Friday, October 13, 2006

Kohelet

Hey. First, my apologies. I know that I have totally neglected my blog for several weeks now. There were, of course, mitigating factors- my family was in the Holy Land, I was in my sister's apartment, and also, I didn't really feel like it. And, unfortunately, the blog is not going to be terribly busy in the next couple of weeks, because Law School Orientation starts Sunday. That's right-this Sunday. As in "the day that would be Simchat Torah for me if I was still a chutznik." Yeah. And Heavens only know whether or not I have a dorm room... So anyway, I'm going to be a bit busy, so we'll have to see what happens.

And now on to the post. This post, as perhaps you would be able to tell even without the lengthy introduction/disclaimer (but where would be the fun in that?) is spawned more from desperation to get back to posting than actual inspiration, so I'm sorry if it degenerates into yet another dull, angsty rant about my high school experience. Here goes:

We learnt Kohelet in twelfth grade. The first thing that my teacher announced as an introduction to the subject was that Kohelet was not a depressing book. The life that it degrades as pointless is a life dedicated to pursuing physical pleasures, while a life devoted to spirituality is not pointless, but beautiful. This interpretation was supported by translating hevel as 'ephemeral' and reading a lot of passages as not really questioning the afterlife or the soul or things like that.

Fine. It's a legitimate track, and certainly there is a thread in Kohelet attacking hedonism. But I think that this interpretation misses the thing that makes Kohelet so cool. The Talmud says that the chachamim wanted to ban (or hide, or bury) Kohelet because a) it contradicted itself and b) it contained things that leaned towards minut (heresy). The Talmud never goes back and says "but really, it didn't and that was all a misinterpretation." Never says "and then other chachamim came along and said it didn't." It says that they included it a) because the beginning and end are words of Torah and b) because every heretic statement was later contradicted by an acceptable one.

In other words- Kohelet should not- cannot- be read as a single, unified book. It is an ongoing internal debate, the kind that just about every thinking person is going to have. All those angsty, going-off-the-derech questions- they're all in there. Kohelet, as a book, is devoted to that angst, that questioning, that depression, that struggle.

And the fact that it's in Tanach means that the struggle is acceptably in Judaism. And not just if you figure everything out and end up happy and calm, with all your questions answered. Because even with the last couple of p'sukim, Kohelet doesn't have any answers. Never comes to the conclusion that there is an afterlife, or that life is just, or that anything has any point at all. The only vague conclusion that I saw was that that you shouldn't spend all of your life trying to figure out the big questions- if you always watch the clouds, you never plant; more books is more trouble and so forth. Which is hardly a conclusion, but more of angsty frustration at your own angsty frustration.

Anyway, the point is this: teaching Kohelet as just another happy, reasoned book that teaches you to devote yourself to holiness is robbing it of its most basic lesson: It's okay to struggle. Maybe even mandatory to struggle. It's okay to question, to contradict, even to despair. And even someone who loves G-d enough to write Shir Hashirim, who is wise enough for Mishlei, even he can wrestle with the biggest questions. And lose. And keep on fighting.

9 comments:

Miri said...

I like that. of course all of Torah is a struggle, but angst is always good.

Halfnutcase said...

thats a very nice way of looking at it.

but of course, it's kinda like people who say that shir hashirim is only an aligory (the inherent self contradiction aside that results from the requirement that everything that applies to the litteral alegory aplies to the aligorical meaning, so both meanings have to be literaly true...) it's kinda like they're scared.

but thats a beautifull lesson.

e-kvetcher said...

Really, this is how you understand it?

I reed it (I am going to start rightspelling ambiguous words a la GBS) as an existentialist/cynical melange of a person who tried to engage the world but ultimately gave up. Kind of like Diogenes Syndrome

Although the last line does sound like the ending of every other xGH post where he rants and raves about all sorts of doubts and struggles but concludes the same as Kohelet. And just as illogically.

Tobie said...

Miri- thanks.

HNC- well, it's true that the high school interpretation is of the same school of thought. I don't object to these midrashic readings, per se, but I hate it when they rob you of the unbeleivable power of the pshat. I mean, no offense, but if Shlomo had wanted to write a description of the Jewish people's love of Hashem, he was quite capable of doing so without cloaking it in the terms that he chose. And ditto re: a reflection on the pointlessness of gashmiut. I mean, I think it's a pity not just to read what was written before trying to go to the next level.

E-Kvetcher- I see the cynical/existentialist bit. But I'm not sure that he does give up. I mean, at the end of the sefer, he seems kind of annoyed at the whole thing and goes with the xGH style thing, but I don't get the sense that he's going to stop. Meaning, like, you read the book every year. And each time, Kohelet gets sick of the whole thing. But he doesn't just pitch the book in the trash- it's still there for all the next years. To me, that makes it feel like the ongoing sort of thing- each time getting horribly frustrated at trying to figure out anything, but not able to kick the habit of attempting to.

Miri said...

see, that's the thing abt Jews - bc no matter how frustrated and pissed off we get, we still keep coming back to the same central issues and problems and arguments. humans will never solve these issues, or they would have been solved long ago, but that doesn't mean we ever have the right to stop asking the same questions.

Irina Tsukerman said...

I read Kohelet in my Theology class in college, and the professor's view, as well as my conclusion is a bit of a cross between yours and E-kvetcher's. I think that when one struggles with these questions, there's always going to be a bit of cynicism, but also a bit of optimism, and lots of other things behind. Those internal struggles usually are about more than just struggling (or any other single thing for that matter.) Have fun at the Orientation!

e-kvetcher said...

I don't think I conveyed exactly what I meant, because I think it is a subtle point...

What I am talking about is a sense of detachment, an almost buddhist feeling of detachment. It is different from actively giving up. It is sort of a transcendence thing.

Plus, the authorship of the last bits of the books is vague. Is Kohelet speaking about himself in 3rd person (seems a stretch) or is it a narrator who summarizes Kohelet and then appends his own twist onto the text?

Miri said...

Irina- I think the mix of cynicism and optimism invovled in the struggle varies from person to person. I also think that there is definitely something to the idea of struggling for the sake of the struggle. why else would we bother to continue wrangling with the same tired issues again and again ?

e-kvetcher-the sense of detachment you see may come from jadedness and apathy - the thinker worn down by the continual battle, too exhasuted at the end to care anymore. also, given the somewhat erratic style of narraration of Kohelet in general, I'm not really sure why it's such a stretch to imagine that he's suddenly talking about himself in the third person. I mean, you know. why not?

Anonymous said...

sorry, Judaism is not emo.