On a recent morning walk to preschool, my five-year-old was musing to herself and came to a logical conclusion:
If I’m God, and the sidewalk is God, then God is walking on God. That’s funny, right?
Despite our family’s committedly traditional Jewish lifestyle, my daughter is hardly receiving any theological indoctrination from home. My wife and I both believe in a Higher Power, but neither of us is the sort to suggest that anybody else should agree with us. We’re pluralists.
Mostly, my daughter’s understanding of God is based upon what she learns at her Israeli State-Secular preschool.
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A quick digression:
Jewish schools in Israel
- In Israel there are more than a few different categories of Jewish schools, which include:
- These receive 75% of their funding from the state and are required to teach 75% of the core curriculum. They are not run by the state.
- These receive 55% funding and are required to teach 55% of the core curriculum. Not run by the state.
- Not-approved (i.e. illegal);
- Operated by certain ultra-Orthodox sects (mostly affiliated with Satmar).
- Ultra-Orthodox schools for boys in Israel, by and large, hardly teach core curricular studies at all, and the Ministry of Education does next to nothing to hold any of them accountable.
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Back to: Walking on God
My child’s new conception soon led to further conclusions. She reasoned, for example, that if air is God, it follows that God breathes God; and if food is God, God eats God; and if clothing is God…
The examples are endless, and the ensuing conversations still fascinate her. Almost daily, she continues to come up with questions about God, most of which I respond to with, “Some people believe that.”
“Some people believe that.”
“What do you believe?”
“Personally, I believe that God created everything, but I’m not sure of anything beyond that.”
“Well, I believe that God makes everything happen.”
“Ok – that’s fine.”
“Because you can believe whatever you want to believe.”
“I believe God controls everything!”
Although discussing God renders me uncomfortable, I try to engage my daughter at such moments, encourage her reflections, and answer her as thoroughly and honestly as I am able. Will these profound contemplations at such a fledgling age serve her in developing a personal theology and worldview that she can find comfort and security in? I don’t recall having a concept of God during my preschool years, and I certainly don’t recall giving the notion any serious thought until well into my teens.
Still, despite my relative open-mindedness, there is one particular religious notion that my daughter picked up from preschool, which grates on me. It relates to the death (c. 166 BCE) of Mattathias, father of Judah Maccabee, which my child was told stories of in the context of Ḥanukah. It’s not clear how Mattathias died, but the preschool teacher was quite clear about what happened to him afterwards: he “ascended” to the “Garden of Eden”. 😒
- To be clear:
- But: The trope of dying and arriving at the Garden of Eden has its roots in Christian theology – not in Jewish thought.
- So… Why bring up Mattathias’ death in the first place, given that it’s not central to the story of the Seleucid Greeks’ defeat at the hands of the Maccabees?
I have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding why our preschool teacher would describe death like this to the little tykes.
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I am very sensitive to questions surrounding death, particularly in the context of my daughter’s growing understanding of what it means to have lost her grandfather. She was only three-and-a-half when he died, and she had never encountered death before:
… death was still beyond her imagination… The euphemism of “moving to a faraway place” came to us fairly quickly. We were dazed, stunned, unsteady; our overriding instinct was to protect our [not a] baby.– The Skeptic’s Kaddish for the Atheist #49, Jul. 16, 2019
By the time she was four-and-a-half-years-old, her understanding of death had matured:
Our conversations today, one year after Papa died, are incomparably more substantive than they once were… she… [has even] tested her developing understanding with me: “Is it right that my grandfather died?”– ibid.
Today, our [not a] baby is nearly five-and-a-half (going on sixty), and in the last half year she has taken a great liking to Disney movies, wherein the characters sometimes die. She watches these movies over and over again, teasing out the tiniest nuances in dialogue and action, and repeatedly asking us for clarifications, including:
- In the movie ‘Tangled’, why did Mother Gothel‘s body disintegrate into dust when she died?
- In the movie ‘The Princess and the Frog’, was Ray (a firefly character) buried at his funeral? Why not?
- In the movie ‘Snow White and the Seven dwarfs’, why didn’t the dwarfs bury Snow White? And- what’s a coffin?
- In the movie ‘Mulan’, what happened to Shan Yu‘s body after he was blasted into a tower of fireworks?
It’s less painful, of course, to answer questions such as these than to answer her questions regarding Papa’s death, but one train of thought often leads to the other; our conversations often turn to Saturday, July 7, 2018 and the year that followed. Many, many times she has asked me, “Are you sad that Dedushka Shurik (or: your father) is dead?”
“Are you sad that your father died?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I am also sad because my grandfather died.”
“I understand; he loved you very, very much, but that is the natural course of life. Everything that is living will die. Animals, plants…”
“When will you die?”
“Nobody knows when they will die.”
“Only God knows.”
“Right. Only God knows. Don’t worry – I’m not old or sick so I’m not going to die soon.”
I know, I know… I’m lying to her somewhat. The truth is, I could die today for any number of unexpected reasons. Nobody, but nobody, expected my friend Zvi z”l to die last month. How does a health-conscious, vegetarian marathon runner suddenly expire one evening? The reality is: he just fucking does.
* * *
So I’ve been struggling.
I don’t know what’s existentially true.
I don’t know what metaphysically true. Fundamentally,
I don’t know the Truth.
|The experience has been acutely uncomfortable, sometimes even hurtful, but as a father I attempt to navigate a path between the caliginous crags of possibility and truth without shattering myself against either.|
It’s been working(?)