Passing on the Faith
You Shall Teach Them to Your Children
Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
"Rabbi, how do I make sure that my children believe in God?" "How do we make sure that our kids will carry on our traditions?" "How can we assure a successful future for our community?"
If these are not the most common questions that I hear in the contemporary Jewish community, they are certainly near the top of the list. And people want answers! In fact, people often want the answer. They want to know the magic bullet response, and of course there isn't one.
Human beings are simply too complex, and the journey of one's soul to infinite, to ever be reduced to a finite response. There are, however, approaches that can help us respond more productively to these often asked questions.
When it comes to believing in God, I am reminded of the words of the famous singer and outreach worker, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who said that he too was always asked by parents about how make sure that their kids believed in God. "Better," the rabbi observed, "that you should make sure they know that God believes in them."
Reb Shlomo, as he was known, stood in line with those Jewish sages who question whether or not one can even count the first of the Ten Commandments—"I am the Lord your God"—as a commandment. He appreciated that genuine faith can neither be assured nor commanded.
Genuine faith is something far more profound than verbal assent to an agreed upon dogma. It arises out of life experience, and among the most important of those experiences are those that help people—especially young ones—to know that they are loved, that their aspirations are sacred, and that they are believed in. In other words, faith in God is best thought of not as a goal, but as a by-product of loving and trusting experiences created by those who themselves already possess deep faith.
In terms of continuity of practice, the most natural thing in the world is to hope that those we love will do the things that we ourselves most love doing. In fact, it is difficult not to feel the sting of rejection when our kids don't follow in our footsteps. That said, we might do well to widen our definition of what it means to follow in our footsteps.
Don't get me wrong, I am quite traditional in my practice, and certainly hope that my children will be so as well. But I don't imagine that they must always look as I look on the outside in order to meaningfully carry on a 5,000-year-old tradition which has looked quite different at different times in its unfolding history.
In fact, when Deuteronomy 6:7 famously commands us to "teach them to our children," the definition of "them" is not entirely clear. As the verse continues, Moses says that it refers to the "instructions which I (he) teach you (the Israelites) this day." But what does that include?
The commandments found in the immediately following verses? Those which subsequent generations of rabbis understood to be implied by these verses—commandments including tefillin (phylacteries) and the mezuzah hung on doors of people's homes? The entire speech that is basically what makes up the Book of Deuteronomy? I think the answer is probably "yes."
What we are meant to teach our children is both the specific practices and an entire worldview or story. Sometimes the principles that animate the second express themselves in ways that differ from the practices of past generations.
Listed three years in a row in Newsweek as one of America's 50 Most Influential Rabbis, and recognized as one of our nation's leading Preachers & Teachers by Beliefnet.com, think tank President, talk show host, interfaith activist, and diversity expert Brad Hirschfield is the author of You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism (Harmony, 2008).