If I ever win the privilege of travelling back in time to a date and location of my choice, I want to spend a day observing the original editors of the Hebrew Bible at their remarkable task. Whoever they were and whenever they met, (I’d have difficulty giving the time-cab pilot clear instructions) they were people of extraordinary courage.
They could have said ‘No way!’ and left out the Book of Job which challenges God’s justice, offering no clear answers. They could have said ‘Impolitic, the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks are too busy attacking us already!’ and omitted the piercingly self-critical prophecies of Amos and Jeremiah. They could have said ‘Definitely not!’ and consigned Kohelet’s relentless questioning to the undiscovered dustbin of history’s lost masterpieces.
They did no such thing. Instead, they put the most difficult issues right in the heart of the sacred canon, making it everyone’s contemporary for all time, whatever the issues he, she, the entire community, or humanity itself has to face.
It’s customary to read Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on the Sabbath in the middle of Succot, – that is, tomorrow. Who he was, when he was, and the bottom line of what he actually meant, – these questions remain open to perennial debate.
But one thing is certain. The author was ardent in the relentless pursuit of truth:
I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom (1:13)
Unlike so many protected by privilege, he did not hide behind the walls of the castles and gardens he built with such profligacy:
Behold the tears of the oppressed; they have no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors is power (4:10)
Most radically of all, he refused all easy answers, questioning whether life has any enduring meaning whatsoever:
Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. (1:2)
This is, in effect, the strap-line of the book; it’s tantamount to testing every insight by multiplying it by zero and puzzling over the results. He refuses to be fooled.
These courageous qualities of Kohelet struck me forcibly this week for their sharply contemporary message, on two counts.
The first is the decision, taken by vote by UNESCO’s 58-member executive, that there is no ancient and integral relationship between Judaism and the Temple Mount. A fact doesn’t cease to be a fact because a wilfully ignorant group prefers it to be a fiction. The vote is by no means a unique occurrence; it is symptomatic of a civilizational drift away from empiricism towards mythology. It is a sign of the frightening reality that what matters today is all too often not what is, but in whose story it gets wrapped up.
The second is the 50th commemoration of the Aberfan disaster. I remember vividly the day when the huge coal-tip buried alive 116 children and 28 adults. Horror, grief and pity gripped the nation. What I didn’t know then was the slow and laborious manner in which the truth had to be dragged out of the National Coal Board that such a disaster could, and should, have been foreseen. Nor was I aware that the funds to remove the remaining pile of slag, and others like it, which terrified the surviving children were partly taken from the very moneys raised to support the victims, and that it was decades before they were repaid.
Should truth and responsibility cease to matter, lies and injustice will rule. When anyone with sufficient courage tries to call them to account, they will hide behind the virtually impenetrable barriers of fiction and unaccountability.
Therefore, let the voice of Kohelet speak out, probing, questioning, challenging and fearless for the truth.