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.


Tim said...

I'm not Jewish, but the texts I wrestle with include these, I'd like to thank you for a way into a very difficult set. Your approach is lovely because it both takes seriously the otherness and imperfection of the text (because of its human author and his situation etc.) but also takes seriously the notion that it may still have something to say to/teach us... Thank you!

fleurdelis28 said...

I've always figured that Qohelet is clearly presented as a combination of both universally applicable philosophy and "one guy's perspective." It's not pure, abstract wisdom, it's "divrei Qohelet," who may be wise but is also of a specific gender and set of life experiences. (Which is, I think, an asset -- the specific is always more broadly meaningful, in the end, than the general.) He changes his mind back and forth about the issues he's pondering, but he always views them from the perspective of who he is, and he isn't a woman. He also isn't young, or poor, and these both inform his perspective.

You ask whether there is "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," but is it necessary in this case to reconcile and agree with everything said? Is it dishonest not to? This isn't the Torah, and it doesn't claim to provide particularly satisfying or definitive answers; the focus is on asking questions and considering the possible alternatives, and the book is important because the questions are timeless, not because of the tentative answers it provides. Qohelet draws a lot of conclusions that Judiasm does not, as a belief system, hold by, and he's quite willing to change his own mind (and this is ignoring the end of the last chapter altogether). Most things he says are both completely true and not true at all, though regardless they ring true as examples of human thought in a certain frame of mine. Maybe the problem is that there's no representation from a similarly cynical woman?

elf said...

Tim: I'm glad that you found this meaningful.

fleurdelis28 asked:
but is it necessary in this case to reconcile and agree with everything said?

I don't think that it's necessary to agree with Qohelet, but I do think that it's worthwhile to try to find value in the text. As you suggest, that value may lie more in the questions posed than in the answers presented.

fleurdelis28 said...

You know, I wonder whether one useful approach to Qohelet might be to ask not "how can I answer these questions?" but "is there anything I can do to help other people not have/answer these questions?" -- which might be the ultimate answer. Qohelet is frequently very incisive about the human condition, but in having done everything under the sun he doesn't seem (off the top of my head) to have actually connected much with other people, both women and men, in more than an instrumental way. Maybe he'd find better answers if he stopped thinking so much about himself.

Anonymous said...

While Kohelet* offers advice for the masses, he does not hold himself out as an Everyman. Regardless of one's view of the Solomonic pseudonym mesorah, the text we have explicitly identifies Kohelet as a king. The experiences and cultural expectations of a monarch in this era would be consistent with a view of women (and people generally) quite different from contemporary sensibilities.

I'm not saying this translates into an absence of discomfort, and I know one could file the observation under "apologetics," but I think it bears mentioning nevertheless.

* Sorry, I like the Q's but I find their quteness grates with repetition.


Mar Gavriel said...

You posted!

I don't have time to write a detailed response right now 9maybe tomorrow), but once you're thinking about being troubled by Qoheleth, check out what LabRab wrote a few days ago: here.

Michael said...

How different would Qohelet be if he had been a she?

Is it nutty to speculate that except for substituting "man" for "woman" her views would be the same (e.g. "I find man more bitter than death..."). If so, why?

Erica said...

Having made my choice about whether or not I wanted an ascetic life, I might be biased in my response. But despite identifying with the tension you describe, I find the quote from Qohelet Chapter 7 significantly more problematic.

Bear with me, this isn't a complete tangent.

"I find woman more bitter than death" -- based on how you describe the context, this strikes me as the words of someone who is terrified of not achieving, or not wanting to achieve, what they consider to be their full potential. I associate this, in my own experience, with a sort of brittle grip on the need to live up to something that you suspect you can never live up to. I say "brittle" because, in this case, if the need to avoid pleasure and emotion is as strong as it appears to me, based on the language of that one passage, it's almost certainly an accurate fear.

So my thought is as follows: woman, in the Chapter 7 quote, is not considered to be a human being with thoughts and desires of her own. The speaker is talking about some concept of his own and calling it "woman". It is distinctly unfeminist and sexist to do that, true. But if I'm going to engage with his argument, I end up classifying it as an allegory, in which "woman" doesn't have anything to do with women, but rather is redefined as a set of his fears. And he projects that set of fears onto women either because he associates his fears with sex and/or marriage or as a side effect of the ways that Judaism of the time treated women.

fleurdelis28 said...

How different would Qohelet be if he had been a she?

Is it nutty to speculate that except for substituting "man" for "woman" her views would be the same (e.g. "I find man more bitter than death..."). If so, why?

I think a female Qohelet would be as cynical, though she might phrase her complaints differently. Bitter women and bitter men differ a bit in their classic complaints about the opposite sex as a whole, though off the top of my head I couldn't give examples. Well, I guess one would be that a woman would probably be less likely to describe men as being inherently traps.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Speaking of a hypothetical feminine Qohelet, in 7:27 which you quoted, unique in the entire book, Qohelet the name — which looks like a feminine noun, but is always used with masculine verbs — is actually here used with a feminine verb.

Re’ei ma matzati, amera Qohelet...
See what I found, says (F!) Qohelet...

I always read that as Qohelet giving a subtle hint, "just because i've had bad experience with women, don't think that i hate them all as a gender."

Whether that's accurate or not, though, i have no idea.

Mar Gavriel said...


I don't quite get your derosh.

And as for peshot, Rashi says that the feminine gender is because the word refers to "רוח הקדש שנקהלה בו", and רוּחַ is feminine.

And I have seen a textual emendation that argues that the words have been misdivided:

אמר הַקהלת


אמרה קהלת

fleurdelis28 said...

If the Ruach HaKodesh's feelings on the world are similar to those expressed by Kohelet, it would be very discouraging but maybe explain a lot.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Qohelet is refering to himself with a femininely-gendered verb, which fits the form of his name/title if not his own assumed sex/gender.

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