A Contemporary Koheleth
Koheleth—The Man and his World.
by Robert Gordis.
Jewish Theological Seminary. 396 pp. $5.00.
The pious editor of the book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), fearful of what its skepticism might do to the faith of the young, concluded the volume with a deprecatory note of warning; “Of the making of many books there is no end and much study wears one’s strength away.” Despite this caution many authors have been attracted through the ages to the heterodox verses of the worldly moralist. The Midrashic commentators, in an elaborate phrase by phrase reinterpretation, produced a devoutly pious Koheleth, a rabbi like themselves, and some of the more radical of the modern Biblical scholars have seen in the author a Greek philosopher, an intellectually assimilated Jew who strangely found his place in the sacred canon. There has been no dearth of books about Koheleth and yet one reads Dr. Gordis’s summation of his studies in this difficult text with profound gratitude.
The frame within which Dr. Gordis presents his new translation consists of an excellent introduction which discusses the thought and personality of Koheleth in relation to his milieu, and a long, very learned technical commentary of almost two hundred pages in which the introductory generalizations are patiently substantiated by the exegesis of chapter and verse. Quite obviously very little, either ancient or modern, that has ever been written about any part of the text has escaped his research. Through the forest of suggested interpretations he moves surely, though reasonably, giving every suggestion its due as he fixes the meaning of disputed passages. Out of his labors there arises the figure of an upper-class skeptic, a man of large affairs living in the retired twilight of his life and pondering the meaning of human existence in the spirit of somber and often tragic hedonism.
Thus Dr. Gordis’s Koheleth is a man without illusions, no more certain of the lack of faith than he is of faith, “seeking the purpose of life and lamenting his ignorance.” Such a Koheleth, it might be maintained, is merely a figment of the contemporary mind creating him in its own image, but Dr. Gordis’s close analysis of the text makes it more than plausible that the Koheleth with whom we would be most at home is actually the Koheleth of the Bible. This is, in essence, an achievement not only of textual scholarship, but of poetic and philosophic imagination.
The under-girding of Dr. Gordis’s construction is his solutions to various of the scholarly problems of the book. In opposition to such eminent authorities as Charles Cutler Torvery and H. L. Ginsberg, he offers a most plausible defense of the view that Koheleth wrote not in Aramaic but in the Hebrew of the present text, an opinion in which Dr. Gordis has been joined by W. F. Albright. Those difficult passages which others have explained as misunderstandings or literal translations from a conjectured Aramaic original are, in Dr. Gordis’s view, examples of a stage in the development of the Hebrew language somewhere between the late classical and the Hebrew of the Mishnah. The idiom of Koheleth thus becomes not that of a Jew who wrote most easily in the increasingly hellenized Aramaic lingua franca of his time—which, if true, makes it all the more likely that Koheleth reflects foreign thought and influence—but that of one whose unique use of Hebrew is in itself a link in the chain of development of the sacred tongue.
Of even greater importance is the problem of the unity of the book. The opinions expressed in Koheleth stand in often bewildering contradiction to one another. For example, Koheleth both praises joy (8:15) and condemns it (2:2), regards wisdom as of great value (2:13) and derogates it (6:8), and clings to life (9:4) and nonetheless prefers death (4:2). These difficulties and many others like them were prominent among the reasons which motivated the rabbis of the Talmud to consider excluding the book from the sacred canon. Indeed, long before the heyday of 19th-century Biblical scholarship, with its prevailing tendency towards finding the work of many authors, editors, and redactors in each book of the Bible, no less an authority than Abraham Ibn Ezra scouted the possibility, in his comments on 7:3, that the very name Koheleth means etymologically a “community” and that the book is therefore an anthology of the writings of a school of disciples of the wise King Solomon! At least on the surface, Ibn Ezra refuted this critical view and reconciled the apparent contradictions by use of a distinction among the three aspects of the soul.
Like Ibn Ezra before him, Dr. Gordis defends the unity of the book. Towards this end he advances his most striking hypothesis, the theory that many of the seemingly contradictory verses are in actuality proverbs or opinions which Koheleth is quoting in order to refute or qualify. Dr. Gordis buttresses this theory convincingly by citing comparable literary usages in other books of Biblical wisdom literature and in the Talmud. As a result certain difficult passages become at once clear and striking. For example, the King James version for 9:17 to 10:1 reads as follows:
“The words of wise men are heard in quiet, more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroyeth much good.
“Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.”
Dr. Gordis, using his quotation theory, renders this same passage:
“It is said, ‘The words of the wise spoken quietly are heard better than the ranting of the king of fools’ and ‘Wisdom is better than weapons’; but I say, ‘One fool can destroy much good,’ and ‘As dying flies befoul the perfumer’s ointment, so a little folly can outweigh the abundance of wisdom.’”
There is no need to point out in further detail the greater clarity and sense of Dr. Gordis’s version.
In this connection a word needs to be said about the literary style of his translation. It is unfair to cavil at Dr. Gordis’s fluent contemporary English and retreat to the more majestic cadences of the King James version, as some reviewers did six years ago when an earlier edition of his rendering appeared accompanied by a brief popular introduction. The purpose of his translation is not to provide a substitute for the original Hebrew but to be, in effect, a compressed commentary. It is a crystallization of Dr. Gordis’s almost always reasonable and frequently brilliant analysis and exegesis. As a result of these labors the notorious difficulties of the individual verses recede into the background. Dr. Gordis’s distinctive achievement is to have succeeded in replacing a complex text with a complex and fascinating thinker.
An estimate of Dr. Gordis’s work would not be complete without discussion of some of the larger questions of Biblical studies the very existence of his volume brings to the foreground. Until quite recently the relationship of Jewish scholarship to the modern study of the Bible has been largely a paradox. Though the first flourishing of Judische Wissenschaft was contemporary with the classical period of Bible criticism, Jewish scholars, quite evidently fearing the religious consequences of approaching the Sacred Canon with the new critical methods, almost abandoned the Book of Books to Christian investigators. However, the new study of the Bible could not be ignored indefinitely, both because the documentary hypothesis was becoming too well established and because, in the hands of Christian scholars, modern methods were producing, with all the prestige of seeming scientific validity, the old theological rabbit out of the hat, a reassertion of the inferiority of Biblical Jewish religion to the Christian dispensation. It was not without cause that Solomon Schechter snorted at the turn of the century that “the Higher Criticism is the Higher Anti-Semitism.” Except for those who remain undeviatingly orthodox, therefore, a Jewish Biblical criticism had become an indispensable necessity.
These crucial needs have so far been filled by Jewish scholarship in the 20th century in varying degrees. One thinks immediately of Yehezkel Kaufman’s great synthetic work still in progress, Toledot ha-Amunah he-Yisraelit (none of it is as yet available in English translation) and of Martin Buber’s contributions towards making the Revelation real for modern men.
However, with all due respect to the merits of the presently existing commentaries in both Hebrew and English, there is as yet nothing approaching a contemporary Rashi. The great merit of Dr. Gordis’s work on Koheleth is that it arouses such reflections. Implicit in his translation and commentary is an approach, compounded of a conservative respect for the text, a sense of the organic unity of the Jewish spirit, and a synthetic use of all modern Biblical disciplines, by which a significant contemporary Jewish interpretation of the whole of the Bible could be created.
One ventures to hope that it will be the first of a shelf of twenty-four comparable volumes which will present the Jew of today with his Bible.