confronting a new reality, the Greek asks, how does this manifest being?

When confronting a new reality, the Jew asks, who are you, what do you intend?


But there is a second contrast even more interesting.

Greek thinking is concerned with ‘synthesis’, Jewish thinking is ‘analytic.’

‘Reason’ in Greek is derived from ‘gather’; the points to be taken into consideration are sought, brought together, and arranged into a pleasing whole– and in that way the truth is demonstrated. You can see it for yourself.

The Hebrew ‘bin’ means ‘understand’, and implies ‘to dismember, to separate’; hence ‘binah’ means ‘understanding, discernment, insight’– the ability to separate the non-essential and external from the essential and internal– the ‘heart of the matter’, and once having found it, to express this as briefly and pithily, and as pointedly, as possible. Once the ‘point’ is uncovered, there is no need for any detailed demonstration, or any extensive development of ideas. A better term for all this than ‘analysis’, with its modern connotations of the intellect reducing things to their mechanical components, might in fact be ‘delving’, or ‘in depth delving’ in order to get to the real core of any issue.

When it comes to getting through the defenses of hearers, the Jew tells a parable, tale, story, which goes direct to their heart in such a way, they cannot contest it. The Jews also like repetition, to hammer home a point. In their writing style, the Jews do not build step by step, as in architecture, but build more like music where the theme is set forth at the beginning and returns later in constantly new variations.

Other Hebrew terms for thinking — yadha: know; ra’ah: see; shama: hear — serve the purpose of finding a point rather than of furnishing a proof. Even ‘seeing’ is different; visible things become signs for the Jew, disclosing to him the qualities of their possessor or creator. When we have discovered these, we have seen things correctly. For example, everything King Solomon made ‘testified’ of his wisdom.

Obviously, the Jews also knew of an external seeing which could discover only the surface of things, “but not until one had plumbed the depths and seen the inside of things, their true content and their centre, did he really understand the matter” [p 204]. The Jews coined separate expressions for the two kinds of observation: to see the surface or appearance, and to see the heart, or truer essence [1 Samuel, 16, 7]. In Isaiah, God utters the reproach against Israel that ‘they see without understanding’ [Isaiah, 6, 9]. For a Jew, true religion is learning by sight, seeing with eyes open how God carries out his purpose in life and in history, but a seer — ro’eh — is a person of God who sees what is hidden from other people, be it animals who have run away, hidden crimes and deviously masked evils, or future events. The Wise person sees deeper than others; when it is declared [Ecclesiastes, 1, 16] “yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge”, this person ‘observes’ the world in a very different sense.

Greek thinking is often claimed to be ‘clear logical knowing’, but that is more true of the Latin contraction of all things Greek into a more superficial package; it certainly misses how intuitive and inner looking the Greek nous is. Albert Einstein speaks in Greek vein= “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” What is the case is the Greek tendency toward holism, and ontological rooting. The Greeks look for the harmony, the overall shape, of things hanging together. In that sense, yes, a gathering in. This gathering can reveal the meta pattern of the whole, the grand design in things that is not reductive, but beautiful, alive, good, mysterious. But the danger in this Greek pattern making is that discrepant things, what Kierkegaard calls the absurd, do not fit in; dissonance is too readily balanced with the overall resolution. Rough edges are knocked off, and ignored. This makes the Greek mentality especially ill-suited to accept the Daemonic, in God or in nature, or in human existence.
Here is one example of the Daemonic in nature. A physicist on British TV is currently explaining how the entire universe was formed from a chaotic cloud of swirling gas, and he compares the shaping of the solar system to a tornado! Whirlwind; storm, wind, lightning; earthquakes; volcanoes; all these and other such events are Daemonic.

Greek thinking seeks, as Heidegger argued, to get to the being in which all things inhere; for the ancient Greeks, the Platonic ‘ideas’ were supposedly the seeds of all being. There is a connection, then, between idea—being—seeing into things. The Greeks used thought to portray the architecture, both manifest and latent, of all things in their order of being gathered in, and inter connecting. The term harmony means not only that things are gathered together in a holistic pattern, but that they do not clash, fight, contend one with another, for that would rip apart the single fabric all indwell in their multiplicity.

But things do clash, as well as dance and co-inhere, as Heraclitus acknowledged. Paradoxically, it was the war gods at the dawn of time who were the most protective of, and kind toward, humanity, bestowing upon humans all manner of divine gifts that helped them survive, prosper, grow. This paradox is Daemonic.

