When I was in seventh grade, my Hebrew school teacher, Julie, sat my class down and asked, out of nowhere, if we believed in G-d. I, always the overachiever, volunteered to go first, confidently claiming that yes, of course, I believed in G-d, because that was the right answer.
Everyone else said they didn’t know, and one contrarian even said, “No.” Thirteen-year-old me was perplexed. We were literally in a Judaics class; how could they not realize that “yes” was the expected answer?
As it turns out, none of us was right. Julie proceeded to explain that this was a question we would likely ponder throughout our whole lives, and especially in the next few years. Everyone’s answer would be different, and personal, and while our Hebrew school lessons could help guide our beliefs, this was something only we could decide for ourselves.
Looking back, I am grateful that I received this lesson when I did. I continued my Jewish education through high school, and was faced with many times where I disagreed with a doctrine set forth in a Torah story or an interpretation of some Jewish text. I knew I could have a divergent opinion and still be valid in my Judaism, and it helped me form a strong Jewish identity and a lasting sense of Jewish pride.
Now, in college, speaking with many of my Jewish friends at Hillel, I realize that this was not a standard Hebrew school lesson, and I am ever appreciative that someone told me that doubt has a place in faith.
I, myself, am now a Judaics teacher in a local Hebrew school. Recently, I had some technical difficulties while leading my Zoom class and got kicked out of the meeting. All ended well, but when I was expressing my annoyance about this to a non-Jewish friend, he tried to comfort me by saying the kids could probably have finished the lesson on their own. They just needed to read the stories out of the Torah.
I hadn’t realized before how different Jewish education is from other forms of religious education. While my friend assumed all we did in Hebrew school was read straight from the Torah and accept the stories as fact, since he explained that was his experience in Catholic Sunday school, I find that Jewish education emphasizes values, traditions, and rituals, and, hopefully, lets the students decide what to believe and what not to.
In my opinion, the point of religious education isn’t to indoctrinate, but to review sources and give information, with ample context, so students can question it, ponder it, and decide independently if it is useful for their spirituality or not. This is an echo of what Julie tried to teach me eight years ago, and it reverberates through my current teaching practices and my daily life.
When I was speaking to my non-Jewish cousins last week, they asked if there was any part of Judaism I disagreed with, or didn’t believe.
“Where do I start?” I replied, only somewhat joking.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s so much of Judaism I agree with, but only because I took the time to try out disagreeing with it first. Faith isn’t true faith without doubt. Blind belief is so much scarier to me than denouncing a religion or challenging a religious doctrine. My own Jewish education encouraged questioning everything, and I try to instill that same inquisitive nature in my students now, some of whom are thirteen, just as I was when I first learned to think for myself.
I had a student this past year who told me on the first day of class, “I don’t believe in G-d, and I don’t like being Jewish.” She was ready for a fight, or maybe she was just giving me fair warning for the uphill battle to come, but either way, I wasn’t willing to unsheath my own sword and oppose her. I responded honestly with: “That’s okay, you don’t have to.”
Throughout the year, she voiced a lot of opinions contrary to the other students and disagreed with many of the principles we learned about, but she didn’t disagree with everything. She was actively thinking about the texts we were reading and the Torah stories we were examining, and she was deciding what didn’t work for her. More importantly, she was discovering what did.
I got an email from her mother two months later telling me that her daughter was participating in my class much more than she had in any other Hebrew school class before.
For me, engagement with dissent is a thousand times better than no engagement at all. Faith cannot be forced, just as doubt cannot be avoided. I do believe that if we combine the two, doubt will lessen and faith will strengthen. Doubt is just as an important part of faith as the holidays, rituals, and traditions we practice and pass on to our children, for it allows us to believe wholeheartedly those aspects that do pass its tests.
Besides, is there anything more quintessentially Jewish than arguing against everything?