My wife’s fourteen-year-old sister called yesterday.
“Are you coming over today?” She asked
“I’ll be over later this afternoon,” I said. “Why?”
“I’m having a history test tomorrow,” she said. “I need your help studying. I haven’t really been paying attention in class.” She laughed.
“All right. Sure. I’ll see you soon.”
“Thanks. See you. Bye.”
I arrived at my in-laws house later that afternoon. My daughter ran off to be spoiled by her other teenaged aunt, and I sat down at the dining room table with my sister-in-law, her notes, and her textbook. She opened the book to chapter three, “Ancient China.” She read from her notes, and I looked through the book and explained the material to her as best as I could. For a while we discussed ancient China’s geography, political system, and social makeup. Then we came to the section on religious beliefs. Specifically, ancestor worship.
“What does it mean, they ven-er-ated their ancestors?” She asked.
“In ancient China – and some people in China today – believed that their parents, grandparents, and other family members that passed away went to a different realm of existence where they continued to have an interest in and influence over their children’s and grandchildren’s lives.”
She looked at me quizzically.
“They davened to their dead ancestors for things.” I explained.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“They ‘davened.’” She said, making air quotes with her fingers.
“Yes, they davened, without the quotes.” I said. “They believed that their ancestors had influence in the world. The same way we daven that we should be healthy, our kids should be well, we should make money, they davened to their ancestors that they should be healthy, their kids should be well, their crops should grow and be plentiful, their animals should be healthy…”
She laughed. “Yeah, but when we daven its for real. Hashem answers us when we daven, and when He doesn’t, its because He says no because it wouldn’t be good for us.”
I wanted to point out to her that the Chinese were just as sincere in their prayers as she was in hers. I wanted to point out that in their belief system, their prayers were the ones that “real” and it was praying to an incorporeal monotheistic God in the sky that was silly. I wanted to point out the non-falsifiability of the claim that God answers all prayers – except for those He doesn’t. I wanted to point out that the same claim could be reasonably made about a rock, or a chair, or absolutely anything: if what you prayed for happens, attribute it to your prayer to the chair; if it doesn’t happen, its because the chair, in its infinite wisdom, knew that it wouldn’t be good for you, and so said no.
I didn’t point out anything. Instead, I let it go and moved on to the next section in the textbook.
As nice as my in-laws are, as kind, warm, and caring as they are, they would be very upset if I caused their fourteen-year-old daughter to have doubts. As it is, they’re not that happy about how much I’ve changed the way the daughter I married thinks. Nor are they happy about what I might teach their grandchildren.
Which brings me to the real problem, one that many in my position share. Educating my sister-in-law in comparative theology is not really my place. Nor do I think that it would be right at her age for me to deliberately and overtly change her worldview from the one her parents are trying to teach her. But educating my children and shaping their worldview is my place. More accurately, I want to make sure my children have the breadth of knowledge and the intellectual tools to decide for themselves what their worldviews will be. How do I this without making them pariahs in a community with a narrow definition of acceptable worldviews?
The first step is probably getting out of New York and away from the segmented sectarian communities that exist here. Moving to a more Modern community - one in which most ‘secular’ knowledge and an ostensibly rationalist epistemology falls within the bounds of community sanction – is another. As for where to go from there, well, we’ll see.