In distinction to the Greeks, the Jews used thought to reach deep psychological understanding. Hence the ‘heart’ is a Biblical category, and does not just mean ‘the centre’, as it does in Greek, but the source of intent and motive, the engine of movement, and ground of sincerity or duplicity in terms of being reliable in relationship. The Arab word for heart means ‘that which can turn over’, as in turning over a new leaf, and further implies ‘that which can travel a far distance’ [towards a far shore we might otherwise consider unobtainable].


Boman offers a final contrast of Greek and Jew; rest, harmony, composure, and self control– this is the Greek way; movement, life, deep passion and power– this is the Jewish way.

For the Jew, everything is in movement: God, humanity, nature and the world. The totality of all this is ‘olam’, and is in time, subject to history, and so life is ever changing. “The fact that God created the world and mankind once and for all implies that God makes history and brings forth life and that he continues them until they achieve their goal” [p 205]. Thus ‘being’ is the same as ‘energy’, and God is not only Creator, but also world-perfector, and hence must be the redeemer of the world. All sources of being are in God; thus nothing escapes the journey, and risk, all created things are on, as they move toward their purpose.

Greek– space; Jew– time.

It was inevitable, then, argues Boman [and maybe he exaggerates, without proper nuancing], that Jewish thinking became more psychological, in that it is concerned with our state of heart, how we are reacting, what is up with us as we journey and battle through time. By contrast, Greek thinking is more metaphysically philosophical, in that its focus is on the over-all pattern of being, and hence it is less concerned with the human, more likely to want to subsume the human into the holistic pattern, or is simply not interested in psychological agonies and vicissitudes because they actually do not have any bearing on the meta whole, but merely tend to obscure seeing it in all its oneness and variety, its beauty, goodness, and intelligible but subtle structure. To ‘see’ the whole, and accept our place in it, we should try to still the agonies and ecstasies of our reactions to ‘how things are going’, and adopt a more quiet, contemplative stance. Then we will see ‘how it all fits together’, and how marvellous its harmonics and dynamic balances really are. We will be joined to what we see, in the soul. Greek knowing is unitive. It unites us, inside, and unites us with the outside.

This argument has a certain validity, though it does ignore the Greek tragedies– yet perhaps the Greek description of the ‘tragic’ suggests these are persons who break connection with the meta world order, and so are punished for getting out of step in the cosmic dance.

For the Jews, wrestling with God, themselves, and the world, as they voyage through time, the ups and downs, the falls and recoveries, the endless strivings and wrestlings, including searching out God in the most severe difficulties, are all needed, and are not to be ‘calmed’ out of existence. Just rendering the depths of human passion more ‘benign’, as you see in Buddhism or in St Maximos, is no answer to the tumults of existence we must go through, to exercise heart and get finally to the heart of all things. We must ‘pass through water and fire’, Isaiah says. We must drown, we must get burned; that passing through deep things, which are at risk to degeneration and destruction, yet if we get through ‘prove’ something profound, is necessary. The Jewish way is dramatic, because everything is on edge, and it could either make it all the way, or go over. Our deeper passions are more evil, yet they contain the only sparks of a more God-like love. Being non sexual, being non aggressive, being kindly in a rather impersonal and sublimated way, is no answer to what is being tested, and must be proved, over time. Redemption is at stake, and it is to this outcome the man or woman of faith is staked.

Clarity of picture, in the Greeks, is bought at the price of downplaying motion; we cannot see movement, we sacrifice it to put snap-shots at different times together, holistically. But the deeper stream of existence is all about change, movement, dynamism, including fight as well as dance, non-harmonics, not just harmonics, the irreducibly real that fits no picture but bangs the heart, not just the sacred geometry that puts consoling arms round us. The discrepancies, the gaps, the unknowns, the messes, the ambiguities, the wounds, drive things forward. When in imbalance, you must move– or fall down.


Greek= soul–mind.

Jew= heart–soul.

Soloviev distinguishes soul and heart thus.

Soul= ‘the thirst for immortality.’

Heart= ‘the hunger for truth and moral perfection.’

Yet there is complementarity between Greek and Jew, as Niels Bohr argued in regard to particle and wave in physics. For the Greek, reality is Being. For the Jew, reality is Movement.

Reality is both ontological and existential at the same time; this is logically contradictory, but it is so.

Yet they do not simply balance, yin/yang fashion; for a time, the Eros of the Greeks predominates– when we think back to the lost harmony at the beginning, or think forward to a new, regained harmony at the end. In the middle, however, the Daemonic of the Jews is gambling with everything that the human heart can ‘come through’ the ordeal. It is like in Flamenco. The ordeal is life and death, you can really die in it; we resist for all we are worth, yet once dumped in the ordeal by fate, once on that electric rim where it is all to play for, and the stakes are ultimate, there is nowhere we would rather be.

Ole, they say in Spanish, to keep us going.