Kohelet: The Best of All Possible Lives Without Torah

Rambling, Torah

Imagine you and a lover are trying to save your relationship, which is in danger of ending due to apathy and wandering eyes. You recite love poetry, even the Song of Songs, to each other, but to little effect. The endless metaphors about the fullness of being together versus the emptiness of being apart ring hollow.

You love each other more than you love your relationship, so you start to ask a new question: What would be the best possible lives each of us could lead if we were to break up? You fill in the blanks with what to the best of your understanding is the best of everything.

The wisdom of Solomon is commonly understood by Christians as a tough but ultimately charitable account of human frailty. Though expressions of “all is vanity” can be found throughout Hellenistic and Indian thought, Ecclesiastes’ place in the Bible has made it the go-to book for Christians exploring this worldview.

As received by USA pop culture, “to everything there is a season,” “que sera, sera,” and “namaste” are all synonyms for “chill.” “All is Vanity” would make for a fine motto to slap on credit cards.

Learned as the Jewish Kohelet rather than read as the Christian and/or philosophical Ecclesiastes, the book presents the best of all possible lives without Torah: a life of ardent, earnest pursuit of knowledge and experience that culminates in a feeling of passive contentment.

Without Torah, human beings can make the world no better or worse than it ever has been or will be. There can be no assurance of life after death, either as an afterlife or a remembrance of one’s name and accomplishments. It’s foolish to expect too much of the tool-making featherless biped. “To everything there is a season…” refers to the variety of experiences one goes through amidst life’s ups and downs.

With Torah, every human action has eternal consequences. One’s possessions, family, and reputation may or may not endure, but the mitzvot one has performed, which contribute to the constant renewal of creation and revelation, are eternal. “To everything there is a season…” refers to the sanctification of time through mitzvot.

The lovers conclude that the best of everything apart would be nothing compared to an ordinary or even an unpleasant moment together. Thus has the relationship between YHVH and Israel endured millennia of apathy and wandering eyes.

And the old school version…

And the really really old school version (“To everything…” starts at 16:13 and ends at 18:02)


Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?


An excess of style (or is it anti-style?) overcooks the movie until it’s plenty gooey. The filmmakers put in an abundance, perhaps even an excess, of effort, but chose to engage only in the kind of work that doesn’t feel like work: the hours spent in an editing room with mutually congratulatory friends at play. Such efforts produce satire that doesn’t bite and comedy that doesn’t tickle.


Dont Look Back


The other day I texted this to a friend:

“I really thought Dylan’s life was over. Until today I almost pitied his continued existence.”

She replied by asking which of our mutual acquaintances named Dylan I was talking about.

Dylan Thomas never won the Nobel Prize. Robert Zimmerman has yet to receive his comeuppance.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence


For Dr. Dann, whose kind words encouraged me to resume this blog.

This fever dream wrings the sweat out of  a question: What’s the difference between a gentle man and a gentleman? The English would-be gentleman struggles with how to be. The Japanese would-be gentleman struggles with how not to be. Such men are too ashamed to hope, too proud to fear, and too stubborn to know. The gentle man patiently endures the gentleman’s blows, wishing every day could be Christmas.

Eye in the Sky


Where morality is rational utility maximization, the best moralists are machines. They can reduce the risk of collateral damage to a number: unexpected consequences are re-cast as improbable results. They even excel at the all-too-human skill of recognizing faces.

This is as gentle a take on drone warfare as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was on racial strife. We enjoy omniscience through constant cuts across continents from battlefield to command centers. The terrorists are ticking time bombs right out of the textbook, and everyone else has only the best intentions. Discussion up and down the military-civilian chain of command often resembles a spirited Introduction to Ethics seminar at a nice college or law school—a far cry from Dr. Strangelove’s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Come to think of it, the terrorists are the only people we don’t get to hear, though the two Brits and one American likely record their martyrdom videos in English.

The movie’s focus on one drone strike and one innocent little girl puts it at a bliss point, kind of like a Dorito. The scenario is messy enough to be exciting, yet tidy enough not to be disturbing. The whole story could’ve been told in under ten minutes, leaving plenty of time to see many more drone strikes and their human consequences, both for those who control the Predators and those who are incinerated by the Hellfires.

You’re primed to leave with your date discussing not what it’s like to be a citizen of a nation pursuing perpetual global robowar, but how to balance the Good of the One with the Good of the Many. Kind of like one of those vapid personality puzzlers on the website that matched you up.