Naked Questions

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Naked Questions/2 - Vanity in Hebrew is "habel", breath. That's what we are.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/11/2015

Logo QoheletWhen King Solomon was seated on the throne of his kingship, his heart was exalted, and he rejoiced in his riches. The Lord's anger was unleashed against him. He took the ring from his finger so he had to go as a vagabond and wandering in the world. He went to the cities of the land of Israel crying and pleading, and he said: 'I am Qoheleth', because his name had been Solomon before.. .

Targum, Ecclesiastes 1,12

All non-misleading wisdom is a chorus of different voices. A single voice, however sublime, is not sufficient to express the polyphony of life. Biblical wisdom is also plural, symphonic and colourful.

[fulltext] =>

It lives off of different traditions, where each develops their unique note that only resonates together with the others. If a note is missing, music is impoverished and becomes something else, it loses its harmony, beauty and depth. Only ideology is monotonic, singular and of a single colour. The hardest but essential task awaits those who approach the biblical text honestly, willing to be touched and contaminated by it, and it means keeping the Song of Songs and Job, or Daniel and Ecclesiastes together.

Ecclesiastes, in its originality and dissonance, lives and thinks within the realm of biblical humanism. It is its heir and successor. The beginning of the book - "The words of the Preacher (Qoheleth), the son of David, king in Jerusalem." (1.1) - already says a lot. Qoheleth, which is possibly a collective name, puts his words under the wings of the icon of biblical wisdom, Solomon ("son of David"). He tells us immediately that his speech will be about wisdom in the name of the wisest king of all. And if this book has remained in the Jewish and Christian canon it is because the ancient scribes and rabbis believed its author, they heard a biblical wisdom and truth in that different song.

Solomon and Jerusalem, chosen as first words, form the geographical and cultural discourse of Ecclesiastes. We're inside the biblical story, in the holy city. In every biblical text man is the adam, and the earth, the sun, the sea, the rivers are those of Genesis 1. Also for Qoheleth, who does not tell us - because in his world he did not need to say it, but we must know it as we begin to read it.

The generative reading of each page of the Bible is always, and perhaps only the first one. Memory must operate from the end to the beginning, not vice versa. To hope that those words actually speak to us we must listen to them as if for the first time. Starting from the most famous ones: "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (1,1-2).

New interpreters of Ecclesiastes continue to propose new translations of that ancient and terrible: habel habalim, hakkol habel: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The other Song of Songs.

Everything is habel: everything is smoke, breath, wind, steam, waste, absurd, empty, nothing. Smoke of smokes, wind of winds, breath of breaths, waste of wastes, absurd of absurds, everything is only an infinite nothing. However, the first thing that habel suggested to the old listener of the book of the Qoheleth before any other meaning was a name: Abel, the victim of the hand of Cain, the young man killed in the fields during the first dark night of the world, when the first blood to wet the soil was that of the first brother. Abel, whose life was short, just a breath, ephemeral, fragile, innocent, vulnerable, mortally wounded. Everything is Abel - so sings Qoheleth. Under the sun the earth is populated by countless Abels. The world is full of victims, innocent blood spilled, brotherhoods turned into fratricide. The human condition is short-lived just as the life of Abel was. It is but a breath of wind (ruah), and we will stay alive only if and until that invisible and delicate breath is alive. The adam of Ecclesiastes is not Cain: it is Abel. Before being a sinful man he is an ephemeral and fragile being, subject to death and transience.

It is against this background of fragility, which embraces all things "under the sun", that Ecclesiastes sees human labour and its profit, too: "What profit does a man have of all his labour which he takes under the sun?" (1,3). Work (amal) is seen as fatigue, distress, pain. And what was work in the Near East twenty-three centuries ago, if not fatigue and pain? The first image of workers that came to the biblical reader's mind was that of the brick manufacturers, the slaves in Egypt. And what is real work today for the vast majority of people, if not above all labour, distress, generating life through pain? The rest is mostly the romanticism and rhetoric of non-workers who observe the work of others from just too far away.

