Friday, August 23, 2013

Spiritual Grandeur, Spiritual Pettiness

Parshat Ki Tavo
17 Elul, 5773
August 23rd, 2013

This column may trigger you. I sincerely hope it does. I need sufficiently annoyed partners to help me solve a particularly tricky problem for which I really need a solution.

One Shabbat, when I was an intern, a friend of mine set his siddur on the floor.

So this is a thing in Judaism - putting holy books on the floor, or, to be precise, not doing so. We privilege reverence over convenience. A simple way of showing that is care about how we treat holy books.

Anyways, after some internal debate, I reached down, grabbed his prayer book, and placed it on a chair near him.

He was furious with me. Absolutely furious. Livid.

Of that unpleasant experience, I remember one line in particular, "this isn't Mea She'arim," he said, mentioning the historic Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem "I've studied there, and this isn't it." Just to be clear, my not-so-much-of-a-friend-anymore was complimenting Mea She'arim. He was saying that, in that, more observant context, picking up the siddur would have been appropriate. Here, in liberal Judaism, it was just rude.

I've thought a lot about that comment in the years since, and as to why the two contexts were so different from one another. And while I think there's plenty to say about Ultra-Orthodoxy, I'm more preoccupied with my own world and its challenges.

And what I've come to is that, in the Western, privileged world, our spiritual spaces are infantilizing.

I don't quite know how we got here, but modern day synagogue and churches are not Houses of God. They are places to be offended, for slights real and imagined: who sits where, whose name is where, who insulted whom. We don't promote character, we prevent it. Mostly, people come to shul and find a nothing but an excuse for high dudgeon.

It's not the fault of individuals. My used-to-be-friend is a truly decent guy, and I'm not even sure that I did the right thing. But I do know for sure that we deserve better spiritual spaces that those we've provided for ourselves - houses of spiritual grandeur, not grand houses of pettiness.

May God take us from our own narrowness into the breadth of which we're capable.

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