Friday, August 24, 2012

Virtue is the Fruit of Irritation

Parshat Shoftim
6 Elul, 5772
August 24th, 2012

My friend Shawn Landres and I were part of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Los Angeles. At some point, we were asked to present an overview of Jewish history to the Muslim participants

In half an hour.

4 millennia of history in a half hour is damned hard, nigh impossible. Shawn, who is among other things a scholar of religion, accepted the challenge and did a beautiful job. Another teacher and I were stunned.

Of his half hour, Shawn spent 10 minutes describing American Judaism, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. As he finished (again having done brilliantly), another Jewish participant stood up.

Irate, this man decried that Shawn had not described his experience of Judaism – that that was not how he had been raised as a Reform Jew.

I wanted to throw my hands up. Of course Shawn had not replicated his experience. Shawn was succinctly describing the experience of millions, over thousands of years.  

This man’s words frustrated me. His assumption was that teaching should mirror his internal feelings. But words that parrot personal experience are not teaching, they are sycophancy.

Since we’re talking Muslim-Jewish dialogue, let’s quote Rumi: “if you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” People increasingly value the power of subjective, personal, authentic experience. We choose for the spiritual “I” to be paramount.

However, the price of the “I” is irritation when people speak of the spiritual “we,” for it will not map perfectly upon personal experience.

Our work is to treasure annoyance: to realize that its presence reveals the opportunity to learn, to  broaden and deepen our individual spirituality by incorporating that of others. The fruit of irritation is virtue.

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