The word that Qoheleth places between habel and adam is yitron: profit. Profit is the first cultural word of the book, the perfect expression of that religion which promised and promises to win over the ephemeral human condition via economic success. These opening lines are not a moral on profits and the economy; but in choosing profit as the first human word Qohelet wanted to say something important to us. Yitron was a term of the economic language of the new religion of trade and easy gains. To express the vanity of life and work Qoheleth could have taken a word from the moral or theological dictionary. Instead he took it from the commercial one, to tell us that there is a close link between vanitas and the economy, and thus send a clear message to his culture which, like ours, saw the first care of vanity in profit and money, the first security when faced with the uncertainty of life, the first sign by which God blesses the non-vain life of the righteous. The first is vanity is to think that money can eliminate or radically reduce the vulnerability of human life.

Given the fragile and ephemeral existential condition of Adam, Ecclesiastes shows us the continuity of adamah, the earth: "One generation passes away, and another generation comes, but the earth abides for ever. The sun arises, and the sun goes down, and with desire returns to his place from which he arises again. The wind goes toward the south and turns about unto the north; it whirls about continually, and the wind returns again according to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, there they return again." (1,4-7)

Within this world of things that stay and remain, the adam feels the insufficiency of his words, of his sight and hearing: "All things are full of labour; more than man can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing." (1,8) The poverty of words, eyes and ears is the experience of the inability of humans to capture life, to really listen to the sounds of the world. We see through an opaque glass. We are in need of words, gazes and listening, and we do not access the deepest and truest things of life. It was true yesterday, and today it is even more so: we are immersed in the world of some extremely powerful tools to write, hear and see, but when we fall in love, suffer, or want to console a friend, we feel the ancient neediness of Qoheleth again. The powerful media do not reduce but rather amplify the exhaustion of words.

Man's life passes quickly in his deep poverty of time and knowledge. The land, the rivers, the seas stay there, however, in their mystery and timelessness. Here Qohelet takes us a little inside the heart of the man of ancient times, before science explained the "water cycle". In the mystery and awe he felt when, sitting on the bank of the river, he watched the eternal passing of the water, or when he was watching the estuary from a hill and wondered "how can the great sea water supply the small spring in the mountains?". And as he was looking at rivers and seas in their eternal cycle, that ancient man could see the old man and the baby die, and felt the fragility of his own breath which lived in him temporarily and he was not the master of it.

Ecclesiastes comes to us in an era that's full of innovations that have prolonged the duration of our breath, it talk to us who are drunk with a technology that wants us to master our last breath as well as the first one of our children. If we can intuit something of that ancient first look at the world and ourselves, if we hear our own passing and the staying of the earth, the stones, mountains and seas, a new reconciliation can flourish between the eternal and our finitude. We can become more manlike and more part of that remaining. The adam is both "a little less than Elohim" (Psalm 8) and just water vapour. He is the only one on the planet able to pray and think about the universe, but when facing the force and the "eternity" of a rock or a waterfall he feels he is like windswept cane. All ideologies and anthropological diseases arise when this ambivalence is skipped, when we can no longer hold together our infinite dignity with our infinite fragility. Each non-vain prayer rises as a cane under a sky that is hoped and believed not to be empty.

And when, sitting in the reed beds of our rivers that are now emptied of their mystery, we reach the verse: "and there is no new thing under the sun" (1,9), we can only join Qoheleth and say: it is true. "The thing that has been, it is that which shall be," a phrase that, perhaps, is a counterpoint to the unpronounceable and absent name - YHWH: "I am who I am and that will be."

