Full disclosure: Kveller.com is a partner site of our host, MyJewishLearning.
In a recent blog post on the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Joyce Anderson wrote about the process of teaching her oldest son to pray. For Anderson, teaching her child to speak to God, preceded (or facilitated, perhaps) her attempts to talk with him about God. Interestingly, Anderson is not Jewish; she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her article is one of several non-Jewish perspectives in Kveller’s God Month, an ongoing series on the challenges of talking to children about God.
While Anderson shows no ambivalence about encouraging her child to develop a personal relationship with the divine, the other responses in the series present more complicated experiences of parenting and faith. Among all the essays, Jewish or not, hers is the only one that takes for granted that children should believe in God. Taken together, the articles point towards a basic truth: we aren’t that good at talking about God.
At first, I found this troubling. The ambivalence about God in the Jewish responses certainly reflects editorial choices or selection bias, but it still squares with my own experience of non-Orthodox Jewish life in America. Reading through the pieces, I found myself wondering, “Do any of us simply believe?”
Anderson’s prayer-based solution makes a lot of sense, especially given the deeply personal relationship between individuals and God in Christ-centered theologies. Prayer takes a central role in a few of the Jewish responses, as well, but in a different way. For the Jewish parents that write about prayer, showing a child how to pray also helps him or her relate to God personally, but the contributors’ own sense of God remains less defined. For them, the advantage of prayer is that it acknowledges and celebrates a creative force in the universe without limiting how we conceive of that force.Tellingly, of the two Jewish parents who write about sharing their personal religious practices with their children, both include prayers from Eastern traditions, like Buddhism.
Several God Month contributors—including self-identified Jews—reject the idea of God altogether, or at least bracket off questions about God’s nature and existence as unknowable and inessential to an ethical life. These writers express ambivalence about the prospect of raising a religious child, though they note the importance of teaching their kids to respect other people’s religious traditions. Some of the skeptics are attached in one way or another to Jewish culture and identity, and even want their children to have the option of choosing a more spiritual life.
Now, I’m neither traditionally observant nor deeply spiritual. I do not intend to criticize anyone’s personal practice or to bemoan some lost golden age of Jewish observance. I am struck, however, by absence of modern Jewish voices that speak confidently about God, both in the Kveller series and in my own experiences.
Perhaps, though, the issue is not that we are bad at talking about God, but that God is and should be difficult to talk about. Sometimes, especially when children come into play, we may feel need for a simpler or more concrete sense of the divine. But complete certainty (fundamentalism) is a dangerous thing, and what kind of God could be understood through mere human speech, anyway?
The tensions and contradictions expressed in the Kveller series might not reflect deficiencies in our communities, but a healthy struggle between traditional beliefs and universal values. I still hope that the series will include a Jewish writer who approaches the topic of God with more certainty and less ambiguity, but I can also accept and appreciate the articles that are there so far. They represent a real effort to do right by our children when it comes to God talk. I’m not a parent yet, but I hope (God willing) that the questions raised by God Month are ones I will one day have to answer both for myself and my children.
As the only Jewish kid in his middle school in suburban Mississippi, my youngest son Eric will be telling his friends why he won’t be at school Monday. He’ll say he won’t be there “because it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
And inevitably, the follow up question from his fellow 6th graders will be: “What’s that?”
I can just imagine the conversation continuing from there…
Well, it’s the Jewish New Year.
New Year? So does that mean it’s like New Year’s Eve, and you stay up late, and at midnight say ‘Happy New Year!’?
Well, no, not really.
Does it have anything to do with Chanukah? Oooh! Do you play the dreidel game? Do you eat those good chocolate coins?
No, it has nothing to do with that.
I thought about how to respond. The questions were about to hit hard and fast, and as his mom, it’s my job to coach Eric and make sure he knows what to say. I want him to be prepared. Which meant I needed to be prepared, and I am embarrassed to say… I had to look it up.
I mean, of course I know what Rosh Hashanah is. I certainly know how to prepare the holiday dinner. I know what to say and do during services. I know the prayers, I know about saying I’m sorry, I know about the reflection … but I guess I was looking for the Cliff notes (Sparknotes?) version for what Rosh Hashanah “is”.
So at first, I went to my go-to reference guide, Joseph Telushkin’s wonderful Jewish Literacy book, and discovered the following information: “On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are instructed to scrupulously examine their deeds and more significantly their misdeeds during the preceding year. During these days, Jewish tradition teaches, God decides who shall live and who shall die during the coming year. The prayers that we say attempt to influence God’s decisions.”
This is pretty heavy stuff. Who shall live and who shall die. I have said those words every year since I began attending the adult service (let’s just say it’s been more than 30 years) and I never internalized those words – who shall live and who shall die.
Hmmm. Meaningful, yes, but not necessarily what I would advise Eric to tell his peers. “What’s Rosh Hoshanah? Oh, okay. Well. It’s basically when God decides who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die.”
So I went to the next great resource I had on hand – the ISJL pre-K curriculum. And you know what? In this particular situation, I think I prefer the early-childhood explanation: “During Rosh Hashanah, we think about how we want the new year to be better. We reflect on the past year – at both the good things and the bad things. At the new year we get a chance to start over fresh and make every effort to be a better person.”
As Telushkin admits, the theme of life and death could easily have turned Rosh Hashanah into two days of utter morbidity. To prevent this, the rabbis encouraged Jews to observe Rosh Hashanah in a spirit of optimism, confident that God will accept their repentance and extend their lives. For example, they ordained that honey be served at all Rosh Hashanah meals and that slices of apple be dipped into it. A special prayer is then recited: May it be Thy will, O Lord, Our God, to grant us a year that is good and is sweet.
That’s more in line with what I hope Eric’s classmates will learn when they ask him about our holiday. It’s a day of fresh starts. A season when we ask for a good and sweet year to come. (And if you need more resources on what Rosh Hashanah is, there are plenty of great ones here, too!)