Theodore Perry

Theodore A. Perry is the 2011-2013 Corcoran Visiting Chair in Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College. He has published and taught prolifically in the areas of comparative literature, the Hebrew Bible as literature, medieval Sephardic (Spanish Jewish) and Spanish literature, religious studies, paremiology, and 16th-century French literature. He was Professor of Comparative Literature at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, Cardin Chair in Jewish Studies at Loyola College in Maryland, Visiting Fulbright Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professor of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Connecticut. He has also taught at Williams College and Smith College. Dr. Perry studied at Yale University (Ph.D., Romance Philology; M.A., French Literature), the Universite de Bordeaux, France (Fulbright Fellow in French Literature and Philosophy), Post-Doctoral study at Brandeis University and Hebrew University, and Bowdoin College (B.A. summa cum laude, French).

He is the author of twelve books, including Erotic Spirituality: The Integrative Tradition from Leone Ebreo to John Donne (University: University of Alabama Press, 1980); The Moral Proverbs of Santob de Carrión: Jewish Wisdom in Christian Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987); Dialogues with Kohelet (Penn State, 1993); Wisdom Literature and the Structure of Proverbs (Penn State, 1993); The Honeymoon is Over: Jonah's Arguments with God (2006); God's Twilight Zone: Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible (2008). His Joyous Vanity: Qohelet’s Guide to Living Well , is forthcoming.

Enigmatic Qohelet

Jewish sages quipped that if there can be no learning without bread, they were also persuaded that there can be no bread without learning. Applied to our task at hand, if there can be no philosophy without philology, the inverse is equally true. This is especially the case with Qohelet, the most philosophical of our biblical books. The tired interpretations (e. g. “Vanity of Vanities”) foisted upon the work have been repeated to exhaustion, yet its joyous philosophy of living wisely continues to evade.

I have just completed a major reinterpretation of Qohelet, Vanity of Vanities, Breath of Breaths: Qohelet’s Guide to Living Well. This research brings close philology and exegesis into contact with traditional precepts of moral philosophy, on the one hand, and a modern philosophical perspective inspired by broader Levinassian principles, on the other. Readers familiar with the history of the work’s commentary will recognize my departure from interpretations long entrenched and yet hopefully ripe for renewed discussion. Among the major ones I offer the following:

1) The Book of Qohelet is a manual for living well, according to traditional wisdom precepts.
2) Popular pessimistic interpretations are of real but limited value and occlude the book’s prime focus on joyous living.
3) Qohelet is not only autobiographical, as usually thought. As pseudo-authored, it is confessional and transformational.
4) Qohelet is foundational of a culture that values discourse over power. I argue that this is the book’s plot from start to finish.
5) The book’s thesis is its motto (hebel), bringing its focus not on the traditional translation “vanity,” which is only an interpretation, but rather its simple meaning “breath,” or better yet: WindBreath. Such a reading allows for far different and complex interpretations.

I stress that for Levinas and this inquiry, biblical studies must come to the realization that literary style is more than stylistic embellishment. I mean that in Qohelet figures of speech are also figures of thought, and that such complex issues as metaphor require close philosophical study for their use and interpretation.

In short, I argue that our reading of Qohelet will be measurably renewed and enriched by Levinas’ philosophical meditations. My presentation will consist of a preview and discussion of my forthcoming book, subject to time restrictions. For more depth, I could focus on a single central issue. For example,
a) Divrei Qohelet: The Book’s Title and Plot
b) WindBreath: Qohelet’s Motto and Theme and Refrain: A Levinassian Analysis