God Talk and Sixth Graders

The best conversations I have about God are with eleven-year-olds. Unlike most theological conversations I have with adults, the students in these conversations speak without fear or anxiety about sharing their beliefs. Typical adult fears about discussing religion — sounding ignorant, seeming inconsistent, or offending someone — do not surface in our classroom discussions. The students are eager to share their ideas about God and theories on the way the world works. They acknowledge that their ideas are works in progress, and they are comfortable changing their minds if they find themselves moved by what a classmate says or what I say. The students are often sad when I tell them we have to wrap up our conversation in order to move on to a different part of our lesson and insist that they just have one more question or one more comment to share. After these class sessions, the students’ ideas and comments stick with me, sometimes entering my thoughts during my rabbinical school classes.

During this upcoming semester, I will study Jewish theology in a formal context as part of our rabbinical school curriculum. I look forward to reading what Emmanuel Levinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Judith Plaskow have to say about how Jews understand and relate to the divine. I anticipate rich theological conversations and debate with my classmates as we try to articulate our own beliefs. As much as I appreciate my rabbinical school studies, I honestly cannot guess whether I will enjoy these discussions more than the God talks I enjoy with my sixth-grade Hebrew students.

One of several components of my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship is directing an online Hebrew program for forty-five fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students from Wise Temple. One of the perks of this fellowship has been the opportunity to teach two of our seven classes, including a cohort of sixth graders whom I have now taught for three years. It has been a great privilege to watch these students learn, see how their ideas develop, over the years. I especially appreciate moments when I see them take an idea or God concept that they had articulated in a previous study unit and apply it to our new unit. This kind of synthesis demonstrates that they are retaining and integrating the material into their personal Jewish identities, a core goal in any Jewish educational setting.

Like many Hebrew school curricula, our study of Hebrew is paired with the study of Jewish liturgy. Every few weeks, the students learn a different Jewish prayer — how to read or chant its Hebrew words as well as grasp its meaning. Each time I introduce a new prayer, we read the prayer or parts of it in English and discuss what it teaches us about God and the relationships among God, humanity, and the world. Although these sixth graders have not studied Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, ideas about the interplay between these three entities in the form of creation, revelation, and redemption do surface in our sixth-grade liturgy discussions from time to time.

For example, when studying the prayer Yotzer Or, which praises God’s creative capacity, one of my students shared that he sees God as a creative artist. For him, God has endless art supplies —I think his chosen example was crayons — and then uses these crayons to create the world around us. I asked this student if God still had and used these crayons and he said “yes.” We then discussed how his vision of God as an active artist coincides with Yotzer Or’s message that God renews creation on a daily basis and that the world is filled with God’s works.

Another recurring theme of our conversations about God, especially when talking about creation, is the difference between the way the Torah teaches us about the world and the way science teaches us about the world. We regularly discuss the different goals of religion and science, often returning to the theme that science teaches us how life works while religion teaches us what life means. One student in particular struggles with the existence of any God who creates or acts in the world. He talks about a God who may be real and present but doesn’t act in our world like our liturgy tells us God does. His voice is an important one in our discussions as he often gives me the opportunity to remind the students that struggling with God, belief, and Judaism is part of Israel’s mission. I hope that these dialogues help him articulate his beliefs about his understanding of the world, however he understands God’s role or presence in it.

We recently studied G’vurot and had a fascinating conversation about the concepts of redemption and messianism. After discussing the difference between an individual messiah and a messianic age, the students started talking about what a hypothetical perfect time would be like and which problems would be solved. These ideas ranged from serious (an end to war and hunger) to silly (an end to homework and chores), and one student surmised that basically things would be perfect. Most of the students agreed and continued to share what would and what wouldn’t be a part of their hypothetical messianic era, but one student’s hand immediately shot up. She proceeded to argue that while solving these problems would be a good thing, perfection is boring. If everything in the messianic age were perfect, she wouldn’t want to live in it. Instead, she prefers a world with challenges and room for improvement and growth, both on a personal and global level. She said that these things keep life interesting and make it fun. Perfection may be part of God’s realm, but for this student, it cannot and should not be part of the human world.

Articulating one’s religious beliefs and participating confidently in theological conversations is not a skill that many Jewish adults practice on a regular basis. Due to the fears I mentioned earlier — including worries about sounding ignorant, seeming inconsistent, or offending someone — many adults simply avoid the topic of God altogether. Another unfortunate consequence of this avoidance is that people lack the vocabulary and the confidence to draw upon their beliefs at moments when they do think about God, often moments of tragedy.

As a Jewish educator and especially as a teacher of prayer, I will continue to give my students plenty of opportunities and a safe setting in which to practice articulating their beliefs and discussing them with others. I hope this will enable them to express these beliefs outside the classroom in respectful conversations with both Jews and members of other faiths. I hope that at any moment whether mundane, joyful, or painful, these students are able to draw upon their beliefs as a source of guidance, meaning, and comfort. I hope to continue to lead and teach in communities in which open, respectful dialogue and strong, but ever-evolving belief are the norm.

Ally Resnik Jacobson serves as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Wise Temple where she coordinates online Hebrew, leads religious school tefilah, and facilitates adult education classes.

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