By Laura Seymour
Over the years, I have taught many classes on different topics in Judaism and have had countless conversations with people who have questions and ask for a “quick” answer (usually in the hallway at the J). Most of the lessons are on what we do and also why we do it but there is one area that is not talked about as much: God! We know that belief in God is part of Judaism but it often seems that we struggle more with the “stuff” we do and avoid the struggle with the presence of God in our lives.
Max Altman, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, wrote an article saying: “There’s a big God-shaped hole in Jewish education.” He spoke of teaching kids who have few opportunities to learn about the many ways Jews struggle with God: “The result is an overabundance of Jewish children who either understand God in non-Jewish terms or abandon belief altogether. But this need not be the case, as Judaism has a rich history of wrestling, engaging and redefining God. For thousands of years, our people have debated if, when and how God shows up in their lives and the young Jews of today deserve to be brought into that ongoing conversation.” We see so many Jewish adults still struggling with where God fits into their lives and there are so many understandings of the Divine from Jews past.
Jewish teachers usually say we must start with the children, but perhaps the first step should be aimed at the teachers and that includes teachers of preschoolers through senior adults. We must be comfortable to talk about God even when we may be struggling with it. We all recognize that this is a journey, not a final destination with our belief system totally intact. As the people of Israel, we are expected to wrestle with God and know that at different points in our lives our beliefs will change and there is no right or wrong. BUT we must get comfortable with God-talk and that is the first step.
Back to the children for a moment (starting with adults is hard): Know that young children find these conversations easy and we start with a story and sometimes a song. Each year, I begin “Torah with Laura” with the story of creation: In the beginning God created…. Sometimes that is as far as we get because we question who is God, where is God, what does God look like, where does God live? So many questions; children share thoughts and even argue with each other. This is the beginning!
So my challenge to parents of young children is, start the conversation and be open to all answers. Remember, too, we don’t have to have all the answers but we can say this is something grownups wonder about. Children believe we have all the answers but it is okay not to! My challenge to adults: This holiday season is a good time to start the conversation. After spending the morning of Rosh Hashanah in prayer, don’t go home to talk about whether the service was too long or too short but ask if you felt God’s presence that morning and what that means to you. Let’s begin our new year with lots of God-talk!
Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.