Kohelet: A Biography of a Book
This talk, which is a work in progress, will highlight several aspects of Ecclesiastes’ literary features, including the question of whether the book has a structure, as well as the terms hevel (הבל), time (עת), occurrence (יקרה) and meeting (פגע), that have created and made possible the text’s long and varied reception history. The talk will also argue that however one ultimately understands its meaning, Ecclesiastes and its many afterlives help us today to avoid overly simplistic conceptions of “the secular” and “the religious.”
Ecclesiastes is arguably the most surprising and radical book in the Hebrew Bible. Its eponymous speaker, hereafter referred to as Kohelet, repeatedly proclaims that all is “hevel,” often translated alternatively as vanity, futility, or absurdity. Kohelet challenges basic features of what may be described broadly as a biblical world view as well as the Hebrew Bible’s central narrative. The Bible posits a God who, in the beginning, creates the world, and the human being as the pinnacle of creation, and subsequently establishes a moral order. The principal drama of the Hebrew Bible revolves around God’s covenant with the people of Israel and the people’s repeated failure to live up to their obligation to remember their covenant with God who both created the world and took them out of Egypt. With his famous claim that there is nothing new under the sun (1:9), Kohelet implies that there are no new beginnings (1:4). Instead, there is only a continual cycle of life and death. In this, Kohelet intimates, the human being does not have a unique status in the world. In contrast to the Bible’s repeated exhortation to remember, Kohelet repeatedly states that nothing and no one will be remembered (1:11). And all of this is just in Ecclesiastes’ first chapter.
Leora Batnitzky is Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion at Princeton University, where she also directs Princeton’s Program in Judaic Studies. She has degrees from Barnard College, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Princeton University and has been a visiting professor at Tokyo University, the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Cardozo Law School. She is the author of several books on modern Jewish thought, including How Judaism Became a Religion, and numerous articles and book chapters spanning modern Jewish and Christian thought, modern legal and political theory, and hermeneutics and the history of interpretation. She is currently completing three book projects, the first on the Jewish apostate and Catholic saint, Edith Stein, the second on the different afterlives of the book of Ecclesiastes, and the third on contemporary conversion controversies in Israel and India.
Cosponsors: Department of Classical & Near Eastern Religions & Cultures and the Religious Studies Program