Do parents need to present a united front…about God?

Mychal's kids

Mychal's kids playing at the beach

Many parents avoid being divided on issues big and small with our kids. We particularly try to present a united front about discipline, decision making and responsibilities and attempt to not get triangulated. But what about God? Do we need to believe the same thing, or at least tell our kids we do? My partner and I don’t like lying to our kids…about anything. We don’t tell them things they can’t yet handle developmentally, but we don’t avoid the tough subjects when they ask.

So what about God? We are unique in that both of our work lives involve religion. Part of her job is teaching the history of Judaism and Christianity to college students. She is enticed by the history, texts and language of religion but her role is to deconstruct it. I am a rabbi who is drawn to the spiritual and I look for ways to see the divine in everyday life. Even though we both highly value religion and its study, we have very different approaches to theology.

So what do we tell the kids? We have decided that as we don’t lie to them about other things, we will not lie to them about God. I read them books about God, encourage thanking God before meals, and provide as many ways as I can for them to envision what God might be. I share with them my own theological struggles. My partner tells them that she believes humans created the idea of God and when talking about the Bible she refers to God as a character in the story. In all of these conversations, I make sure that our kids know that debating God doesn’t have anything to do with them being or feeling Jewish. Since there are myriad ways Jews define ourselves, belief is certainly not a litmus test. In fact, about half of American Jews report doubting God’s existence.

Why have my partner and I rejected the idea that we must agree theologically, or that we should pretend that we do?

First, no two individuals are alike in their beliefs. Why would we expect two parents to share a theological view? Sure, some do, or their visions of the divine are close enough to present one shared story to their children. But the great majority do not. It is not only parents from different religious backgrounds who struggle with this question. Two Jewish, Catholic or Muslim parents can easily hold radically differing theological views and most traditions hold within them disparate views of divinity as well.

Second, we believe that parents shouldn’t refrain from teaching kids what they think just because they don’t agree with one another. Children are far more capable of handling complexity than we imagine. I encourage parents to talk it through between them first, and then commence sharing with their children what they think about the big questions and even how views evolve and change over time. By doing so, we will be teaching them personal integrity, authenticity, and the Jewish values of intellectual and theological struggle. I think children can handle that complexity. What is tougher to handle is a lack of clarity when parents haven’t figured out how they are going to talk to them about their differences.

On a related note, I don’t believe that kids will be confused if they are exposed to many ways to think about God. For me, this goes beyond what they are learning from us as parents. My theological views often differ from their religious school teachers’ views. I wouldn’t expect them to talk about God exactly as I would. I engage my children about those views as well and ask them what they think. In our home, we talk about God and gender. We sometimes change liturgical language to fit our ideological or theological beliefs, such as excluding language in our Friday night Kiddush about Jews being the chosen people. I don’t believe that God acts in human history (as in God being our salvation in a battle). There are times when I disagree with how a movie, book or teacher presents God and I welcome those opportunities to refine how we communicate about belief as a family.

Last and most important, I want to teach my children about telling the truth. The value of trust is higher for me and my partner than anything else. If they find out someday that we misrepresented ourselves, they could question other things we had said along the way as well.  So we tell them our viewpoints, and we fess up when we aren’t sure.

The result?  At this moment, our kids approach God differently. Our 7-year-old made up a joke that God was walking around one day and the big bang blew him up. He says he doesn’t believe in God and often has much to say about the subject. Our 9-year-old thinks God exists but struggles with the Shema prayer because he really likes the polytheism of the Greek myths. Under the sukkah recently, we got into a philosophical discussion with them about whether there was some kind of matter present before the universe came into being or if it was born out of nothingness. Everyone had an opinion and struggled with the question. We are pleased. We aren’t teaching them what to believe, but they know how the two of us feel about God. We are teaching them how to think about their relationship to the world around them and giving them language to speak about it.

For further reading…

Children’s theological books:

God’s Paintbrush and God In-Between by Sandy Sasso

Because Nothing Looks Like God and Where is God? by Karen Kushner and Lawrence Kushner

For adults:

The Spiritual Life of Children by Robert Coles

Rabbi Ari Moffic’s Sermon on Today’s Judaism

Star

The following is my sermon given on March 7, 2014 at Temple Beth El in Munster, IN.

