Wise Son (Religious Education & Unbelief)


I’ve had cause to puzzle about religious education. Let’ say you send a kid to an orthodox Jewish day school, because you figure it’s actually the best Jewish day school in the city, and because you want him to know stuff, and not to be an ignoramus.  

Already in 2nd grade, the kid can recite with great relish all the stuff by heart –the stories, blessings, prayers etc. while also understanding that the Torah is a human document. And he doesn’t believe a word of it. About God, he knows as only an 8 year old can know that “Hashem doesn’t exist.”

And if you ask the kid who created nature, and he responds nature, what can you say? It’s a pretty good answer. A radical empiricist, he does not believe in a self-creating God who does not appear to the optical eye. In self-creating nature, sure, but not in a self-creating God since nature would be more able to prove its own existence. On this, he’s going to trust the science. Maybe you might have once in the car mentioned Spinoza to him, but it’s his business, the fact that any of this made an impression upon him.

At this age, there seems to be no cognitive dissonance. Perhaps, for now at least, no one is forcing the issue, compelling him to decide one way or the other between the stuff he likes and the stuff that he’s going to reject. The old proofs proving the existence of God are worthless. A more “aesthetic” approach to religion might provide greater conceptual clarity, but absolutely no resolution.

The only way I think one can set this up is to explain:

— that the Bible is a picture book. A picture of an apple is not an apple. A picture of God is just a picture. Maybe it’s true that a picture does not lie out of whole cloth; it lies about “something.” Or maybe that’s not true, and religions lie out of whole cloth all the time. Another possibility is a complex mix of obscure truths and lies.

–perhaps the value of a picture is in the picturing, not in the pictured. Or perhaps that’s not right either because even the very act of religious picturing itself is always already pernicious.

Do you really care what the kid believes, as long as he understands the logical, “primitive” possibilities that inhere to this or that theoretical position.

In the meantime, he anchored the family Seder this year because he and his pal know more of the tunes than anyone else. Does that make him a zombie? Or was Mendelssohn right about the relative non-importance in Judaism of cognitive, propositional belief?

I’m beginning to see how time has everything to do with questions about religion and religious education. These kinds of things can’t be answered all at once like a simple math problem. They take time, no matter where the answer ends up falling. Or maybe that’s not right either. One way or the other, at some point, maybe you just “know” about this kind of stuff all at once, with the intuitive clarity of a young person.

I’m not sure what all of this says about the liberal parents. In his review of the New American Haggadah, Leon Wieseltier reminds us that the child is supposed to ask questions and the parent is supposed to respond with answers about the exodus from Egypt and about what God did for me. But it’s the textualization of those answers in the Haggadah that allows one to transform propositional, conceptual content (what Leibniz and Mendelssohn called necessary, eternal truths) into the image-work of contingent truths and historical story-telling.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Wise Son (Religious Education & Unbelief)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    I struggle with this too. my children go to a chabad school and while on the one hand i love and identify with chabad, my fundamental agreement with the mendelsohnian position really makes this more an aesthetic than a dogmatic identity. at present both are more or less theologically immersed in that world, which i am ok with. I figure that I have tons of books of all sorts around and my children know i read them, that i read more than chasidut and gemarra. if they are curious then they will eventually read what i have and ask questions, and if not then they won’t. the hagadah begins with the child’s own questions, not our answers. their questions ought to frame the response.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    in a broader sense, i am comfortable with the dissonance that mendelsohn’s project opens (at least implicitly) – a revealed law, not a revealed dogma, which means, that the revealed quality of the revealed law need not adhere to the dogma of revelation or of god. but, yet, this will have been revealed. the reason why i think all modern denominations (from orthodoxy to reconstruction etc.) are failures is because all follow after mendelsohn in some way or another (we are all post-haskala jews) but each in its own way falls short of the demand which mendelsohn makes. orthodoxy, by failing to disbelieve, liberal judaism (of one strand or another) for failing to believe. both attempt in their own way to avoid discomfort and dissonance by adopting one or the other prong of the paradox and, in doing so, totally miss the point, miss what I think is the quintessentially jewish: holding mutually exclusive views as the “word of god”.

Leave a Reply