Book Review | An Ancient Book Illuminates Our Troubled Times

By | Apr 15, 2024
Arts, Book Review, Spring 2024

Qohelet: Searching for a Life Worth Living
Illuminations and Commentary
by Debra Band
Philosophical Commentary
by Menachem Fisch
Baylor University Press, 208 pp.

The first time I found myself in synagogue for the chanting of the Book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes—typically read by Ashkenazi Jews during the Shabbat of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival—my first astonished thought was that I’d wandered into the wrong room, or at least picked up the wrong book. A less “biblical” voice than Kohelet, also known in some translations as The Preacher, can hardly be imagined. Grumbling, griping, doubting, melancholy, Kohelet considers all the wonders of life—wealth, wisdom, wine, the love of women, family, the companionship of friends, political power—and dismisses them as empty and meaningless, concluding, in his best-known aphorism, that there is “nothing new under the sun.” Opening verses identify him as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem”—that is, the great King Solomon—but he sounds more like Faust, surveying the heaped-up riches of civilization and wondering if he should kick it all aside for something else.

But what? That’s the question the unhappy king ponders in 12 chapters of meditation that feel uncannily familiar to the modern ear, from his despairing contemplation of mortality (“And how does the wise man die? Just like the fool!”) to the brief interlude of equanimity that inspired the Pete Seeger classic “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”) Kohelet’s restless quest for something in life that might feel worth striving for, and his periodic dives into what sounds like major depression, bring him vividly into sync with our own day, when “none” is the fastest-growing religious affiliation and billionaires appear engaged in a frantic rush to pile up as much empty-looking wealth as possible (when they’re not desperately seeking immortality through space exploration or cryogenic therapies). The appearance of a luscious coffee-table volume, Qohelet: Searching for a Life Worth Living, illustrated and illuminated by the artist Debra Band, is further evidence that Kohelet, or Qohelet (Q being the currently accepted linguistic convention for the Hebrew letter kof) is the biblical book perhaps most reflective of our fragmented, agonized era.

Most evocative and familiar of all is the frustrated exclamation with which the book opens: Hevel havalim, cries Kohelet, hevel havalim, all is hevel! But what is hevel? The King James Version translates it as “vanity,” yielding the canonical “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!” In the 1999 Jewish Study Bible, it’s “futility.” In other renditions, it turns up as “nothingness,” “emptiness” or “insignificance.” Closer to the literal Hebrew meaning, which is something like “mist,” the noted Bible translator Robert Alter translates it as “mere breath,” implying mortality, contingency, transience—that is, everything humans do that blows away and leaves no trace. For this volume, Band and her colleague Menachem Fisch explain in the notes, they considered Alter’s “breath” but found it limiting, settling instead on “vapor,” with its hint of the wider natural world outside the body.

Illuminations accompanying chapter three’s meditation on time.

Fisch is a historian and philosopher of science emeritus at Tel Aviv University; Band, a Maryland-based artist noted for papercutting and other traditional Jewish arts, has also done illuminated editions of the Song of Songs (2005) and Psalms (2007). The choice of the word “vapor,” the authors explain, allows them to connect to a larger idea about the text, one that diverges from the usual reading of Kohelet as a gloomy, uncertain and self-contradictory narrator whose efforts to find meaning are ultimately fruitless. Instead, Fisch suggests, seeing all humanity’s achievements as “vapor” allows Kohelet to come to a philosophical understanding of how to live with the shadow of death that torments him. Hevel, Fisch says, can be taken “to denote mist-like impermanence, transience, and temporality…here today and gone tomorrow, especially when human existence is compared to divine absolute permanence…To claim that the human condition is inherently time-bound; that what we are now absolutely sure of, is likely to be refuted tomorrow; that our legal systems, technologies, social institutions, sciences, and deepest normative convictions are the inherently contingent, perspectival, historical products of the particular circumstances of our time and place; that even if absolute truth were staring us in the face, we would have no way of recognizing it as such…is a very different claim from deeming them all to be but ‘nothingness and futility.’”

In this reading, Kohelet, through his ceaseless questioning, becomes an exemplar of the traditional Jewish notion that no one viewpoint can capture the whole truth, which must instead emerge through argument and debate. Because we are mortal, we can never be sure we are right about anything, and this is apparently a feature, not a bug. Fisch says he came to this interpretation partly from years of arguing about the meaning of Kohelet with his father, a biblical scholar who took a very different view. Band, for her part, worked on the illuminations while nursing her mother through a terminal illness; Kohelet’s “torment and serenity” mingle with her own emotions to emerge in the rich imagery on every page. There’s a central motif of crumbling palaces, based on the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. A sinking, half-submerged crown graces a page where Kohelet grapples with the limits of earthly power: “There is no man who has power over the wind to retain the wind; nor has he power over the day of death; and there is no discharge in that war.”

Every page is also a potpourri of related images and additional texts, all different, rife with puzzles and hidden references. Lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear done in miniature letters—micrography, another traditional scribal craft—twine around the margins of this one, while another passage anguishing over mortality is ornamented with quotations from Unetaneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that asks who shall live and who shall die. Not all are so somber: Strawberries and grapes mingle with wine glasses, hourglasses and heraldic animals, and each page contains a bee, Band’s signature. (The word for “bee,” devora, corresponds to her name, Debra.) There are time jumps, too, including a tiny illuminated scene of a medieval bris with some guests in modern business clothing—a nod to the idea that Jews of all generations are present at a bris, as they were at Sinai.

Fisch and Band, while sensitive to Kohelet’s existential angst, see him as working his way to an ultimately coherent view of life. It may indeed be ennobling to be mortal and transient—it may even serve, as Fisch suggests, to keep our eyes open to others’ views and perspectives. But it’s still a lot to deal with, and in some ways Kohelet remains more approachable when taken in his traditional aspect as a voice crying out in pain and confusion. (I imagine him searching for meaning in a thousand chat rooms, beset by trolls, lamenting, Virtual, virtual, all is virtual!) Fortunately, this lovely volume is generous and varied enough so the reader, too, can find room in it for multiple interpretations.

Amy E. Schwartz is Moment’s book review and opinion editor.

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