Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Troubling Texts II: "More Bitter Than Death"

In Wrestling With God & Men, Rabbi Steven Greenberg relates his personal practice of standing during the afternoon Torah reading on Yom Kippur, in anticipation of the words "you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination" (Lev. 18:22). One year, Greenberg writes, he asked to be called to the Torah for the aliyah containing those words.

Rabbi Greenberg's practice might seem masochistic, but it reminded me of one of my own. Whenever possible, I volunteer to read the seventh chapter of Qohelet on Sukkot. I do so because of the following passage:

Now, I find woman more bitter than death; she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares. He who is pleasing to God escapes her, and he who is displeasing is caught by her. See, this is what I found, said Qohelet, item by tiem in my search for the reason of things. As for what I sought further but did not find, I found only one human being in a thousand, and the one I found among so many was never a woman” (Qoh. 7:26-28).

This sort of depiction of women isn’t surprising coming from a patriarchal society. Some might say that as a result of women’s inferior status, they are forced to accomplish their goals by manipulating those in power, and then those in power view them as inherently dishonest and manipulative. . .

However, if one examines Qohelet as a whole, and at this chapter in particular, I think it becomes clear that underlying this passage is, more than a distrust of women, a distrust of emotion, particularly desire or passion. Even if women did not behave in manipulative ways, from the perspective of this chapter they would be "all traps," because, from a male heterosexual perspective, they are objects of desire, and desire is dangerous. It interferes with reason.

Qohelet often expresses ambivalence with regard to the tension between passion and reason. It is interesting to compare the passage in chapter seven to one in chapter nine:

Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun — all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun (Qoh. 9:7-9).

Here again, woman is presented from a male, heterosexual perspective, and again, she represents desire and its fulfilment. Yet now pleasure is viewed in a positive light. It is to be embraced either because it is a gift from God (v. 7), or because life is short, and there is little sense wasting it on sorrow.

These texts are particularly challenging for contemporary Jews, because the underlying ideas with which they deal are still very relevant to us. We are often torn between the notion that we should enjoy life and the idea that a life of pleasure may be a waste, and that love and passion can blind us and lead us to do foolish, destructive things. The reading and study of Qohelet can provide an opportunity for reflection on this tension. On the other hand, the way these ideas are presented in the text ignores the fact that women share this intellectual and emotional struggle. The text presents women as objects, as though our sole value lay in the nature of our relationships with men.

Is there an intellectually honest, ethical way to approach these texts that at the same time recognizes their inherent worth and respects their status within our religious tradition? I think that the most responsible approach to texts like these is to acknowledge their problematic aspects, while at the same time attempting to move beyond these aspects to find a deeper, more resiliant truth. In its extended, multi-faceted search for meaning within the seemingly meaningless, the book of Qohelet itself provides a model for the struggle to find inclusive meaning in an ancient work that is, in its plain sense, anything but inclusive.