Alive in Paradox

Artwork by Irene Mamiye
Artwork by Irene Mamiye

As I thought about elu v’elu, I rather quickly turned to Ecclesiastes, perhaps the most enigmatic and unsettling book of the Bible, riddled with paradoxes. The book’s absurd contradictions read like an existentialist’s stream-of-consciousness on nearly every question of purpose: marriage and money, work and play, love and hate. Even the famous poem of chapter three, popularized in the song “To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn,” suggests polar swings of emotion and activity. Should there really be a time to hate and a time to make war? Is there any occasion on which one should throw stones?

Kohelet, as the book is known in Hebrew, is the gatherer of aphorisms and opens with a complaint: All is futile; all is vanity. Professor of Hebrew and comparative literature Robert Alter translates the Hebrew word hevel not as “vanity” but as “breath.” A breath, if it can be seen at all, soon vaporizes. And while this involuntary mechanism is our life-force, it leaves no residual impact and barely a sound. Even breathing becomes a paradox. It is no surprise that the paradoxes of Ecclesiastes led to a talmudic debate: Should the book even be included in the biblical canon? (Mishna Eduyot 5:3)

One of the chief paradoxes of Ecclesiastes is in its attitude to wisdom. Everyone has a worthy idea to be shared, and yet there is rarely a novel idea to be uncovered. Kohelet strikes this theme in its first chapter: “Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, ‘Look, this one
is new!’ — it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us.” (1:10) We believe we’ve hit new ground only to find it was discovered long before us. These turgid thoughts lead the author (traditionally credited to King Solomon) to several thought experiments that “resolve” in contradictions. “I said to myself: ‘Here I have grown richer and wiser than any that ruled before me over Jerusalem, and my mind has zealously absorbed wisdom and learning.’ And so, I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly. And I learned — that this too was pursuit of wind. For as wisdom grows, vexation grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.’” (1:16-18) Is wisdom worth it? Yes and no.

Wisdom itself is a paradox. In my own life, how many times has scholarship raised me up and how many times has it brought me to the brink of despair? Study can bring joy, relief, status, and meaning, but it can equally create a tangle of insecurity, frustration, and futility. But wait. Just when we are brought low in Ecclesiastes, the writer seems to change his mind: “Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter.” (7:11–2)

We all wrestle with the kinds of contradictions implied by the Jewish sensibility elu v’elu — sometimes both rather than one or the other can be valid positions and even achieve holiness. Some of us, however, use a lot of psychic energy trying to eliminate these distinctions, which rarely works. Sometimes, it’s best to lean into the discomfort of a paradox, taking time to reflect on what makes us uncomfortable with uncertainty, with the rough edges of contradiction. Can we learn to live with the fact that not everything can be made whole and contradiction-free — to live with the inner noise of a self that is inherently inconsistent? Yes. And when we do, we just might find that living with paradoxes makes us more compassionate, more interesting human beings. Rousseau wrote that he would “rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices.” Prejudices make us overly certain. Paradoxes help us stay humble and attuned to the changes within.

This story "Alive in Paradox" was written by Erica Brown.


Erica Brown

Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Education and Human Development.

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