Monday, October 26, 2015

The Meaningfulness of Jewish Identity

Is being Jewish meaningful without a belief in Judaism? A conversation I had with a friend over Shabbos got me thinking about this. He said that he's unsure of the validity of many of Judaism's claims,  up to and including the existence of God, but that it's important to him that his kids have strong Jewish feelings and  an attachment to Judaism and being Jewish.

I've often seen frum people claim that without the religious component, being Jewish is meaningless. I can see where they're coming from. What it means to be Jewish has, for most of the history of the Jewish people, been shaped by Judaism. Religious rules shaped our culture, influenced our values,  is a large part of what kept us distinct from the larger non-Jewish populations in which we lived, and even defined who was and wasn't Jewish. But being Jewish is about more than that. It is an identity that is separate from and transcends the religious rules that shaped it.

I'm an American, and I have deep feelings for my country. There's something stirring about seeing Old Glory snapping in the wind, something moving about quintessentially American songs like God Bless America, My Country 'Tis of Thee, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, or even those that have become children's songs, like Yankee Doodle and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. I believe in the Enlightenment principles on which this country was founded and am proud that we were the first nation to form a government on those principles, however poorly we have adhered to them at times.

Despite my being radically different from many Americans in some ways, in others we have much in common. We share many aspects of American culture and many of the same assumptions about the way things should be. Even the most bitter of disagreements about values and policies are framed by those shared assumptions. We share, among other things, a degree of attachment to and pride in our country matched by few other nations around the world.

I'm also a skeptic and a history buff, and I'm well aware that America's founding myths are just that. Myths, often exaggerated and ahistorical stories about our origins that tell of larger-than-life figures doing great deeds. The Pilgrims did not land at Plymouth rock and came here not so much in the pursuit of religious freedom as in the pursuit of the freedom to persecute those who disagreed with their religion. George Washington was a great leader of men who turned down a crown in accordance with his beliefs in the principles of democracy, but he was also ambitious, self-promoting, and a lousy tactician. The colonies went to war with Britain over taxes, but it was triggered as much by the British reducing tariffs, thereby causing the bottom to drop out of the lucrative smuggling business  of some prominent and influential American shipping magnates as it was about the Crown taxing colonists who had no voice in Parliament.

Yet despite my recognition that America's founding myths are not true, despite even recognizing that the United States has many, many flaws, my identity as an American is of great value to me. It informs who I am and connects me to a group of people, past, present, and future, with whom I share values, ideals, and a group identity. It allows me to feel pride in the accomplishments of my countrymen, and motivates me to address my country's flaws. My identity as an American is separate from and transcends the mythos that shaped the American consciousness.

So too my identity as a member of the Jewish people. There's something moving about the Jewish traditions that bind us together as a people. Despite being different from many Jews is some ways, there are cultural constants that we can all relate to. The Jewish people have had a pride in their Jewish identity and a tenacity matched by few others. My identity as a Jew informs who I am, allows me to feel pride in the accomplishments of my fellow Jews, motivates me to address our flaws, connects me to the sorrow of our national tragedies, and  makes me a part of our long, long history.

This all despite my rejection of the truth of the mythology that shaped much of that history.

Being Jewish is meaningful, with or without a belief in Judaism. It is meaningful as an identity. It is meaningful as a shared heritage, as a connection to the past which brought us to where we are today. It is as meaningful as a connection to all the other people who have identified as members of the Jewish people, past, present, and future. Without religion, being Jewish is not meaningful in a metaphysical sense, but so what? Meaning is what we make it, and to me, identifying with other people who share my unique heritage, and with the three-thousand-plus years of Jewish history,  is even more meaningful than being one of God's Chosen People.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Teaching Kids How to Think, Not What to Think

"Is Hashem real?"

It was a few months ago, during supper. My oldest, who's eight, put another forkful of food in her mouth and looked at me expectantly. My mind raced, trying to come up with a good way to answer the unexpected question.

