Judaism: Kohelet, the Sphinx of the Scriptures
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
“It focusses,” Jack Bemporad has written, “on the individual rather than society; it is universal rather than national in character; it concerns itself with moral rather than with cultic questions; and it is philosophic in its orientation.”
Yet Kohelet is full of puzzles. Who wrote it? When, where and why did he put pen to paper? Why did he contradict himself in the course of what he wrote? Why did some urge that it be excluded from Scripture while others argued equally strongly for its inclusion?
Tradition saw King Solomon as the author. Asked why other Solomonic Books, Song of Songs and Proverbs, differed profoundly from Kohelet and from each other, the sages suggested that Song of Songs was written when the author was young and romantic, Proverbs at the height of his adult powers, and Kohelet in old age when he decided life and experience were a fraud.
Reflecting a philosophical theme of the time, Kohelet ponders the cyclical pattern of nature and history: “What was is what will be, what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Life is like a wheel that keeps on turning. There seems to be nothing human beings can do which can affect, alter, slow down or halt the process.
What then is the point of striving? Not to bring us wisdom, fame, honour or pleasure, because they cause more problems than they solve, and when we die everything slips through our fingers anyway: “As he came forth from his mother’s womb, naked shall he go back.”
So what is the point of anything? Unlike Job who grapples with a perplexing problem and ends up asserting, “I know my Redeemer liveth”, Kohelet seems to find everything futile and can only say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.
Yet though this seems to be the sad, cynical ending of the journey, in fact it is not the ending. For he comes back with a postscript: “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Some say this verse was tacked on to give the book an orthodox appearance and gain it a place in Scripture.
In Kohelet’s defence, however, it must be said that for all his questioning of life, Kohelet does not question or reject God. He is more of a believer than he makes himself out to be.
By concluding with an assertion of reverence for God and observance of the commandments he is implying that whatever problems a person has with understanding life, in the end life must have a meaning, and the more one worships God and lives by the mitzvot, the more likelihood there is that the meaning will become manifest.
Kohelet the cynic is a believer after all!