Young scholars' questions
In synagogues around the globe, an equally important part of Sabbath morning worship, besides the worship itself, is the reception that comes afterwards. In my congregation, the cookies, kugels, cakes and candies that await our hungry attendees after a long morning of prayer would be no different from similar foods eaten on a weekday, except for the special “Sabbath spice” enhancing their flavor. According to Jewish legend, this “spice,” a symbol for the peaceful and spiritual nature of the Sabbath, is miraculously added to them during that weekly day of rest. Consumed in the setting of communal religious life, Sabbath food, like Sabbath socializing, takes on an almost mystical, intangible quality that adds to the holiness and restfulness of the day. Members of our congregation sit at ease, in no rush, nursing cups of coffee and nibbling on tasty foods. We allow ourselves the soul-healing necessity of catching up on each other’s lives, telling jokes and stories, and deepening our relationships with one another as a sacred community.
When they permit me, I like to ease my chair into the table where our fairly sizeable population of grade school and middle school students sits during these meals. Working hard to honor their boundaries, I try to listen quietly to what ancient Jewish tradition calls the vapor that falls from young children’s mouths. This is a metaphor for children’s prosaic chit chat which often reveals greater depth and religious insight than the arguments of our most luminous spiritual thinkers. On a recent Saturday, I ambled over to where a group of fifth, seventh, and ninth graders sat with one of the kids’ parents, engrossed in a lively discussion. Seeing me sit down, one of the oldest girls said, “Rabbi Dan, I have a question. Passover celebrates our liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. But doesn’t that mean it also celebrates the suffering and destruction of the Egyptians, many of whom were innocent bystanders in Pharaoh’s war with God and Moses?” She was referring to the last of the ten plagues, the death of the firstborn males of Egypt. The Bible reminds us that this included everyone, “from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the slave-girl who worked behind the millstones”; that is, every firstborn, regardless of his status or level of complicity in Pharaoh’s persecution of the Israelites.
Rather than toss off my own answers, I threw this girl’s question onto the table for conversation, then proudly watched the kids’ debate take off. For over half an hour, we traversed the universes of theology, the ethics of warfare, biology, societal responsibility and the politics of collateral damage. The younger kids made comments more suited to their stages of concrete thinking, the older ones entertained more abstract ideas, but no one in that little Sabbath morning group was silent. Everyone - not just us adults – had opinions to share, and they shared them with great spirit, humor, curiosity, and respect. We didn’t come up with definitive answers, but we certainly entertained some terrific questions.
Some would argue that kids’ lives are already filled with too many questions that are the results of relentless relativism and mind-boggling societal change. The purpose of children’s religious education should be to provide them with a counter cultural alternative: solid, definitive certainties, even dogmas of the faith, that will root and guide them. As a religious Jew deeply immersed in traditional morals and faith, I beg to differ. From the moment that God confronted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, demanding an accounting of their behavior with the words, “Where are you?”, the religious quest for truth has been all about asking questions: debate, argument, clarification, and most important, the deepened human relationships and communities that emerge from these endeavors. By asking questions, often regardless of the answers that follow, my students will hopefully cultivate the humility necessary for listening to and learning from others. They’ll develop the humanity necessary for behaving with respect and compassion toward other people, especially those whose opinions and life stories are different from theirs. They’ll see that their religion does have answers for their lives which they are welcome to explore, not forced to consume. And by asking questions in the context of their religious community, they’re hopefully learning that they belong to, and are loved unconditionally by, that community; they matter simply because they are a part of us, with no ideological or dogmatic litmus tests determining their basic human worth or belonging.
Outside the walls of our congregation on any Saturday afternoon, American society continues to be lacerated by toxic polarization, dogmatic certainty and blind hatred. Inside, as they share a meal, their questions and opinions around our Sabbath table, my young scholars are linking themselves to an unbroken, ancient chain of Jewish tradition and faith: one that honors uncertainty and civil debate in the service of the good life. May their searching questions and thoughts be that secret spice, which like the Sabbath itself, imparts the delicious flavors of honesty, decency and integrity to them.
Dan Ornstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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