The Deeper Meaning of Shavuot — Balancing Authenticity and Norms
One of humanity’s strongest longings today is the need for authenticity. We want to be ourselves — or to become ourselves. We admire childrens’ spontaneity, because they don’t yet know how they “ought to be.” They are still impulsive and natural.
More and more, we distrust objective information because it is distant from our inner lives. It makes us forget what our real lives are all about. It has straight-jacketed us to the mainstream. What we want is to hold on to and recapture genuineness. Otherwise we choke. We even need to purchase pure butter and natural food without artificial additives. We have been overwhelmed by the artificiality of our lives, and we crave authenticity.
The more we are suffocated by this disingenuousness, the more our emotional relationships with ourselves and others require space, because we have learned that neither science nor modernity can offer us a spiritual sanctuary. They are unable to teach us the stuff of life. Science is a shell surrounding the real.
We are still romantics, searching for candlelight instead of electricity in our complicated existence. But even romanticism has succumbed to rules. It started prescribing its own set of laws and decided how authenticity should be expressed in art, and even music. Suddenly we were introduced to ambiguity.
If you place Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Man” next to the poetry of the romantics, you discover the difference. Poetry becomes suggestive rather than literal. In the knowledge of this ambivalence we recognize that the world is not really what it appears to be. As in Plato’s world of Ideas, we discover a world much more real than its mirror image — which we mortals consider to be our world.
And so it is with us. We are not who we appear to be. We long to be ourselves and give much more attention to our subconscious and unconscious spiritual urges and experiences. But we are limited, bound by pressures and needs that we can’t escape, because they are inherent to the outer world we live in. They make this world possible, and consequently unbearable to live in as untainted and authentic human beings.
Perhaps we human beings are genuine, but we also play the part of being genuine. We may be good, but we love to impress others of our goodness; and we do not know where one ends and the other begins. There is artificiality in authenticity.
To use an expression by the notorious Rousseau, we have cast aside l’homme sauvage, the natural, wild, and free man, and replaced him with l’homme civilisé, the civilized man of today. We have become estranged from ourselves, abandoning the paradisiacal purity of the natural man. Through the incessant “ought to be” education of norms, the childish innocence has systematically been suffocated and ultimately killed. We are caught up in social conventions and behavior patterns. So, real love, friendship, and even good citizenship are frustrated.
The ideal of authenticity is like Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Once one has bitten into the apple of authenticity, artificiality emerges. Then man is in need of laws to restrain him so that he may survive, but his inner self pays the price. We are like the millions of other people who sit in front of their computers, which have opened new worlds for us — but have made it no longer possible to see the other. And so we long for more contact … more love … more human trust.
But within this lies an aspect of narcissism as well — the longing to be with ourselves. This clashes with the needs of the other, social conditions, family, and society at large.
So, does real life not include social tradition and the “ought to be,” despite the tension between authenticity and the needs of society? It is this constant paradox that we must accept, however difficult it may be. Real life is the clash between our inner needs and our outer conditions. To choose one and reject the other is no longer life. To be sure, all this is the irony of our existence, but it should not be confused with cynicism.
Since the time of Adam Harishon, the first man, it is the acceptance of paradox that gives life substance.
Halacha is built on this paradox, and is the reason behind its call for authenticity, as well as for norms and behavior patterns that do not agree with the inner man. Halacha is not consistent, but full of paradoxes that sometimes cause us deep frustration. One day it asks for inner authenticity; the next day it asks for conformity. It refuses to inform us why in one case it demands a genuine, personal inner experience while in another it disturbingly demands compliance with rules and standards.
The great halachists battle over what should have priority — because they themselves are part of the “problem.” Since the commentators are human beings, not angels, they reflect all the dimensions of human limitation and are therefore highly competent to decide on matters of Halacha, because Halacha deals only with a life of paradoxes and constraints.
Great halachists do not possess absolute knowledge. They are not scientists who deal with impartial conditions. They deal with human life. And once they or others start to believe that they are infallible, they have left the world of Halacha and succumbed to radical inauthenticity.
It is for this reason that God gave the Torah to man. Halacha is and needs to be unfinalized since life can never be perfect. It is unable to conclusively solve all problems, because this world is a place where romanticism and its own artificial rules clash with the external conditions of society.
Life consists of trade-offs: equality vs. liberty; justice vs. mercy; kindness vs. truth. All Halacha can do is offer guidelines when absolute answers do not exist.
Halacha makes rules where rules should not exist — but need to exist, otherwise chaos will ensue. But it is these very rules that create unsolvable problems that are inherent to our existence.
In trying to ask for both religious authenticity and conformity, Halacha nearly collapses in its attempt to satisfy both, and consequently builds bridges, which dangle loosely and are then declared by Halacha to be castles of security. Halacha is constrained by man’s needs to look after his own spiritual wants: the playfulness and innocence of the child in all of us; our real I; and the fact that we have consumed the apple and must now behave because we could not deal with the tree.
It is this balancing act that becomes beautiful once the Divine Will declares it holy, and teaches us that life’s absurdity has meaning. This is the deeper message of Shavuot.
This essay essay appears in Chapter 4 of Rabbi Cardozo’s new book, Jewish Law as Rebellion.