What About the Children?

Aron:  Had our great-great-great-grandfathers been asked by their children, “What’s God?”, they would likely have responded, “God created the heavens and the earth.” If they had been asked why we pray, they’d probably have responded, “To ask, praise, or thank our Creator.” If they’d been asked why they kept kosher, I assume they’d have said, “Because God told us to.”

As is probably obvious, those explanations don’t work for us. Over the last few months, we’ve tried to offer believable and compelling alternatives. While I think most of our positions have been fairly cogent, they’ve often veered into the technical, abstract, or existentialist. I called holiness “the non-instrumentalism of life and life’s potential”; you said that “prayer’s miraculous because it allows us to break the strict chain of cause and effect that controls the rest of nature.”

Absent the clear, simple answers our ancestors could have offered, what will we do when our children ask us the same questions? How will we explain our Judaism(s) to them?

I’m not asking for an al-regel-achat reduction of your entire philosophy of Judaism. Rather, I want to hear what your entry points will be. How will you introduce Judaism, God, prayer, and ritual to kids without philosophical jargon?

Allen: First of all– kids? Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, my friend. But from a strictly academic standpoint, of course, I’m willing to entertain the suggestion.

Your question can’t be answered on a blog. No essay, no theory, no explanation, no matter how compelling, will ever convince a kid to lead a Jewish life. Ever hear anyone say: “Wow, that incisive Kaplan essay convinced me to raise my offspring Jewish?” Don’t hold your breath. Religion has to be lived before it’s theorized. My parents never laid out a meticulous philosophy of Shabbat practice, but they laid their hands on my head every Friday night to bless me, and that was enough. Now, a way of life based on obviously absurd premises can’t endure. That’s where intellectual debate comes in. But such debates take place within a thriving spiritual community, and creating such a community lies well beyond the scope of a blog. Take prayer. I could lecture kids till I’m red in the face how prayer is a time for amazement, a time to think about the important things in life and how to change them. But unless services are energetic and sincere, the clearest explanation in the world won’t motivate the next generation to show up.

Note the caveat that religious life needs to make some sort of intellectual sense. So I suggest a useful rule of thumb: Don’t teach stuff you don’t believe. Seems simple enough, right? Yet one can spend years of Ramah and USY without being disabused of the impression that God dictated the entire Torah to Moses before two million Israelites at Mount Sinai. At the very least, we ought to avoid pulling the wool over our (hypothetical) kids’ eyes.

Where does that leave us, then? In spite of our occasional detour into obscurity,  I still think my most important claim is pretty simple. At risk of repeating myself: Our lives matter. They mean something. They have purpose. That’s because we’re all part of a story that includes other people who depend on us. Deep down, most of us know this from a very early age. G.K. Chesterton, certainly no philosophical lightweight, writes: “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” We’re all on a quest with humble beginnings and sometimes noble ends, with companions who come to our aid and cry for help, with hope appearing when we least expect it. We’ve known that all along.

What about you, Father Aron? How do you answer your kids’ big religious questions?

Aron: I like what you said about prayer, though I think you dodged the question on God. “Our lives matter,” is not an answer (at least not a full one) to the question, “What is God?” Here’s how I would answer young Aron, Jr.:

Aron, Jr.: What’s God?

Aron, Sr.: God is the source of the things that we care about — meaning, obligation, holiness.

Aron, Jr.: So if I don’t believe in God, then I don’t have obligations?

Aron, Sr.: No, Aron, Jr.. It’s the other way around. You know that you have obligations. You know that you have to do the right thing. It’s not something that can be “proved” or “disproved”; it’s something you believe deep in your heart. People have different words for that “something,” but I think it makes sense to call it God.

Aron, Jr.: So God is just doing the right thing?

Aron, Sr.: Not quite, Aron. Morality — right and wrong — is something that comes out of God, the same way that meaning and holiness are things that come out of God; they’re not God Godself. It’s a little bit like the sun and its rays.

Allen: Aron, Jr.: Uncle Allen, why is my dad having an imaginary conversation with a kid he’s named after himself?

God only knows, Aron. I like the tone and direction of your explanation on the whole, with a few caveats I won’t get into here. But again, these abstract theological debates are beside the point when we’re talking to children. The main idea is to teach that life has a goal (which I call God) and that religion helps us to move toward that goal. It does that by building more ethical and fulfilling lives and communities. By definition, though, the only kids who will buy into this are the ones who actually live in ethical and fulfilling religious communities.

So the educational task of liberal Jewish spaces is twofold. First, they need to articulate why Judaism matters simply and clearly. That’s what you and I have been trying to do here. Second, and maybe more importantly, they need to create passionate and earnest ritual experiences. That job calls for charismatic role models like Rabbi David Ingber and Joey Weisenberg. Both sides of the work depend upon each other– soulless intellectualism and anti-rational ritualism are each dead ends for most liberal Jews. Bottom line: we need more Lee Michael Epsteins in this world.

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