Lionel Trilling and the Tsunami
More than thirty years ago, the great literary critic Lionel Trilling published a priceless little volume called Sincerity and Authenticity, in which he contrasted two cultural ideals: the modern ideal of authenticity and a more traditional ideal of sincerity. According to the latter, a man’s life is basically a work of art, and he himself is the artist giving shape to that life. According to the former ideal, a man is nothing more than the sum of his many impulses, and the purpose of his life is to explore each of these competing and contradictory impulses, rather than attempting to give form to his life in light of some overarching principles and goals.
What does this distinction have to do with the tsunami?
January 14, 2005
Why did G-d want hundreds of thousands of people to die in Southeast Asia? Answer: He didn’t. G-d’s true Will is to shower us with His goodness, not to destroy a significant portion of His creation and hundreds of thousands formed in His image.
Does that mean that G-d had nothing to do with the tragic events – that He is either helpless to control the forces of randomness and chaos or that events somehow slipped under His radar screen? Such a claim fails the test of theological seriousness. Why would an omniscient G-d have created a universe He is powerless to control? To think that He did so is primitive anthropomorphism – the childish projection of the Frankenstein myth onto G-d.
But if G-d caused the tsunami, or allowed it to occur, in what sense was the resulting death and destruction against His true Will? The answer offered by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) is that sometimes G-d withdraws from the world in order to guide history to its ultimate fulfillment. He writes that this aspect of Divine Providence – as opposed to the more familiar framework of reward and punishment – increasingly predominates as history moves towards its climax.
We witnessed such a Divine withdrawal two weeks ago. The Psalmist describes how G-d “set borders [to the waters] that they may not cross lest they return and cover the earth.” At G-d’s “thunderous voice” the waters retreated. Two weeks ago, that thunderous voice ceased, and water engulfed the land.
But why now? Why in that place? Such questions are beyond our capacity to answer. We are not G-d’s scorekeepers, and His infinite mind, is by definition, not ours. At best, writes the Ramchal, we can know the general rules of Divine Providence, but not how they apply to any particular case.
Nevertheless it is incumbent upon us to ask what are we – all of us – doing that could provoke G-d to hide Himself in this fashion.
Man is G-d’s partner in Creation. That is what it means to be created in the image of G-d. He proclaimed, “Let there be light,” and imposed order of a formless void of undifferentiated matter. And so are we called upon to give shape to the raw stuff of existence. Above all, our task is to impose order on our own lives, to give those lives direction and purpose.
We are born with a welter of impulses and desires that vary little from one infant to another. Gradually, however, a unique self begins to emerge. Desire is increasingly subject to our developing sense of right and wrong. All mankind is commanded in seven basic moral laws that conform to developing our innate moral sense.
The Jewish people were given 613 commandments. The purpose of that multiplicity of laws is to shape human beings whose lives reveal the Creator to the highest degree possible. Had the Jewish people not accepted the Torah at Sinai, and thereby made possible G-d’s ultimate revelation, say our Sages, the universe would have returned to its original formless state.
In addition, to exercising moral judgment, each of us fashions a unique identity by setting goals, establishing a hierarchy of priorities, developing certain talents, pursuing particular options while eschewing others. Until very recently, the ideal of man as a creator of his own unique self held sway over most of Western culture.
That traditional cultural ideal of the well-formed man, noted the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, has given way of late to a cult of authenticity. According to the new cultural ideal, humans should explore every aspect of their multifaceted beings, and acknowledge that they are distinguished from the animals only by virtue of their greater number of desires and the intelligence used to fulfill them.
Ortega y Gasset once described the state of youth as “everything in potentiality, nothing in actuality.” The new cultural ideal urges us to remain perpetual youth, to never go through one door knowing that it will foreclose others, to never choose to develop one aspect of our being at the expense of others in light of particular goals or principles.
The hedonism of modern society is the most obvious expression of the cult of authenticity. But at a deeper level, the same failure to give form to our lives is present every time a Torah Jew fails to ask himself the question: Is this action consistent with the ideal person whom it is the goal of the Torah to shape? Does my life reflect the One Who created me?
When we live lives without direction, devoid of purpose, prey to every random impulse, we fail as G-d’s partners and declare our desire to be independent of Him. And when we do so, G-d sometimes grants our wish and provides us with a glimpse of a world without His sustaining presence.
In that world, nature mirrors our own lack of form. Chaos results, the order of nature is broken, and water, which lacks any shape of its own, sweeps all before it.