TEACHING RELIGION

It makes perfect sense that we want to share our religious identities with our children, given that they are like second selves. However, our children are also separate from us. To share my present beliefs and values with my future self—literally myself—it’s usually enough to simply keep thinking in the same way. But to get all that from my head into my child’s head is another matter. Some of the effort is easy and uncontroversial: if I want to share a fondness for Hanukkah latkes, for example, all I’ve got to do is enlist my kids in making latkes once a year. This is no different from trying to share my love of the Beatles by playing Beatles songs. But if I want to get Jewish beliefs into my kids’ heads, it takes a different approach. In fact, it’s a particular challenge to share religious beliefs, no matter what the religion, because religious beliefs are typically hard-to-fathom beliefs about distant and seemingly impossible events.

Because of the odd content of the beliefs being taught, my kids started asking questions just as soon as their first year of religious school began, when they were seven. They wanted to know if the teacher was telling the truth. Having had no religious education myself, I couldn’t picture the scene, so I attended a few classes. What was I expecting? I guess I thought the kids would be taught Bible stories, and that it would be left vague whether these were stories in the fiction sense or in the newspaper sense. What I discovered was not vagueness at all: Bible stories were presented as stories in the newspaper sense.

In the first class I attended, the teacher spoke about God as if he were a real person with whom the children were in regular contact. At one point she asked them, "What do you do when you want to feel close to God?” This seemed to be a bewildering question, and not just to my kids. The other kids also went silent and looked puzzled. But interestingly, they knew not to express their bewilderment. One brave child said he got in the car to be close to God. Wrong! The teacher corrected him and said, "We come to Temple when we want to feel close to God.” Another question was "What does God want us to do?” More silence.

If you want kids to believe that an invisible being is available for close encounters and that this being thinks it’s imperative that they behave in a certain way, it may take a certain amount of suppression of doubt and debate. This makes religious education distinctive. Though we can’t give kids all the evidence we have for the science we teach them, and can’t prove to them that any ethical precepts are indubitable, the way we teach those things doesn’t involve the same prohibition on skepticism and debate. We don’t ask kids to turn off their critical faculties, but instead answer questions as best we can. It is objectionable, I think, to teach the improbable and then disallow what naturally comes of the improbability: questioning, doubting, debating, challenging. It’s not unfair to call this a process of indoctrination.

Another worry I had was that the religious school taught kids to believe things that the adults in charge didn’t even consider true. For example, in one lesson a teacher spoke about Abraham. "You mean Abraham Lincoln?” said a child. The teacher allowed that Abraham from the Bible inhabited the same dimension of reality as Abraham the president; he was just a different Abraham. Which one? The teacher answered: the one who almost killed his son. This was not presented to children as an instructive story about faith, but as a historical sequence of events. Do the adults believe the story of Abraham and Isaac is true? In my experience of the clergy at this liberal temple, I get the impression the answer is no. They know the difference between history and myth.

When I asked the religious school director about these issues, he couldn’t have been more supportive and understanding, but his explanation didn’t make much sense to me. He explained that young children had to be taught simple ideas—they weren’t ready for complexities. I suspect the real reason for keeping it simple at a young age and discouraging questions is that young children are thought to be especially trusting and receptive. If we impart a body of doctrine to them when they are at that trusting stage of life, it’s more likely to sink in and take root.

Perhaps both are true: kids are trusting, and they are capable of doubting and questioning. But it’s disturbing to think their trust is being exploited for purposes of inculcating beliefs the adults don’t even have. But then, who was I to complain? I had enrolled my kids in this school knowing they would be taught at least some things I don’t believe—like the basic idea that there is a god who created the world and cares about us. I had to be complicit in this exploitation of their trust.

Now, lies are not all bad, as I argued in chapter 14, so religious- education lies could, in principle, be defensible lies. The category of the lie is the lie that shores up identity, for that really is the goal, for many teachers and parents involved in religious education. (Another example of an identity-supporting lie is "My country is the greatest country in the world.”) Is the identity-supporting lie another class of sometimes-defensible lies, like entertaining lies, protective lies, and expedient lies? I can’t say for sure, but I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable with my children’s religious education.

After visiting several classes and also visiting some other religious schools, I decided I had to give up on religious education. Not only did I have the worries about indoctrination and lying, but the effort to forge a Jewish identity in my children by imparting beliefs wasn’t working. My kids thought these beliefs were ridiculous. They didn’t believe the story about Moses receiving laws from God on a mountain top. They didn’t think there was an Abraham who was told by God to sacrifice his son. One day my daughter said, "If this is what being Jewish is, then I’m not Jewish.” These beliefs felt very foreign to her, not familiar and appealing, like Hanukah latkes. At that point we switched to a different mode of being Jewish, one that involves activities, rituals, music, and social justice causes, but no formal religious education.

 
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