The weekly Torah portions now move into the book of Leviticus. The Five Books of Moses are referred to by Hebrew names which are the first main word in that section of Torah. Leviticus is known as Vayikra which in Hebrew means God called out. God calls out many things to the people throughout the long narrative. Sometimes the people heed God’s call and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it is Moses or another leader who hears God’s call and then instructs the people what to do or not to do.

Do we believe God is still calling out? What is God calling? How does the call sound? When and how can we hear it? Some say God calls out through nature saying to stop destroying the environment. Some would say God calls out through people doing social justice work and bringing to our attention the suffering and plight of the vulnerable in society who need more help. Some might say God calls out through our inner voice which helps us calibrate our moral compass. Some say God calls out over and over and in new ways through this sacred text—through this scroll—through this ever-new message and that is why we read it over and over and over, and read commentaries about it over and over and over and continue to think about our own responses to these words. Do we hear God in the shofar? In the upcoming graggers and laughter of our youth?

What would God call out if God could read this latest Pew study of American Jewry? Most American Jews are not members of a synagogue. Most American Jews marry someone not Jewish. Many liberal American Jews raise their children with another religious tradition in addition to some Judaism. Millennials by and large say they are Jewish of no religion? What is happening here? Where did everything go wrong? How do we get things back on track?

OK—as an aside—why must we personify God? It seems true, as Maimonides, the great Jewish, Spanish philosopher and writer in the 1100s thought, that we can only make negative statements about God—God is not human. The only positive statement we can make is that God is and even that limits God. So, I am of course speaking in metaphor.

But, there are those who would say that there is something fundamentally broken or off about American, liberal Judaism. Synagogues are outdated and cost too much money to maintain. Our liturgy does not resonate any more. We don’t know Hebrew and so prayer in Hebrew does not “work” as it once did. Since Judaism is a religion of boundaries and distinctions—the difference between the holy and profane, between day and night, between Shabbat and the rest of the week—we cannot have a truly inclusive Jewish community.

The nature of the Jewish religion is that it is insular and exclusivist to some extent. Jews can do and say certain things and those not Jewish cannot. Those younger than 13 cannot do certain things. On Passover, we cannot eat certain things. We are a religion of rules and boundaries and these rules have kept us a distinct people for millennia. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, the Solomon B. Freehof Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR/Cincinnati, our rabbinical school, just said to me, “There are many in the Jewish community now who straddle the fence and straddling a fence hurts.”

So, this is all bad news and negative. Goodbye American liberal Judaism as we know it. It’s been a nice run, but it’s over?

No way.

Things are better than ever. It is our diverse community that gives us new strength—new voices, new questions and new insights are good for Judaism. We are pushed to define ourselves, to understand who is a Jew and what makes something Jewish. We are forced to confront our own lack of literacy and to take ownership of our religion and our heritage. When we have a community made up of those who grew up with Judaism and those newer to it, we uncover what it really means to welcome the stranger and to believe in One God of all who is a God of peace and love. We are given the sacred opportunity to perform the mitzvah, the commandment, to love our neighbor as our self because we are our neighbor. We see the most often repeated commandment from the Torah come alive for us: Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Does this always make it easy? Should we have no ritual barriers to full participation in Jewish life? (I kind of think so, but not everyone agrees with this). Should all rabbis officiate at any wedding where a Jew requests Jewish clergy to be with them? Can we find room in our religious schools for children being raised to also learn about and appreciate Catholicism, for instance? There are no easy answers but lots of important questions.

What is God calling to us now? I believe one message that is blatantly obvious and which can bring us closer to one another and God is that we need to open up, not create more rules and tighten our limits. We are a tiny “in” group and we are, by the way, not a homogeneous group; we are not different from those not in these seats tonight. The majority of liberal Jews are somewhere else. It is not for us to call them in. It is for our Jewish expression, our synagogue structures, and our leaders to open up. We have to act with love, respect, with joy and optimism, humility and inspiration, to individualize, accommodate and include anyone who might come to see that living with Judaism is a rich, vibrant, accessible, authentic way to structure one’s days.

Kayn Yihi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

Amen.

Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!