The Children of Israel 8: God and the Youngsters of Zion

The professional literature on the spiritual life of children is pretty slim. But there is one classic, a work by that name as final part of a trilogy composed by the great Robert Coles. Coles spoke and mainly listened to kids around the age of 10 about what God meant to them. The account is a fascinating document giving testimony to the intense concern that children around the world have with this issue.

As best I know, there has never been such a study in Israel, neither among Jews nor other religions. What I hope to provide is an imaginary tour through how my experience over three decades in Israel suggests that the territory may look, at least among Jews. It would be wonderful if someone with Coles’ talent would go to the field and check this out. In the meantime, perhaps my diverse observations and reflections could inspire someone to do so.

We can begin with the well-known and publicized “fact” (aka some poll result that claims validity and to which Israelis are addicted). that at least 70% of Israeli Jews “believe in God.” This would suggest that a large majority of adults talk with their kids about “God.” In my experience this is hardly the case. Rather, Israeli children are left with a huge vacuum in this seemingly crucial, really most essential question. There is a great deal of beating around related bushes: “Doing Teshuva” [moving from secular to Torah lifestyle], keeping Mitzvot [commandments of the Torah], belonging to some camp [especially “secular”, “religious Zionist,” ”ultra-Orthodox religious Zionist,” and various brands of “ultra-Orthodox,”  Lubavitch, and a small fringe more like American Reform and Conservative].  “God”  Him/Herself is hardly ever referred to generically in “religious “ parlance, but usually by the terms “HaShem” [a strange quirk by which a God whose name cannot be named gets to be called “The Name” as if that is his name] or “The Holy One Blessed be He” [HaKadosh Baruch Hu]. Much more is said in the name of the “Torah” than in the name of God. In popular parlance of preaching to adults, God is emphasized as a source of love and security for the individual and for the Jewish people.

No child can remain indifferent to the way God is served up in the media. Since no one “secular” talks about God, the area if left open for rabbis. Often prominent  Rabbis have gained publicity by explaining disasters in terms of direct punishment for be lax in some commandment [Mezuzot a strange favorite] or perhaps a Divine righting of an imbalance [notably New Orleans being flooded as punishment for an entire non-Jewish community that did not protest the Gaza Disengagement of 2005]. Just this past week an intense public polemic swept the media over a prominent Rabbi insulting and inciting against the entire LGBT community, with the public support of several hundred “rabbis”. This creates an impression that God’s will is transparent to human beings, especially male bearded, robed and occasionally turbaned human beings; there are some competing female preachers out there as well.

It is my impression that many children are introduced to God as some force that is strangely like a person who makes regular personal demands, the main demand being to be like your teacher, or perhaps your teacher’s teacher, -to my experience especially in the group that sees itself as continuing the practice and ideology of the late Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, the rabbi most associated with the West Bank Settlements)  This is particularly true among the religious Zionist population. There God seems to have rather specific political opinions and even knows for whom to vote. If we look at this population and its institutions for a moment, I think  many children are left very confused about what is “spiritual” as opposed to regimented, and are ill prepared to discuss belief in any but and ideological and polemic discourse. Here we may recall that when that extraordinary gadfly Menachem Mendel of Kotsk was asked, “Where is God in the world?”, he replied “Where man lets him in.” The idea that man searches for God, that there are God-directed activities that underlay repeating prayers, is remote to the experience of the great majority of boys in the “MaMaD” government sponsored religious schools.

While this might seem strange, I think a brief detour into the thoughts of the French social thinker Michel Foucault may help us here. As I pointed out at length in Losing It, Foucault actually quoted a Midrash [Rabbinic expansion on the Torah] to delineate two forms of going about governing, called dispotifs. The “pastoral” dispotif derives from the Judaeo-Christian notion that the Emperor is responsible for the spiritual salvation of each of his subjects. His source is the story of Moses who went looking for a stray goat [kid]. He found him drinking at a fountain and said, “If I knew you were thirsty I would have brought you here myself,” and carried the kid back to the flock on his shoulders. Once Rome adopted Christianity, this became – at least in theory – the role of the Emperor. Europe was engage in centuries of bloody wars over who exactly got to be Emperor, but not over the definition of the Emperor’s role. This changed in 1648 when the European states decided to allow a balanced group of states to coexist without an Emperor, ratified in the Treaty of Westphalia. Now the “Westphalian” states needed to use their populations [this is when that term became central to political discourse] to balance military and economic forces across boundaries. Now the citizen was responsible as a member of the population to provide the state with wealth and arms to maintain this balance.

Israel is devoted to acting like a “Westphalian” state, despite the lack of prospects for any rational balance with her neighbors, either by default or by choice.  The religious Zionists, who one would expect to be pastoral, instead have adopted a “Westphalian” population dispotif, struggling to create the population who will settle the West Bank and sabotage any possible peace accord that could include territorial concession. Their discourse in commonly in the name of “the people” [HaAm] and this seems to take priority over the personal relation of each child to God. The salvation that is sought is the populations’ salvation which can only be achieved by territorial intransigence. Mutatis mutandis, children who do not fit into this camp are indirectly encouraged to leave religious schools, using the very strange quasi-Biblical notion of keeping the “Camp” pure. I admit that my own son was treated in this way, with an understandably negative response to this version of “God.” I do not claim impartiality here. What is interesting to point out here is how Judaism, the very source of a pastoral dispotif, at least in the West, has adopted the population approach as it has become politicized.

