Kohelet is a work in the genre we call “wisdom literature.”
In this context, “wisdom” means knowledge, not understanding.
Wisdom is a cross between what we consider scientific knowledge and moral knowledge.
Some ancient students of wisdom believed that God established a set of highly detailed rules by which the world would be governed. Some rules are obvious to the senses, like the pattern of the sun rising and setting. Other rules, like the patterns of human behavior, can only be grasped through a lifetime of observation.
Even the rules we can grasp through the senses hint at the deeper moral and psychological rules. And insight into the deep rules can be expressed by analogy to the obvious rules. So wisdom writing takes the form of short proverbs or aphorisms that are like little metaphorical statements.
For example, Kohelet teaches,
Better is a name than scented oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.
He means: the relative value of life and death is not obvious from everyday observation. But it is obvious that a person’s name endures, while scented oil can easily spoil. If we make the analogy, we can understand that death is better than birth for a similar reason. Birth is only the beginning of our shaky physical life. Death, on the other hand, is the establishment of our moral legacy, the only thing that remains after us.
Inferior wisdom literature offers a random list of aphorisms, sometimes held together with an introduction that says “My child, I am imparting wisdom to you…”
But REALLY GOOD wisdom literature, like the book of Kohelet, weaves the aphorisms into a coherent story and also reflects on the nature of wisdom.
Kohelet aims to look at life from two different perspectives: the perspective of wisdom, and the perspective of folly. From the perspective of wisdom, the world is an ordered place, with sensible social rules. From the perspective of folly, the world is a disordered mess – at the end of which you die. And Kohelet finds that the only honest way to look at the world is to hold both perspectives at the same time:
On the one hand: Ultimately nothing matters because we die.
On the other: As long as we are alive, it’s better to be wise than foolish, better to be partnered than single, better to have faith than to feel the universe is empty. Good to have a sense of your inner world, and of the social world, to know the appropriate time and place for everything.
Kohelet’s ability to hold these opposites in tension reminds me of one of the lines of thinking in our Yom Kippur afternoon study of the long vidui or confessional prayer, the al cheyt. This prayer offers a very long list of interpersonal ethical mistakes we may have made during the year. A few people in our study session noticed that the sins listed in the vidui are quite mundane, such as speaking impulsively or being unethical in business. They are mistakes we might make in the everyday course of living.
So someone in the session raised the question of whether the vidui says that these mistakes are bad, or that these mistakes “just are.” Of course, most of us agreed that the vidui prayer implies that these sins are bad, but that was not the point of the question. The point of the question was about the kind of attitude we should have on Yom Kippur. What gives us a better sense of God’s forgiving nature: our ability to atone for terrible things or our ability to accept that these mistakes are part of life?
We concluded that we need both perspectives. When we are trying to teach ourselves to behave in ways that are kinder, we should think that our faults “are bad” and can be corrected. When we are trying to be less judgmental of others or less paralyzed by our own self-doubts, we should think that faults “just are.” Yom Kippur calls forth both of these perspectives at the same time. In fact, every day calls forth both of these perspectives at the same time!
For me, the beauty of Kohelet lies in its philosophical teaching that we cannot and should not steer our lives by a single philosophy. Rather, to stay sane, we have to move between different perspectives. On the one hand, we have to try to understand social and moral rules; we have to have a structure; we have to strive to meet goals. This is the way of wisdom. On the other hand, sometimes we have to acknowledge that God or other people do not seem to follow the rules we have discerned, and we have to submit to the insight that the world is foolish and hard no matter what we do. We have to keep God’s commandments, yet not forget to be in awe of God. This, finally, is wisdom.
As Kohelet says:
But the end of the matter, now that all is heard:
Be in awe of God
Keep God’s commandments
Because this is what speaks to the whole person.
— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2006