As I watch eager children (and not so eager high school students) waiting for the school bus, I am reminded of a Facebook comment a friend made last year around this same time.
She and her husband are atheists, and have raised their child to be just as skeptical. Having said that, they are a warm and loving family with good values, and not having a Higher Power has certainly not diminished the awe and wonder that the child feels while discovering nature and friendship with other people. Good times, all around.
But then school started, and a quandary happened. The parents had not prepared their child for the Pledge of Allegiance, a nominal token of morning patriotism where children place their hands on their chests and declare the USA is “one nation, under God”. How would this child react to that? What kind of conversation would the family need to have, after the first day of school?
This is, of course, not a unique situation. But what was unique was when a very active Jewish person on this Facebook thread responded to my friend by saying, “we don’t talk to our kids about that God stuff.”
I think this is a huge shame, because regardless of where one stands on the issue of the existence of God, it’s worth talking about. If you believe that the universe has a creator (and in full disclosure, I do believe that) then it effects a lot of how one lives and views the world. To not talk about God at all, to sweep God under the rug as some sort of non-issue is intellectual cowardice. Even worse are Jewish educators and rabbis who avoid God all together. One Jewish educator I spoke with about this replied, “I just don’t do God.” Funny that you will teach kids Hebrew blessings that start with “blessed are you, Lord our God”, but will not give any kind of context for what that can mean.
I used to think that the 2006 Harris Poll citing nearly 50% of Jews as atheists or agnostics was true, and that this is why so few Jewish people outside of Orthodoxy or Kabbalistic Reb. Zalman types will talk openly about God. I had this belief, in part, because of the experience of running the video series The G-d Project, where I absolutely killed myself to get Jewish people to talk about God: only to find out that Jews will talk about anything but God. Of course, this was not an issue all the time (300 videos prove that is not true) but it certainly felt that way.
I labored under this false Jews-are-all-atheists-belief, until I met a remarkable rabbi named Nathaniel (Nati) Helfgot, who chairs the departments of Bible and Jewish thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (Open Orthodox).
In a conversation (ironically at an event called The Conversation), Nati and I waxed poetic about why Jews will not talk about God. I threw down my 2006 Harris Poll factoid, expecting Nati to say some stereotypical Orthodox thing like, “I know! Why won’t these Jews get on HaShem’s derech Torah?!” Nati; however, is too cool for that. In Nati’s opinion, Jews love experts. And since no one can be an expert in God, there is no reason to talk about it.
The light went off in my head. It was like a spiritual revelation. Thanks rabbi!
Jews are called the People of the Book. The book, in this case, meaning the Torah. But perhaps the phrase People of the Books is better. Jewish life, at its best, is supposed to revolve around constant learning. Without this cultural mandate toward intellectual self-improvement, we would still be working in the garment districts as our immigrant ancestors.
The belief in the importance of learning is an amazing value; but to a certain degree, it has backfired on us. Our love of expertise means that we simply do not trust anyone who does not have the certification to back themselves up. As another friend of mine jokes, you can become a millionaire owning a garbage dump and no one at shul will think twice about you, but if you are a half million dollars in debt from studying to be a pediatrician, then you’re an amazing testament to human achievement.
In theory, rabbis should be the bridge between the God and the Jews gap. Rabbis have the closest things to Masters and Ph.D.s in God. But the problem is a poisoned well: the Jewish people know that no one, even a rabbi, can be an expert on the divine. You can’t use the scientific method, spreadsheets and pie charts to prove God’s existence, so what place can God possibly have in Jewish life, except for a relic to our ancient past, like animal sacrifice and the Kohanim?
I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. Feel free to respond below: perhaps you are more of an expert than I am.
Patrick Aleph is the Executive Director at PunkTorah. When Jewish problems aren’t keeping him awake at night, Patrick is a musician, author, and has recently learned that putting together lighting fixtures in his new apartment is not a skill he was blessed with. Friend him on Facebook.