And then we ask ourselves: in our existential dimension, are we really different from the first Adam, today? Where is the real novelty compared to Eve, Noah, Lamech? If we try to take a really thorough look at Syria, the Sinai, the train stations by night, Rome, how could we not repeat here and now: "Everything is an infinite Abel". Considering the anthropological ground (the one that Qoheleth is interested in), where are the innovations? "Is there any thing of which it may be said, See, this is new? (1,10) Where are you different from Cain and Abel, man of my time?

Qoheleth keps the question mark in his hand, and we cannot, nor do we want to take it from him. Each and every non-vain humanism must begin with that question mark to start the search for something new. The novelty of Abel who, this time, returns from the fields together with his brother, as well as of the fratricide that resuscitates as fraternity. And we should not stop walking in cities and deserts until we see the brothers together again.

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All’esperienza della finitezza della condizione umana si contrappone il restare della terra e del mare, che non poteva non colpire e stupire l’uomo antico e che ci interroga in questo tempo ebbro di tecnica. In che cosa siamo diversi noi da Abele, da Caino? Dove si trovano le novità sotto il sole? 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Naked Questions/2 - Vanity in Hebrew is "habel", breath. That's what we are.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 08/11/2015

Logo QoheletWhen King Solomon was seated on the throne of his kingship, his heart was exalted, and he rejoiced in his riches. The Lord's anger was unleashed against him. He took the ring from his finger so he had to go as a vagabond and wandering in the world. He went to the cities of the land of Israel crying and pleading, and he said: 'I am Qoheleth', because his name had been Solomon before.. .

Targum, Ecclesiastes 1,12

All non-misleading wisdom is a chorus of different voices. A single voice, however sublime, is not sufficient to express the polyphony of life. Biblical wisdom is also plural, symphonic and colourful.

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Everything is an Infinite Abel

Naked Questions/2 - Vanity in Hebrew is "habel", breath. That's what we are. by Luigino Bruni published in Avvenire on 08/11/2015 When King Solomon was seated on the throne of his kingship, his heart was exalted, and he rejoiced in his riches. The Lord's anger was unleashed against him. He took the ...
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    [title] => In search of those who seek the truth
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Naked Questions/1 A biblical book in which finally there is a place for anyone

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/11/2015

Logo QoheletThe Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) is an ascetic book, the only really and seriously ascetic one - although without any mandates for fasting and abstinence - of the Hebrew canon. Job alone can be mentioned as equal to it, in terms of altitude. But the "blows" of Qoheleth hit harder, they crush mundane science made velvety by its metaphors. It extinguishes a good number of unnecessary troubles, it does not leave the flame of knowledge go extinct, notwithstanding all its mockery and enmity with the transcendent.

Guido Ceronetti, Qohélet. Colui che prende la parola (The One Who Speaks Up)

Some books are especially valuable in times of individual and collective transition. They help a lot to gain an in-depth understanding of the nature of the crises which we live, to give words to the emotions, feelings and pain in us. They illuminate dark areas to which only the greatest of our words can give a name to call them, to shed light on them.

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To resurrect them. How could we have learnt to talk and look into each other's eyes again after the wars and holocausts, if we had not had the Divine Comedy, the Songs of Leopardi, the Demons by Dostoevsky, Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, Hugo's Les Miserables, The Stranger by Camus, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi? These and some other great books always produce the same wonderful effect of Aeschylus, who with the Persians was able to make Athenians cry by bringing them to identify with the pain of the Persians they had defeated in battle. These myths and these books reconstruct what politics cannot; they heal wounds that seem incurable by kissing them and regenerate a new human brotherhood.

Furthermore, some books are not only valuable in times of crisis: they are essential. When the world is over and the new one is still not in sight, the "Holy Saturdays" of the existence of persons and peoples, the company of a few books become the daily bread of the soul. Quoheleth (Ecclesiastes) is one of these. I have always been fascinated by this book that's so different from all the other biblical texts, and may be placed only next to Job, a few pages of Jeremiah, Isaiah, the Psalms, or the Gospel of Mark. It is a book whose reading can change one's life, it can introduce us to a new and adult kind of faith and humanity. With and like Job, Ecclesiastes is a deep and efficacious treatment of two major illnesses of all faiths, religious and secular alike: ideology, and the search for easy consolation in trivial answers to difficult and tremendous questions.

