I’m a rabbi. While I feel that my faith in G-d is strong, I don’t always know what to say about G-d and life’s mysteries.
Like many of you, I’m also a parent. I want my boys — and all Jewish children — to have a full Jewish education. Judaism should speak to everyone’s head, hands, and heart.
The head should know: the stories and laws of our Torah; how to read Hebrew; the history of the people and State of Israel.
The hand should do: Mitzvot like lighting Hanukah candles and giving Tzedakah; acts of Chesed like feeding the hungry.
And the heart should feel: pride in being Jewish; a strong connection to Israel; faith in G-d.
So how should I and other parents talk to our kids about G-d if we’re not sure of all the answers? How should parents who doubt G-d’s existence approach this subject with their kids?
The weightiness of this challenge gives me pause. But the importance of this conversation pushes me forward.
I think about this sacred, timeless task now, as I’ve just completed reading “Becoming a Jewish Parent” by Daniel Gordis. Though he’s primarily known as a prolific commentator on issues concerning Israel, he’s also an American-born rabbi whose first books speak about Judaism writ large.
Here is, in my eyes, the book’s best takeaway:
“G-d-talk is important. G-d-talk isn’t a matter of ‘teaching’ our children anything in particular. Rather, G-d-talk is about making our children comfortable with the word ‘G-d’ as part of their regular vocabulary…Is our job at such moments to give our kids information, or is it to build a safe, secure, nurturing sense of the world, one in which they can begin to make Jewish life a core part of who they are? When we talk about G-d, we’re not ‘information providers.’ Rather, we’re ‘world builders,’ the people who are most responsible for the outlook on life our children will develop and carry with them for a lifetime (60, 67).”
G-d is real. To convey that to my children, G-d must be part of our conversations. If I hope my sons talk about G-d, I’ve got to bring it up first. Here’s an example: As I walked with my 4-year-old to shul on Friday night, I told him that we go there to pray to G-d. Our prayers are our conversations with G-d, when we ask G-d for some things and thank G-d for other things. I asked my son, “What do you want to ask from G-d? For what do you say, ‘Thank you, G-d’?” My son answered me, “I thank G-d for all the sharks. And I wish G-d made more sharks.”
You see that my son’s world is colored by sharks. They’re in his books, on his TV shows, on his shirts, on his water bottle. He probably dreams about them too. And that’s fine because he’s 4. I’m thrilled by his comment because he’s speaking about G-d as a real part of his real world. A small part, but a real part. This is a start. Every parent can plant this seed, not just theologians.
I know not every parent has faith in G-d, for different, understandable reasons. I know that these parents are as ethical and loving as I hope my wife and I are. But I think these parents too should make G-d part of their children’s vocabularies and let them decide for themselves if and how they see G-d as part of their worlds. When G-d-talk is absent, the possibility of faith is largely closed off. But when children speak of G-d, that possibility exists. When a parent doesn’t believe in G-d, why must their child follow suit?
For even if you don’t believe in G-d, we the Jews believe in G-d. Think of the Shema: “Listen, Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one.” Think of the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the L-rd your G-d Who brought you out of Egypt.” Both affirm that G-d is real. Both are cornerstones of Jewish education. Not just to be memorized or understood, but believed. And that’s only possible when G-d is part of children’s vocabulary. And that’s only possible when we talk about G-d in a real way. (Like every other subject, conversations about nuances and challenges are appropriate and important, but only when the child is ready).
What would happen if the bulk of the Jewish people stopped believing in G-d or praying to G-d? Sadly, we would lose a core part of our identity and become frighteningly vulnerable. Last Shabbat was called Shabbat Zachor — Remember — as we remember how our enemy Amalek nearly wiped us out after we departed from Egypt. Do you recall the moment when the Israelites were suddenly so weak that the Amalekites pounced? Exodus 17 tells us that Amalek came to battle immediately after the Israelites fought with Moses and wondered aloud, “Is G-d in our midst or not?” (Ex. 17:7). The moment the Israelites lost faith in G-d, they nearly lost everything.
We read about Amalek before Purim, for Haman was a descendent. Megillat Esther — it has been widely noted — is a book of the Bible that never mentions G-d. But is G-d entirely absent or merely working behind the scenes? At first glance it appears that G-d is nowhere to be found. But on second thought, there sure are a lot of “coincidences” that arranged themselves just so.
Like reading the Megillah, it’s possible to navigate our world believing that G-d is absent. But the Jewish tradition teaches otherwise. It unabashedly teaches that G-d is here, G-d is near. As the prayer Adon Olam concludes, “I place my spirit in G-d’s hand when I sleep and when I wake. And along with my spirit, my body. G-d is with me; I shall not be afraid.”
Jewish parents are Jewish educators. If we want to build a world in which G-d is a real presence, we’ve got to talk about G-d and make G-d part of our kids’ vocabulary. It’s not easy, but it’s crucial. Words build worlds. Indeed, that’s why the Torah in Genesis says G-d spoke and the world came into being. G-d’s words created our heads, hands, and heart. Our words open them up.