Friday, September 17, 2010

The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is my non-dualist hero.

He has just published a commentary on Kohelet. I'm very pleased about this updated translation and commentary on Ecclesiastes, revised a decade after his first work with the book, The Way of Solomon. The new book, it seems, is a more literal translation of Ecclesiastes. I hope that in the process he doesn't water down the starkly beautiful non-duality of the original.

Shapiro explains In the Way of Solomon that "We are waves of the divine, of the Infinite, of God. Ecclesiastes is King Solomon's attempt to reveal the illusion of separateness and awaken us to the wonder and unity [of reality]."

This seems like an eastern take on the book, of course. In the Jewish and Christian tradition, Ecclesiastes has often been interpreted as a depressing book, influenced by dour Greek philosophy. But what Shapiro does in his translation (really a re-rendering) is tease out a meaning more deeply latent in the work. He does this by stretching the translation of the Hebrew words to their limits, to drag new interpretations out of the text.

This is not as uncommon as you might think. For instance, in the tradition of translating the Tanakh into Aramaic, this was extensively done with concepts of God's body; literal translations of these concepts were substituted for more metaphorical ones. This is common with Hasidic homilies as well. Writers would take a Hebrew word, break it apart, and put it back together, to give it new shape and meaning. So Shapiro is firmly in the Jewish tradition here.

He takes Kohelet and gives it a decided Taoist flavor; again, not uncommon in the Jewish tradition. From Philo to Maimonides, HaLevi to Mendelssohn, Jews have always reached out to other cultures to borrow elements and make them decidely Jewish.

Take the well known opening of Kohelet. Here is Shapiro's rendering:

Emptiness! Emptiness upon Emptiness
The world is fleeting of form
Empty of permanence
Void of surety
Without certainty
Like a breath breathed once and gone
All things rise and fall

Here is the King James translation (with some text removed, for Shapiro has taken away lines to eliminated repetition)

Vanity of vanities... all is vanity
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh...
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things to come with things that shall come after...
All things run into the sea; yet the sea is not full...

As you can see, Shapiro takes very specific, grounded images of life's impermanence, and makes them general. Nothing is stable. This is not a bad thing that should cause anxiety. We should look at the lack of stability as the chance to free ourselves from useless desire.

For Shapiro, there is no self, no soul, no ego, no I, no world (as we envision it) no God out there (as we imagine Him-Her-It); there is existence, and we are an impermanent part of it. It is ever expanding, growing, changing, adding, subtracting. Letting go our our surety of stable existence is the key to the garden.

Try viewing things this way. This turns out to be a very difficult conceptual project to pursue.

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