31 January 2010

The Big One

The day the question came, I flubbed the answer. I had predicted that the question would soon be asked, made a mental note to figure out how to answer it, discussed briefly my prediction with my wife (who agreed on the likelihood), and yet still: when the question was asked, I fumbled for an answer.

The questioner: my daughter, age 2.5. The question: “What is god?”


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the experience of watching my daughter learn about Jewish prayer and custom in children’s services. She’s an intelligent child, the kind who actively works to knit together bits of accumulated information. Questions may come days or weeks after a particular experience, when something else jogs the memory of the prior event and she asks how or whether those different things are connected. She will also often assert the connection—correctly or not, but with that self-assurance children possess—when it seems evident to her at the moment.

More recently, my daughter has been learning the lyrics to the song “Rise and Shine,” an old standard in the compendium of mildly religious children’s tunes. It was with reference to the song’s repeating chorus of “Rise and shine / And give God the glory, glory” that I observed we would likely soon be asked about god. After all, she’s been singing this song for a couple of weeks, nonstop (or so it seems); and “god” is hard to miss in that repeating refrain. While we have been able to explain the references to Noah—the flood, the ark, the two-by-two animals, the dry land—as a story coming from the Torah, it’s more difficult to answer a question about god that way. Yes, god is in the Torah, but also of it.


There is definitely a part of me that finds this situation amusing, no doubt because part of me also finds it personally challenging. I have spent a good portion of time over the years asking the same question, and working towards answers that feel true, intellectually and spiritually. The fact that we are raising our children in a modern, egalitarian, Conservative Jewish environment makes answering the question no easier, because those three modifiers—modern, egalitarian, Conservative—do not, for me, readily solve this riddle. I have written a number of times about aspects of Jewish “values” (e.g. here, here, here, and here), but not a lot about god. It is difficult enough to express my views to myself; perhaps the best I can say here is that I’m a materialist (in the philosophical sense) with a deeply rooted spiritual side. And despite that description, I still find myself not much closer to a comfortable answer—and by and large, I’m comfortable with that.

The question was asked over dinner, at which were also present a Reform rabbinical school drop-out, and a woman whose views on the subject of god and religion (such as I understand them) have always struck me as the very essence of unexplored contradiction. The immediate answers from those assembled ranged from a complete demurral to “god is a concept.” Thank you, Bauer-Marx-Nietzsche-Lennon! Score one for the toddler. For the immediate follow-up question my daughter asked—boy or girl?—we fared no better. One person answered “Both!”, while another assuredly said “Girl!” The child found none of these satisfying, and who can blame her. In the confusion created over so many different answers, I think she took a hint and, at that point, decided to leave it alone.

I don’t expect this to be the end. Indeed, I expect the question to arise again in short order. I’m hoping that next time, I will be more prepared. But I think it’s difficult to answer such a question for a 2.5 year old in a way that accommodates the range of intellectual and spiritual growth that I would like to have happen naturally. What can I say? “Just wait and see; you will arrive at your own answer(s) when you’re old enough”?


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At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Mary Valle said...

I've always been big on "Some people believe this, some people believe that, blah blah blah but no one knows for sure."

At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Jon Goldberg said...

Hi Sasha. Procrastinating at work and mildly curious to see what you're up to. Of course, this of all things is the first entry on your page.

You're an extremely brave man, for at least attempting to answer this question in a manner that is both honest and comprehensible to a(n albeit extremely intelligent) toddler.

I'll be honest--if I didn't believe firmly that the most important aspect of God from human perspective was that of lawgiver, i.e., the one true source of moral authority, I wouldn't have a clue how to approach this one.


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