kosher bookworm

A spiritual response to the Titanic


An article about the sinking of the Titanic made the following perceptive observation:

“The Titanic sank deep into the ocean, not to be located for some 80 years. More important, it sank deeply into the conscience of the Jewish nation. It inspired hundreds of drashot about the frailty and uncertainty of life in this world, and about the false sense of mastery over man’s fate due to the rapid advances in technology the world was experiencing.”

The relationship of humankind to the sea has been, through the ages, considered by sages and plain folk alike. An anthology of essays dealing with the Jewish festival life cycle, “Change and Renewal,” was authored in 2011 by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.

In a chapter entitled “The Splitting of the Red Sea,” Rabbi Steinsaltz considers the spiritual and mystical footing of this event. He writes: “The concepts ‘sea’ and ‘dry land’ represent the two general states of existence. In the Zohar, the sea is called the ‘concealed world,’ whereas dry land is called the ‘revealed world.’

“Dry land represents the reality that is above the surface, visible to the eye; life exists on the face of the earth. By contrast, the sea represents reality that conceals what takes place inside it. The sea is the great mystery; things do not happen on its surface but within it.”

Rabbi Steinsaltz continues:

“People generally act like creatures of dry land, and their consciousness deals with the visible world. The higher, exalted elements of man — all that transcends plain and ordinary consciousness — are represented by the sea. These are the concealed worlds in man. As a rule, we see only the lower end of the exalted things, the ‘tip of the iceberg’ protruding above the surface.

“Usually, we do not see what is happening within. It is as though man’s essence is sunk inside the great space, within the hidden sea, and what is visible to our eyes is but a small part, the thin stratum in which we operate.”

The impact that the Titanic disaster has upon us unto this day can be demonstrated, in part, by the reaction of much of the English language Orthodox and Chareidi press on the occasion of the Titanic’s centennial. 

On the lessons to be learned from the sea, Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:

“At the parting of the Red Sea, we beheld with our own eyes the depth of reality. This vision can perhaps be forgotten superficially, but something of it is engraved within us. Even when we are not conscious of it, it allows us to rely upon it. Thus, we continue in the path of serving G-d, as we build edifices of Torah and mitzvoth, we have on what to rely. …

“The Jew is called upon, then, to take his ‘sea’ with him wherever he goes on dry land. We go from one exile to the next, and at the same time continue to live within our true reality, which is not dry land, but sea.”

As a capping to this tragic topic, I conclude by bringing to your attention a novella written by Morgan Robertson entitled, “Futility.”

In this novella, we read the following about an ocean liner that represents the latest in seafaring technology. The name of this ship is the Titan. It is described as unsinkable, has a triple screw propeller, and is carrying only enough lifeboats for half its passengers. The Titan hits an iceberg, starboard side, traveling at 25 knots on an April night near midnight, 400 miles from Newfoundland.

If you note any similarities between the Titan and the Titanic, this is not your imagination. Furthermore, consider this as you finish reading this essay: The Titanic sank in 1912. The novella “Futility” was written in 1898.

A version of the column appeared in 2012.