Ecclesiastes was written for anyone who wants to save their life and themselves from the eternal temptation of ideology. Religious men and those who are sensitive to the workings of the spirit, begin their story of faith following the voice that calls them, they start following it with other companions and fellow travellers, and then create institutions to guard and serve the voice throughout history. However, the invincible tendency-temptation not to settle for the nudity of only that voice does not fail to arrive, too, and soon around the first faith of the fathers the ideology of the children is born. This is how religions are formed, where among the good seed of faith the chaff of the ideology of faith also builds up in the years and centuries, and in time it grows and multiplies. And if there hadn't been prophets and wise men to save the good grain, each in their own way, the chaff would have covered all of the wheat to choke it. This dynamic is true for all religious and even secular faiths, where, if it is not idolatry, prophets and wise men can be found, who serve as the main prevention from and treatment of ideologies. With Job and Ecclesiastes the biblical tradition of wisdom reaches a very high, perhaps insurmountable, peak and becomes a universal gift for all women and men who seek to protect their faith from ideology. Ideology is the death of faith because every religious ideology is always idolatry, it is the transformation of YHWH in the golden calf. That is how faiths become ethics, guides to good civil social life, pious practices, collections of false consolations, economic religions.

Ecclesiastes, just like and together with Job, is the Grand Inquisitor and confuter of retributive religion, of the idea that's so deeply rooted in his (and our) culture claiming that the righteous are rewarded with goods, good health, children and providence, and that the wicked become unfortunate and poor because they are guilty of their own sin or that of their ancestors. Reading Ecclesiastes naked and unarmed is an antidote to the old-new meritocratic idolatry that keeps invading business, politics, civil society, and now even some sectors of the churches without encountering any resistance.

Ideologies are collective enterprises, but they are also individual creations, because every believer produces their own ideology, which nestles in the heart of their religious experience. Faith and ideology grow together, intertwined into each other, and only hard and deliberate work can - and must - sometimes distinguish the two, separating and penetrating the blade into the fibres to cut and cure and get back to listening, turned poor and meek again.

The production of false (because easy) consolations is a typical fruit of faith that’s become ideological. Artificial, safe and clear paradises are invented instead of the real one that's uncertain and mysterious, and illusions are generated because of the inability to process the disappointments in every faith that's not vain.

The Bible - Jewish and Christian - kept Ecclesiastes among its most valuable books, a book where there is no YHWH, nor the faith of the Patriarchs, we do not see the promised land, there is neither Moses nor his Law. If the Bible has Ecclesiastes, then in the heart of biblical humanism there is a place for anyone who like "He who speaks in the assembly" (that is, Qoheleth, Ecclesiastes) poses the most extreme, radical, naked and scandalous questions to life and faith - some of them so inconvenient that various ancient publishers and editors of the text felt the need to modify them.

The presence of Ecclesiastes in the heart of the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition is a wound, because reading through Ecclesiastes is not generative if we do not feel the pain – ours and that of our world - as we encounter his words. But, like many fertile wounds, this presence is also an opening of the Bible towards every man and woman who seeks the truth, even for those who do not feel the need to give a religious name to this search. Seen from the window of Ecclesiastes biblical humanism comes out and comes down to the last doubtful human lover and seeker of truth, too; but through this window it is the entire humanity that has come and continues to come into the Bible, and once entered they have always made it more beautiful, more human, more real with their honest humanity, redressing it with the flesh and blood of those who did not understand Isaiah or the Gospel of Mark, but understood and loved the one who sang about vanitas.

