Kohelet – the man, his teachings – is fraught with contradictions.
Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, is terrified of death. He despairs that nothing about him will last beyond it. Wealth? So much work to obtain, so much stress to maintain, and then you die and someone else gets it. Sons? You can have a thousand, and who will remember you? Women? Enchantresses who lead you to folly. Acquiring wisdom itself? Better than wallowing in folly. But still no answer. “A live dog is better than a dead lion…because the lion knows nothing….but the dog knows…it will die.”
Yet Kohelet has created something that endures – his book of despair.
Kohelet at some point exhaled his last exasperated breath, but Kohelet the book, has been alive for thousands of years. The words are still read in their original Hebrew (or at least translated Hebrew from an original Aramaic). They are chanted during Sukkot. Scholars – of many faiths or none – still study each word, sometimes in the most exquisite philological detail. Today’s preachers ponder and draw lessons from them.
Many of Kohelet’s words have passed into popular culture You have probably heard The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn Turn” or heard in ordinary conversation that there is nothing new under the sun; That the race does not go to the swift; That you should cast your bread upon the waters?
Kohelet achieved his literary immortality because his sayings, embodied in a scroll of its own, entered into the Jewish bible and from there into the Christian bible and the wider world. How his book made it into the bible is mysterious. In the Talmud, the rabbis recalled the doubts about including his book, including that it was self-contradictory and that it was liable to encourage heresy.
For Kohelet, there is no “enteral Thou.” Rather, the supreme being appears to be distant and beyond dialogue with mortals. He never hears a voice that is beyond the sun. Kohelet does not pray to Him. His audience is a human one, and he complains to them that God does not seem to reward the just and punish the wicked in a timely way, and sometimes not at all.
The Jewish bible elsewhere proclaims that posterity is achieved by passing on the sacred teachings from generation to generation. The holy books invite individuals to find meaning in being part of a collective that has a momentous past and endless future. They are pivotal moments in Israel’s history where pain and perseverance lead to progress. Centuries of bondage in Egypt teach a nation to remember its own oppression and to seek justice for all. The revelation at Sinai, and its acceptance by the people, provide an enduring national constitution.
“The Gift of the Jews,” according to Thomas Cahil’s book, was the idea of progress. The Jews broke out of the despondent view of the surrounding cultures the cycles of history endlessly repeat, patterns established in heaven. Yet Kohelet denies that any such escape is even possible.
The midrash on Kohelet tends to ignore Kohelet’s dire worldview and instead selects individual phrases which it then connects to more inspiring texts. But that is a means of coping with Kohelet, of singing over his own dirges. Why was Kohelet’s voice even preserved in the first place? To prove by Kohelet’s example that a life without faith is painful? But Kohelet proclaims that the “more knowledge, the more pain.” In each generation, might not some youths take from Kohelet not the chastening example of his life, but a compelling statement of his truth?
My guess is that the rabbis embraced Kohelet because their appreciation for the literary power of Kohelet outweighed their concern about his orthodoxy.
Kohelet is immersed in the “wisdom tradition” of the Near East. The book of Proverbs is from that genre. Each maxim in that book is an attempt to condense an observation or instruction about life into a few phrases that play off each other. Kohelet knew how to polish the individual gems, some drawn from tradition, some original to him. He also knew how to string them together. His story is replete with conceptual paradoxes and self-contradictions, but there is a unifying framework. The pieces are placed within Kohelet’s autobiographical search for meaning and are connected by a recurring set of thematic words and ideas.
Sound out the first direct quote from Kohelet. “Ha·vel ha·va·lim a·mar ko·he·let, ha·vel ha·va·lim hak·kol ha·vel.” Aspirated consonants embody exhalation, the spending of breath; the repetition of words and sounds evokes his despair over the inescapability of repeating cycles. The phrase is like a fundamental formula of physics, a statement about the whole cosmos reduced into a few symbols that include an equality. In chapter three, Kohelet states the theme that “for everything there is a season,” and then, line after line, using the same formula – action and its opposite – he produces an unforgettable series of variations. As he approaches the end of the book (and his life?) Kohelet depicts the ravages of old age through a series of varied, imaginative and wrenching metaphors.
The rabbis were the closest and most appreciative readers of literary art. The scriptures they included in the canon are generally of the highest artistry. In their commentaries and own fictions, the rabbis added some sublime contributions of their own.
Yet the Jewish nation that preserved the holy books, including Kohelet, did not see itself as the caretaker of a merely artistic tradition. It believed that the Torah was worth suffering and dying for because it was delivered or inspired by the Eternal.
Did Kohelet, “a son of David, a king of Jerusalem” in his own description, ever sense that he was truly part of that nation?
Did Kohelet ever hope that his people would cherish his gift? And that they would carry it with them in all their journeys under the sun, no matter how cold, how dark, or how long?