Ecclesiastes Is an Affirmation of Life and the Power of Wisdom, Not an Expression of Despair

Oct. 10 2017

The book of Ecclesiastes—traditionally read in many Jewish congregations on the holiday of Sukkot—purports to be the reflections on life of an aging king, identified as “Kohelet son of David” and traditionally believed to be King Solomon. While the book is often understood by modern readers as being at odds with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, sharing more in common with ancient Greek or pagan thought than with Judaism, Ethan Dor-Shav argues that it in fact rejects pagan attitudes and presents a uniquely Jewish view of life (2004).

Whereas all the great emperors and kings of old strove to achieve eternal life by erecting grand monuments to themselves, Kohelet understands that such attempts are illusory. He is therefore forced to pose the elementary question: if I die anyway, why does anything matter? His first word, however, is not his last. For there are numerous passages in Ecclesiastes that move in the opposite direction. They affirm, for example, the positive value of a joyful life. The same Kohelet who appears to say so often that “all is vanity” [or, in more modern translations, “futility”], also exclaims that “there is nothing better than man rejoicing,” and that “nothing is better for man under the sun than to eat, drink, and be joyful.” . . . Similar verses can also be found that affirm the importance of action in this world, as well as the acquisition of wisdom—verses that do not square well with the belief that all is vanity. . . .

Ultimately, if there is an underlying message in the book of Ecclesiastes, it is this: that only in understanding the transience of life do we attain the beginning of wisdom; and, in turn, only through the wisdom derived from our experience of life can we in some way take part in that which is eternal. The importance of wisdom is mentioned repeatedly in Ecclesiastes. . . . Kohelet realizes that true wisdom is the one thing that is not dependent on transient circumstances. Yet all of the transient circumstances in this world serve as the means of acquiring it. . . .

Neither Solomon’s riches, nor his power, nor even his monumental temple in Jerusalem survived under the sun. What has indeed lasted, however, is the legacy of his wisdom, embodied in the book of Ecclesiastes. This belief in knowledge as the highest form of spirituality has served as the Jewish torch throughout the ages. And no small measure of that light is reflected in the understanding that only ideas can defy time, transforming the world.

Read more at Azure

More about: Ecclesiastes, Hebrew Bible, Judaism, Religion & Holidays

Winning Islam’s War of Ideas, Saudi-Style

March 19 2018

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. policymakers have understood the need to confront jihadism not only militarily but also ideologically; yet, writes John Hannah, they have had little success. Now Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’ reformist crown prince, appears willing and able to take up the fight, and Hannah urges Washington to support his efforts:

By an order of magnitude, al-Qaeda in 2018 enjoys a larger presence in more countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia than it did the day the Twin Towers were felled. . . . What’s consistently been missing from America’s strategy have been powerful partners in the Muslim world who can reliably be counted on to speak out authoritatively on matters of Islamic theology in ways that the United States simply cannot. That’s where Saudi Arabia comes in. It’s the birthplace of Islam and host to the faith’s two holiest mosques. Combined with abundant oil wealth, these assets bestow on the Saudis a measure of soft-power influence unrivaled in the Muslim world. . . .

For months, the crown prince and his closest advisers have relentlessly hammered the theme that Saudi Arabia’s modernization requires an embrace of “moderate Islam.” He’s slammed the extremist ideology that the kingdom did so much to empower after the Iranian revolution and acknowledges that “the problem spread all over the world.” . . . At home, the powers of the kingdom’s notorious religious police have been scaled back. Prominent hardline clerics have been jailed. On the all-important issue of female empowerment, the pace of change has been breathtaking. . . .

Now the U.S. imperative should be pressing Mohammed bin Salman to take his campaign for moderate Islam on the road. . . . There should be multiple elements to such an effort, but some immediate tasks come to mind. First, school textbooks. The Saudis promised to eliminate the hate-filled passages a decade ago. Progress has slowly been made, but the job’s still not done. Mohammed bin Salman should order it finished—this year. Behind the scenes, U.S. experts should provide verification.

Second, working with trusted partners in indigenous communities known for their religious moderation, the Saudis should conduct a thorough audit of the global network of mosques, schools, and charitable organizations that they’ve backed with an eye toward weeding out radical staff and content. Third, [they should] initiate a worldwide buyback of Saudi-distributed mistranslations of the Quran and other religious materials notorious for propagating extremist narratives.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Moderate Islam, Politics & Current Affairs, Radical Islam, Saudi Arabia, War on Terror