The book of Ecclesiastes was written in Israel during the Greek conquest, when a great empire was imposing its language and culture over the people. Some Jewish intellectuals were fascinated by this new world and its values - by ​​the pursuit of happiness, profit, beautiful bodies, pleasure and youth. There were, however, some who saw the profound crisis of the culture of Israel in this "globalization". Ecclesiastes was among the latter ones, and the reading of his book is perhaps a most useful meditation necessary for those who today, in a new age of globalization and standardization of values, want to think about the nature of the new world and its dogmas more in depth. Ecclesiastes is an invaluable travel companion for anyone who tries to take a non-ideological and cold-headed approach to the dogmas and cults that have been the deceivers of empires dominating us. The great strength of this ancient book consists in its unique ability to see what appears new and fascinating in its nakedness, without yielding a centimetre to the moral need of consolation for the world as it is. This ancient anonymous author had the strength and ethical and spiritual courage to ask radical questions to his world in crisis, questions that can speak with immense strength and depth, even to us, today. It awakens the desire in us to think without fear and with courage about our own empires and enslavement to the idols of pleasure and money.

Qoheleth is a loyal guide for building an adult life that is not ideological but true, he is an uncomfortable and sometimes disconcerting friend who loves us because he does not give up until we attempt to answer his painful and liberating questions.

When the day comes - and woe to us if it does not come! - in which the veil of the first faith falls and life is revealed, all that have added up to our spiritual and ideal experience appear as mere comedy or tragedy. Our comrades of yesterday become just actors and masks in a script written by nobody, a piece of the theatre of the absurd, with us as the protagonists. We find ourselves suddenly alone on an empty stage, with the sets dismantled and lowered. On this dramatic and beautiful day, there open two possibilities for us. We can begin to write ourselves, this time intentionally, a script for a new comedy-tragedy. And so we transform the stage, which, until recently we thought was real life, into our unique new life. The theatre becomes life. We cannot bare the nudity of the empty and desolate stage, and so we become writers, directors and actors of our comedy. We deny and flee reality, and to survive we enter voluntarily in our version of The Truman Show. The second possibility consists in wanting to finally begin spiritual life: we leave the theatre and begin to walk along the streets of the world, and begin to look for a new faith inside the real pains and joys of real people around us.

We discover the Book of Job, the Psalms, and begin to read and sing from them. And then, sometimes, we find Qoheleth, and with the clay of its true nothing we begin to shape the bricks to build our new home. Qoheleth does not guide us in building a cathedral, it only trains us to be the craftsmen of a house for people who no longer want to live inside a consolatory fiction. A sober house with no idols in it, where one day, perhaps, we can also learn to pray again.

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Qohelet è una guida sicura per la costruzione di una casa sobria e senza idoli, libera dalle risposte banali e consolatorie. 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Naked Questions/1 A biblical book in which finally there is a place for anyone

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 01/11/2015

Logo QoheletThe Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) is an ascetic book, the only really and seriously ascetic one - although without any mandates for fasting and abstinence - of the Hebrew canon. Job alone can be mentioned as equal to it, in terms of altitude. But the "blows" of Qoheleth hit harder, they crush mundane science made velvety by its metaphors. It extinguishes a good number of unnecessary troubles, it does not leave the flame of knowledge go extinct, notwithstanding all its mockery and enmity with the transcendent.

Guido Ceronetti, Qohélet. Colui che prende la parola (The One Who Speaks Up)

Some books are especially valuable in times of individual and collective transition. They help a lot to gain an in-depth understanding of the nature of the crises which we live, to give words to the emotions, feelings and pain in us. They illuminate dark areas to which only the greatest of our words can give a name to call them, to shed light on them.

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In search of those who seek the truth

Naked Questions/1 A biblical book in which finally there is a place for anyone by Luigino Bruni published in Avvenire on 01/11/2015 The Book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) is an ascetic book, the only really and seriously ascetic one - although without any mandates for fasting and abstinence - of the He...