Is this biblical book hedonistic?

Kohelet

A Modern Commentary on Ecclesiastes

By Leonard S. Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky

UAHC Press, 2003, 132 pages

 

 

Kohelet, its Hebrew name, Ecclesiastes in English, is one of the
twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible. Both names mean “assembly” or
“assembler.” The book’s author states that he was the son of King David and a
king in Jerusalem. Yet, we know of no son of David called Kohelet and no one by
that name was a king in Jerusalem. This is one of many problems in this sacred
book.

 

The foremost difficulty is its apparent hedonistic view, such as the following: “Go, eat
your bread with joy and an easy mind. Drink your wine, for God (Elohim) has already approved what you
have done.” “Enjoy life with a woman you love all the fleeting days that are
given to you…for this is what you get out of life and from the exertions that
you labor under the sun.” “Understanding is better than giving sacrifices as
fools do.” “What happens to people, happens to animals…. Being human has no
advantage over being a beast. Everything is useless,” a view far different from
traditional Jewish thinking. Besides the apparent hedonism, Kohelet is also a
misogynist, as when he writes: “a woman is bitterer than death. She is a trap.
Her heart is a snare. Her hands are chains. He who has God’s favor avoids her.”

 

Second, the word Elohim frequently but not always means
God in the Hebrew Bible, but it literally means “the powerful one,” and is also
used to describe a judge and strong people. Kohelet
uses it thirty six times, as in the above quote, and he may not be
referring to the deity in all of these verses. He may mean nature or the way
things are in the world. Thus, in the above quote he may be saying enjoy all
the fine things in life for this is natural, the best way to live.

 

Third, many verses seem to contradict one another, as if a second and perhaps even a third editor
tried to modify or revise the author’s seemingly audacious and possibly
heterodox declarations  into views
generally held by most Jews. The hand of another writer is especially clear in
the final six verses of the book where the text switches from Kohelet speaking
to another person who describes Kohelet as a wise man, a teacher, a writer of
parables and truth. Then, after a book filled with seemingly hedonistic views,
the volume ends by saying that people should “revere God and keep His
commandments, for this is the whole of man.” If these are the words of an
editor, the original version of Kohelet
ends in 12:8, just as it began, “Total uselessness, says Kohelet, everything is
useless.”

 

In the second century of the Common Era, the rabbis debated whether to include Kohelet, which was most likely composed around the second century BCE, in the Hebrew Bible canon. Some rabbis opposed
it, but it was included. Kravitz and Olitzky offer readers a new translation of
the book and a commentary on every verse. Thus, the traditional, “Vanity of
vanities, says Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” is rendered “It is
all useless, Kohelet said, it is all useless. Everything is useless.” Virtually
all the commentaries that they use are from Rashi (1040-1105) and the Aramaic
translation of the book, which is actually an interpretation. Rashi relied on this Aramaic work, which was
most likely composed after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud in the
mid-sixth century and before the Arab conquest of Israel in the seventh.
Kravitz and Olitzky also have some commentaries of Abraham ibn Ezra
(1089-1164); including some notions that Kohelet
is referring to the powers of astrology. These sources do not explain the
plain meaning of the Kohelet
passages. They portray Kohelet as a very religious man who is encouraging his
readers to accept and follow the proper way to serve God and to act with moral
behavior. Thus, for example, although Kohelet doesn’t mention punishment for
misdeeds after death, they read it into his words. Rashi interprets the
statement about women, mentioned above, as referring to heretical beliefs that
must be avoided, not women. Also, the Aramaic translation frequently states
that Kohelet is speaking of past events that should be emulated, such as some
religious act performed by the patriarch Abraham.

 

The authors include several pages after each of Kohelet’s
twelve chapters explaining different concepts, such as the Davidic kingdom and
its restoration, and “Gleanings” from other books that touch upon ideas in the
chapters. Whether readers of the original Kohelet
prefer to accept its plain meaning or favor the homiletical versions, Kohelet is a good book to provoke thought.

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