It didn't seem like a hard question

The class was filled with 4th graders. 10 and 11 year olds who were ready to take on the world. Who didn’t yet have all the answers (that wouldn’t come until they were teenagers) but who were willing to tackle any question thrown at them – as long as the effort didn’t require a ton of reading and included snacks and a chance to move around. Luckily, I was their teacher and I had the same pre-requisites.

We were sitting around the room. And when I say that, I mean we were REALLY sitting around the room. On top of counters, under tables, on the floor. A couple of kids were sitting on chairs – backward. I told the class they should sit wherever they wanted as long as it was safe and didn’t hurt anyone else. It was a perk of having class with a lunatic teacher. But we were in a Saturday afternoon program at my synagogue, and I felt like I needed to break the rules of classroom etiquette a bit, just to ensure a sense of novelty that would keep the kids engaged and paying attention.

“So who is God?” I ask, getting down to business, “Who is God to YOU. Not God the way Rabbi explains it, not the way your parents talk about it. Who is God to you, Sarah, Josh, (I name the rest of the class). Is God the Jimminy Cricket voice on your shoulder? The “dear diary” you check in with at the end of the day? The invisible friend who’s with you all day? The dangerous super-parent you try to stay clear of to avoid being smited heavily?”

In the pause that follows, I think to myself “aaaaand that’s the downside of having a lunatic teacher. You never know what’s going to come out of his fool mouth.”

Then the responses start tumbling forth. Answers. Revisions to answers. Ideas. Speculations. Questions in response to my question. It’s bedlam: chaotic, jumbled, messy and utterly wonderful. By the end of the session, I’m energized – completely ready for the next phase of our weekly learning: the family group session.

Weekly Shabbaton goes like this: families come as a group. Everyone starts together for singing or prayer and announcements, and then breaks up into age-appropriate groups. The adults go with the Rabbi. Everyone studies the same text or topic, in greater or lesser depth depending on the group. Then 3 or 4 families come together to extend that learning as a smaller multi-generational group. The same teachers who worked with the kids facilitate these sessions, but because of simple logistics the kids often ended up with different teachers for the family learning session.

I was really looking forward to hearing what the parents had to say about their relationship with God. I was hopeful that they’d be brave enough to even share their doubts or concerns, just to allow the kids to see that this was a lifelong process that changed and grew.

“So…” I said to the families, once they were settled. (This time the seating was more traditional. Unsurprisingly, parents – and some grandparents – were less interested in sitting on counters or under tables.) “Parents, this is a question just for you to start things off: Who is God to YOU? What is your relationship to the Creator of All? When do you find yourself communicating to God?”

As the saying goes, you could hear crickets. Parents looked at each other, faces unreadable. Then back at me. The swelling enthusiasm I felt as the session began was deflating with a squealing noise that was practically audible. Was the question to pedantic? Had the Rabbi already given the “right” answer in his session and now everyone thought I was trying to lure them into a trap?

Finally one brave soul said “Your question makes me really uncomfortable. I’ve never really thought about God at all.” This received enthusiastic nods of agreement from parents around the room.

“Really?” I respond, trying to cover my shock with a tone that I hoped sounded like I was inviting exploration rather than putting this person on the spot. But I was floored. Here we were, teaching as part of a congregation with a 150 year history. People had access to 3 different Rabbis and a cantor, not to mention a full staff of educators, many with s Master’s degree in Jewish studies. And this was a new question?

I finished the session, allowing the kids present to buoy the discussion along. The adults, however, remained thoughtfully quiet.

A few days later I had a chance to relate the experience to the other teachers. I wanted their take on it. Was I being naieve? Did I present the material the wrong way?

“Wow,” said one teacher. He was younger than me, but had been teaching in a Jewish setting for about 5 years more than I. “I never thought of it either. I just… you know… God was just God.”

Over the years, a couple of the people present that day have caught up with me, and we revived the “Who is God” discussion. I still carry around unanswered questions myself. Was the adult response just a factor of the specific people in the room that day? Was it based on the way I presented the material, catching people off guard? Was it indicative of the movement the synagogue was part of?

Or did I really hit upon some unspoken, unasked, unexplored assumption of Judaism. Many Rabbis have asserted that a Jew need not believe in God, although my sense is that this assertion is more thereputic than dogmatic (as if to say “It’s OK for you to feel that way right now. We know you will come around when you are ready.”).

But is the flip side of this assertion that many communities have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy?