Teaching God on Their Terms

When I found out I would be teaching about God as part of my fellowship at Valley Temple, I was nervous. We started the year learning about prophets. Last semester we learned that a prophet is a messenger who has direct communication with God. This dovetails nicely with the second semester curriculum of God. I wondered, “How do I begin to explain the ideas about God that are swirling through Judaism?” I was sure the kids would ask questions I would not be able to answer. Moreover, I was told to teach the children many different viewpoints. Valley Temple does not teach a single theology of God. The religious school wants the kids to think through a lot of ideas so they can come up with their own understanding of what God is or is not. I was concerned. I wanted to present an objective view of a subjective topic. No matter what I taught, I knew the conversations were crucial as they were the first formal group exploration of the concept of God.

As I started to plan the curriculum for our semester on God, I referred back to several theories of developmental psychology that we discussed in our education class last semester including cognitive, moral, and theological development. Jean Piaget’s cognitive development model places children in stages based on their ability to understand the world around them. Children go from noticing the world to learning how to interact with it, to thinking concretely, and finally to thinking abstractly.[1] Fourth graders are right in the middle of the concrete operational stage. They prize reason and clear, linear logic. Working with an abstract concept like God is a challenging exercise. They struggle to understand God in light of scientific facts. In school they have learned about the big bang theory and evolution and cannot reconcile these with the creation stories of Genesis that show God creating each part of our universe from land to animals in seven days. A lot of people struggle with this, and some of us adults have chosen to think abstractly about it, but these children are not developmentally able to do that yet. They are trying, and they have a desire to talk about and understand God. One of my students is so excited to talk about God, and she wants to have all the answers. She is extremely bright, and she asks poignant questions. She often struggles because in our class there are so many more questions than there are answers. She is trying to make sense of her world in the way she knows how, and it does not include abstract thinking, just yet.

Based on my learning of theory and my experience of teaching, I see that the fourth-grade students’ moral and theological development are in a similar place. Based on Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning they value fairness and equality.[1] James Fowler, a student of Kohlberg’s who studied divinity at Harvard, created a faith development theory that parallels much of Kohlberg’s work and incorporates Piaget’s cognitive development theory as well. It describes this age group in the Mythical-Literal Faith stage. In this stage children “view life as linear and predictable, interpret stories literally.”[2] The Torah does not always portray God as fair or equitable. God has created a covenant with the Jewish people, and that sets us apart. Another of my students commented that she did not understand why Jews needed to be different from everyone else. She thinks we should all be treated equally, and she wants to be like everyone else. I explained to her that she is not alone. In fact, the Reform Movement has struggled for a long time with this tension between the particularist nature of Judaism and the desire for more universal appeal. We even have a revised version of the Aleinu that removes this exclusive language that reads: “Let us now praise the Sovereign of the universe, and proclaim the greatness of the Creator who has set us apart from the other families of the earth, giving us a destiny unique among the nations.” In its place, we read about a God who “spread out the heavens and established the earth, whose glory is revealed in the heavens above and whose greatness is manifest throughout the world.”[3] The second version aligns more with the children’s moral and theological stage of development. It presents a picture of God as stable ruler, caring and universal, equitable to all.

At the beginning of the year I was concerned about how to tackle the abstract concept of God with my fourth graders, but my concern has evolved since then. Instead of worrying which snapshots of the God conversation I share with them, I am finding real value in the questions and conversations themselves. In our class, we are slowly working our way through biblical understandings of God to rabbinic understandings and more modern interpretations, while simultaneously reading the book “I Have Some Questions About God,” which explores questions children all over the world have asked, with answers from six rabbis from America and England. The book and the discussions that result from it show these students’ yearning to engage with God. Whether they believe in God, are not sure, or do not believe in God, they want to talk about it. The kids often ask questions to which I do not have the answers. While this can be challenging for them and for me in the moment, ultimately, we are engaging in an age-old Jewish practice of struggling with our texts and our religious convictions. This is at once comforting and inspiring—comforting to see our traditions continue, and inspiring to see the next generation begin to mold Judaism for themselves.

Taylor Poslosky is a second-year rabbinical student serving as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Valley Temple, where she teaches fourth-grade religious school and fifth-grade Hebrew school classes.

[1] Roberta Louis Goodman, “Developmental Psychology,” in The Ultimate Jewish Teacher’s Handbook, edited by Nechama Sklonik Moskowitz (Denver: A.R.E., 2003), 89.

[2] Goodman, “Developmental Psychology,” 99.

[3] Elyse D. Frishman, ed., Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), 586.

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