In the religious Zionist “Camp”, I suspect that there is a significant gender differential here. I suspect that girls are more encouraged and enabled to take a “relationship” with God seriously. As a result, I think fewer girls leave the “Camp,” and more retain both tradition and a spiritual quest. This differential is multifactorial. I think it includes making less demands on the girls, especially in the form of Talmud study, as well as the tendency of girls to give higher priority and sensitivity to relationships over ideology. In addition, girls are generally not exposed to secular Israeli culture in the IDF as they generally prefer a “National Service” that is traditional in life style. One could speculate that the “pastoral” dispotif is closer to a female way of proceeding, and that perhaps “Westphalia” would not have happened or would have happened quite differently if women were the heads of the various European states in 1648.

My experience with the ultra-Orthodox [“Haredi”] community actually was quite different in this regard.  Here I found the pastoral dispotif alive and well. Haredim never participated in anything like Westphalia because they are ambivalent participants even of the Israeli state. Here I found boys being treated as individuals and the boy’s relationship to God was given far more discussion and attention. It is true that in some areas the issue was only about keeping the boys “in line,” as the Israel’s biased anti-Haredi  media loves to suggest. But in my experience this is an oversimplification. I found Haredim more willing to make every effort to keep each boy connected with God , and I never saw any boy being labeled or prepared for expulsion. To the Haredi guidance counselors I trained for three years in Bnei Brak, that was simply unthinkable.

I was allowed much less access to Haredi female teachers of girls, but here I was disappointed. While the women seemed concerned about “spiritual” values of the girls, I have to admit that when I asked about with which spiritual values they were concerned, the answer was – the length of their sleeves. My impression – very tentative – was that God was less discussed among the Haredi girls, somehow not a topic deemed appropriate for females. I hope I am wrong.

In Israel “secular” schools and society in general, God just doesn’t seem to come up. Here there is an interesting gap between the 70% who “believe in God” that must include about half of “secular” Jews in Israel, and their children. In my experience, mostly in Israel’s Southern district but also in the over-valued “Center,” children experience “spiritual” questions about ultimate direction and meaning in a vacuum. That vacuum reflects a reluctance of adults to engage children in these questions. In classical Zionism there was an expectation that “Nationhood” and its territorial expression in the Jewish State  would replace any other competing ultimate quest or claim. Here Foucault’s thoughts on this “Westphalian” dispotif argue that religious quest would be valued only if it serves the population’s production of security (military) and economic goods (“Start-Up Nation” and such nonsense). No surprise then that it is only devoutly “Westphalian” religious Zionists who are supported and wield such a heavy hand in today’s government. The sanctity of any individual spiritual quest is subordinated to “Westphalian” objectives. “Secular” Israelis on the right would find the “God” part of the puzzle simply superfluous  (witness that strange chimera stitched together by Education [!] Minister Naftali Bennett). Left- leaning secular Israelis would understandably tend to throw out the baby (God) with the bathwater (revisionism).  About what “God” could they speak with their kids?

So the Kotsker might be aghast to observe that Israeli “man/woman” has such trouble “letting God in” to the development of his/her children!

I beg the indulgence of anyone who has read this far to let in a cameo appearance of that Jew who first made the West aware of the Kotsker, Martin Buber. Buber’s classic I and Thou is an electrifying answer to how man can “let God in.” Buber stood Western philosophy on its (Eastern) head and suggested three simultaneous moves. First, adopting direct second person face to face relationship involves a man’s being a different “I” from the “I” who uses or experiences in the third person [“I-It”]. Second, the only “I” that can address God is this “I” [“I-Thou”] since the only “word” man can say to God is “You.” Man can only address God, never know about Him. Third, anytime a man turns to a “You” – to nature, to another man, or to works of “Spirit” [geistige Wesenheiten], that turning is simultaneously a turning to the Eternal You. Oh, and one last point relevant to this discussion. Children live more in the “I-Thou” realm of existence than do adults. So the “turn” to second person relating to the world, to another man, to works of spirit or to God is always a “return” [Umkehr].

I retranslated I and Thou into readable Hebrew with the hope that it would find its way into the backpacks of young Israelis on their way to India and Nepal. Reflecting upon what I have written here, I might say that I imagined these young men and women, with whom no one has ever seriously spoken of God, searching for some Eastern discourse about God. I wanted Buber to represent a major and unique voice of Jewish tradition, one practically absent among Israeli adults let alone in the meeting of adults with children. Perhaps I hoped as well that Israeli adults might learn from Buber to “return” to a discourse in which adults needed children as much as children needed adults. Such hopes are not likely to meet with “success” as measured in strictly Westphalian Israel, since Buber’s work neither increases security nor starts up cash. But here and there it will perhaps be “let in,” together with God.

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. He is currently CEO of Family Instiute of Neve Yerushalyim, sponsoring a first fully accredited post-masters training in family therapy for the Haredi community. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.