“The Wisdom of King Solomon: A Contemporary Exploration of Ecclesiastes & The Meaning of Life” by Haim Shapira Ph.D., translated from Hebrew by Baruch Gefen. London: Watkins, 2018. 221 pages. $14.95.
I’m groggy, punch-drunk even, from reading this book. Each page seems to explode with ideas, philosophical questions dealing with the nature of humanity and our lives and destinies on earth.
It’s partly the nature of the work, which, as its title indicates, deals with the great Jewish philosopher and king, Solomon, who, despite historical evidence to the contrary, is assumed for the purposes of the book to have written Song of Songs, Proverbs and, most important for this work, Ecclesiastes. That is because, author Haim Shapira says, “the text acquires much more power” when we say “an almighty king” wrote it.
But more than that, the author himself is to blame for bombarding my brain in such an extraordinary way. He is an Israeli who has a two Ph.D.s (mathematical genetics and science education) and teaches mathematics, psychology, philosophy and literature. If that’s not jaw-dropping enough, he also is a concert pianist and has written seven best-sellers. Holy moly! Roll over Da Vinci and tell Einstein the news!
Not only are the author of the book and the assumed author of Ecclesiastes both geniuses, but many other wise and brilliant people make appearances here. Among those quoted in the book are Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the outstanding Israeli scientist and ethicist; Russian authors Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoevsky; preeminent Torah scholar Maimonides; American poet Walt Whitman; 17th-century
Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza; Greek philosopher Epicurus; and Scottish philosopher David Hume.
The book is a fascinating learning experience. One concept I found intriguing — and which is indispensable for analyzing Ecclesiastes — was the idea that both sides of a contradictory statement may be true. Shapira quotes Thomas Mann: “The opposite of a trivial truth is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.”
For example, writes the author, “Life is wonderful” and “life is horrible” are examples of two profound truths.
Ecclesiastes is both “life-affirming” and “deeply pessimistic.”
Ecclesiastes believed that getting old is “vanity and suffering.” But Shapira quotes from a major 32-year-long study showing that “Americans grow happier with age.”
Ecclesiastes has produced another “profound truth,” he notes, meaning that “‘ageing is happy’ is just as true.”
The author of that biblical book also notes that everything in life is temporary. That “the present moment is all we have” may be the primary lesson that that he is trying to teach us, says Shapira.
“Moments of joy, creation, wonder and exaltation all wither away, but that applies also to moments of pain, heartbreak, mourning for a loved one or any broken dream. Everything begins to fade the minute we first become aware of it… .”
Does age bring wisdom, as the old saw says? Probably not, writes Shapira, but sometimes experience does.
Wisdom is different from knowledge, he notes. “The latter can be handed down, the former cannot.”
“Knowledge can help us get along in life; wisdom can help us find meaningin life.”
Despite the complex subject matter, I felt comfortable with the ideas discussed in the book. Where there were difficulties, the author simplified. He notes, for example, that the French psychologist Jacques Lacan has devised the following formula to explain desire: Desire = Demand — Need.
At first, I found this difficult to grasp on a practical level. Then Shapira provided the following examples: If someone needs only four pairs of shoes, but has 77 pairs, subtract four from 77. The resulting 73 pairs are his desire for shoes. When we continue eating after our hunger has been satisfied, this is gluttony — or the desire for food.
I found The “Wisdom of King Solomon” to be breathtakingly stimulating. Having said that, I nevertheless wonder about the value of asking the questions this book poses. Sure, questions such as: Does life have any intrinsic meaning? Is there life after death? Does God exist? are questions that are not only relevant to us but to every person who has ever lived.
The problem is there are no answers — at least not for us normal human beings.
However, Mr. Holy Moly himself — whose credential-based genius was elevated in my eyes after reading the book — does try.
Life has no “a priori” meaning, he writes. “It is because life lacks meaning that we must give it our personal meaning, create a meaning of our own. Let me put it this way: the meaning of life is our attempt to find life’s meaning, and believing in the meaning we have given life is what makes life meaningful.”
Ignore the author’s playfulness with words and concentrate on what he’s saying. I think he may be onto something. It is certainly the way I have chosen to try to live.
But I think there is a logical problem imbedded in that solution.
In the beginning of Ecclesiastes, the biblical book’s author writes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Hevel, the Hebrew word for vanity, is usually translated as “pointless,” “futile” or “meaningless.” If all of life is “meaningless” — Shapira translates the word as “fleeting” — then wouldn’t our attempt to make it meaningful also be pointless?
Frankly, reading that some of the greatest minds in history have concluded that life is meaningless tended to depress me. I suspect it may have a similar effect on others, as well.
So, maybe our best course is to ignore such questions and concentrate on living good and joyous lives.
Maybe, we should leave the question of whether what we do in our lifetime is by its nature worthwhile or not to people who wonder how many angels can fit on the end of a pin.
Unless, of course, you get pleasure from thinking about the unknowable — or even enjoy encountering mind-stretching, intriguing ideas. If so, dash out and buy yourself a copy of this book.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.