"What do you think? I asked, both curious about her answer and stalling for time to think.

"I don't think so." She answered. "I think Hashem is like, someone from a story."

Recovering from the surprise of a fundamental theological question from my third grader, asked apropos of nothing between bites of mashed potatoes, I realized that I should handle it like I'd been handling the lesser religious questions my kids occasionally asked. Tell her about the different answers different people might give, along with age-appropriate explanations, and let her think about it.

"Some people think that." I said. "Other people think that He's real. You're teachers probably think that He's real."

She gave me a look that said, "No way!"

"Grandma and Grandpa think He's real, and so do Oma and Opa."

She laughed.

"They do." My wife chimed in.

"Some people think Hashem isn't real." I continued. "And some people aren't sure."

"What do you think?" My daughter asked.

I avoided the question. "Some people believe Hashem is real because that's what they were taught, or because that's what their family's believed for a long time, or because they think  He does stuff for them, or because they think they can prove it. Other people think there isn't any reason to think He's real. What do you think?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I still think Hashem is a story."

"Why'd you ask?" I asked.

She shrugged again, and went back to her supper.

Teaching my kids about religion gets complicated, most of all because my wife is a believer and I'm not, but also because I don't want to teach my kids what to think. I want to teach them how to think. About everything, not just religion. When one kid comes crying to me that another won't share a toy, or pushed her off the couch, or won't play what she wants to play, or hit her ("It was an ACCIDENT!") I don't just yell at the one who's in the wrong. Well, to be honest, sometimes I do, when I'm really busy or haven't had enough sleep or the kids just won't. Stop. Whining! But most of the time, I try to get each to think about what the situation felt like from the other's point of view, to understand why what she did was wrong, and to come up with a solution together. I want them to understand why they should or shouldn't do things, and to be able to think through a problem and come up with a solution. Not to just see A as good and B as bad because Mommy and Daddy said so.

I hit upon the present-the-range-of-views way of handling religious questions a little over a year ago, when we got new neighbors. A Lubavitch family with girls the same ages as my daughters moved in on our block. There aren't many kids on our street,  and my girls were delighted to have new playmates. About a month after they moved in, we were sitting around the fire pit in the backyard roasting marshmallows when my daughter asked, "What's tznius?"

I explained to her that tznius was how certain people thought people were supposed to dress and act in public, and that there are widely varying ideas of what was acceptable. She thought it was hilarious that nudists walk around naked, and so weird that someone would cover themselves completely in a burka before going outside.

Broad and fundamental religious questions don't come up too often. While religion is one of my favorite topics, and I often discuss it with friends or bore my wife talking about it, my kids don't pay much attention. They're more interested in their toys than the boring conversations the adults are having. Nor do my wife and I talk about it much to the kids. Religion in our house tends to be ritualistic rather than inspirational. We wash our hands and say hamotzie to thank Hashem, but we don't thank Him for finding a parking space. We don't say things like, "Baruch Hashem," or, "Bli ayin hara." To my kids, religion is about going to shul on Shabbos to eat candy and play with their friends, decorating the Succah, and the, "Hashem is here, Hashem is there…" version of God they picked up in school.

I encourage my kids to think about what they learn in school, usually by asking them questions to get them to think about it instead of just parroting it back. If Hashem is, "truly everywhere," does that mean He's in the food you're eating? Does He watch you  in the bathroom? Eww!

What to teach your kids when you're a skeptic raising children in a frum community is an often-discussed topic (or was, back when the blogosphere had more discussions). My solution has been to teach my kids how to think, not what, and to provide them with the tools and perspective to evaluate what they learn, whether in school or at home. They're still too young to really think independently, but I hope as they get older, as they learn more and as I'm able to teach them logic and critical thinking, they'll grow into people able to evaluate claims and to think for themselves. At that point, they'll make their own decisions about religion (and everything else), and I'll be proud of them for making up their own minds, whatever those decisions may be.