In the second chapter of Ecclesiastes (in Hebrew: Kohelet) we find this assertion:
I found that wisdom is superior to folly, as light is superior to darkness;
A wise man has his eyes in his head, whereas a fool walks in darkness.
But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both.
So I reflected: “The fate of the fool is also destined for me; to what advantage, then, have I been wise?”
And I came to the conclusion that that too was futile, because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies, just like the fool!
And so I loathed life, for I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is futile and pursuit of wind.Ecclesiastes 2:13-17
The stream-of-consciousness style of Kohelet’s writing may be intimately familiar to many of us. It reflects the chaotic way our brains wander through worries, especially the largest and most existential. “What’s the point of all this?” we ask, as every potential solution is considered and rejected in the same instant. Our answers to the Big Questions about the point or purpose or meaning of existence in the confusing mess of our world often start from a place of reason but then divert into confusion and — at times — despair.
Kohelet tries over and over to wrestle with experiences and emotions in order to understand if and how life might be meaningful. This is well illustrated in the opening quotation of this piece. In a matter of six verses our narrator finds wisdom superior to ignorance, realizes that we’re all going to die, wonders at the pointlessness of wisdom if the wise die along with the foolish, and ends up in an emotional place we might recognize as anxious or depressed.
There is, however, a strange optimism in Kohelet. The narrator does not sink into permanent despair but continues to search. Throughout the book we see repeated oscillation between jealousy of the unborn because they “do not witness the miseries that go on under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:3) and revelry in worldly pleasure and in companionship, for “two are better off than one … for should they fall one can raise the other… a threefold cord is not readily broken” (Kohelet 4:9–12). This pattern repeats many times in Kohelet’s musings: All is futile. ––> Some things are pretty good. ––> But we’re all going to die. –––> All is futile.
Explore Kohelet’s most famous expression of futility, commonly translated “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Kohelet is far from alone. The struggle to find meaning in life has animated philosophers for centuries. While much of the ancient and medieval focus was on attaining virtue in a world that made sense according to widely accepted beliefs like the existence of a deity and the worthiness of virtue, the so-called “existentialists” of the 19th and 20th centuries faced a different reality. Those beliefs were no longer widely held. The existentialists, then, much like Kohelet, tended to focus on the self, the individual who encounters a bewildering world, and how they are to be in relation to the world. A focus on the emotions that come along with existence is typical of this strain of thought. Philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in their own ways address the confused and directionless state of being for the modern person. They each proposed answers to the Big Questions: What is the point of being? Can we live meaningful lives? If so, how?
These questions are distilled most poignantly by Albert Camus, who declared that “[t]here is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, p. 3). Either we find some meaning in life, or life is — as Kohelet says over and over again — futile. And if life is futile, why try to keep living?
An attempt to answer these existential questions using the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, and with an eye towards Judaism as a potential provider of meaning, might be called “Jewish existentialism.” Kohelet and Job may be the first Jewish existentialists — both of them try to overcome the disorienting experience of living. Kohelet proposes at least three prospects for living well: To enjoy the fruits of labor when we are living (Ecclesiastes 3:22; 5:18-19), to develop close relationships with other people (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12), and to obey the law and will of God (Ecclesiastes 8:5-15; 12:13-14).
But these are only a starting point. Again in the 20th century, inspired by both philosophical trends and these foundational Jewish texts, several brilliant Jewish minds attempted to renegotiate the relationship of the Jew to Judaism, each trying to fill the void of meaninglessness so eloquently described in Kohelet. Martin Buber and Joseph Soloveitchik championed two different approaches to Jewish meaning-making in the post-enlightenment era — arguing for autonomous individual encounters with the Divine, and structured legalistic adherence to tradition, respectively, as paths towards authentic Jewish meaning-making. Emmanuel Levinas takes a more accessible route towards building meaning — asking what our relationships require of us ethically.
Soloveitchik (1903-1993), like many existentialists before him, occasionally denies that he is an existentialist. Yet, the struggles he describes are existential in nature. He beautifully lays out the tragedy of the “lonely man of faith” who is estranged from the world at large. This figure, committed to belief in God and devoted to a life of Jewish observance, is yet alienated and lonely. Perhaps taking his cue from Kohelet, Soloveitchik stresses that approaching the world through the framework of halakhah (Jewish law) and finding solace in a “covenantal community” is the only path forward. For Soloveitchik, this path is not one that leads directly to personal redemption and a meaningful living, instead it’s about finding meaning in the struggle to reconcile the disparate parts of oneself, and meaning in the struggle to relate to God through Jewish law, and to people through community. Soloveitchik focuses on law and community as the primary modes of approaching ever elusive authentic meaning and closeness to the divine. In this way, he finds himself not far from Kohelet’s famously affirming final verses:
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe his commandments! For this applies to all humanity: that God will call every creature to account for all their conduct, be it good or bad.Ecclesiastes 12:13–14
Martin Buber (1878–1965) is most famous for his claim that all relationships are either “I-It” — wherein one relates to the other as an object, merely a means to an end — and “I and Thou,” a relationship in which two parties encounter each other in full. Buber argues that powerful “I-Thou” relationships are the key to meaningful living. Animated by a profound desire to approach divinity, he builds a compelling (if at times confusing) philosophy of “dialogue”. The path to meaningful living lies in creating effective dialogue — that is to say, relationships — between two individuals. While Soloveitchik frames Jewish life with respect to adherence to divine law and commitment to community, Buber believes that strict legalism in fact impedes true connection between the individual and God, and even between two individuals. Authentic I-Thou relationships with other people and with the divine are the only way we can fully realize ourselves, which is the ultimate purpose of our lives.
Read a short excerpt from Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou.
Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) takes Buber’s philosophy of dialogue at least one step further. He argues that in a post-Holocaust world, a focus on individual relationships, on seeing the other as an individual with a rich inner life, is the ultimate principle by which we ought to live. For Levinas philosophy begins with concern for the other. The Nazis did not consider the Jews to be people in the full sense of the word, but we must learn from that. We are obligated to treat others with utter hospitality. Both Buber and Levinas think about the individual in relation to others — to be by oneself is not to be at all.
The narrator of Kohelet reminds over and over that nothing is new under the sun. These existential struggles and musings are no different. While the author of Kohelet could not have anticipated the ways that contemporary living would drain away our systems for creating meaning, the questions they pose are eternally relevant. It falls on us to figure out how to make our lives meaningful, and as luck would have it, there is a large and growing tradition of Jewish approaches to meaningful living. All need not be futile.
If you or someone you love is in danger of death by suicide, please contact the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Starting in July of 2022, American callers will be able to dial 9-8-8 to reach this hotline.