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”?


Labels: , , ,

13 April 2009

The Letter & The Spirit

I think there are two direct ways to approach a law: to abide by its letter and (or) to abide by its spirit. We can do both, as we interpret each. Or we can choose one path or the other, also subject to some interpretation. Let's put aside "big" laws, like prohibitions on murder or rape. For smaller laws - let's say jaywalking, or speeding on the highway, I think most of us are inconsistent. We obey certain laws to the letter, devotedly. Others, we choose to view as more flexible prohibitions, deciding for ourselves where the spirit of the law (not going 95 MPH) is more important than the letter (staying at or under 65 MPH). I have been thinking about this issue a lot this Passover holiday, and I'll tell you why.


If Jimi Hendrix had been an observant Jew, right now he might be posing the question: have you ever been afflicted? Well, I have.

Six days into the matzah-eating holiday of Passover, I feel fine. I have controlled my intake of matzah this year, and worked to balance it with a slightly higher proportion of fibrous fruits and vegetables than I have in some years past. If you are Jewish, and you've binged on matzah, you know what this is about; if not, I'll spell it out: constipation. (It's almost the opposite of a dirty word.)

Still, even with the occasional burdens of matzah, I love Passover. It's a joyous holiday, that reminds me of many of the best qualities of Judaism, particularly the ability to reflect on the past while focusing on the future - and embedding firmly the idea that part of the key to future success is teaching and exploring ideas, across (and within) different generations.

But part of the problem with Passover is that it seems to have lead contemporary Jewry - almost regardless of the degree of orthodoxy - to make some stark choices between the letter of the law and its spirit.

During this holiday, there is a wide category of foods that are off-limits, which in a short and untechnical description can be rendered as: any grain-based food that may have had an opportunity to leaven or rise, or any food that includes grains or other rising agents. It's that simple, and that simply defines the letter of the law.

The spirit of the rule, however, I interpret differently. We are told to eat matzah because of the symbolism of this flat, unleavened bread in the context of the holiday: it was the bread of slaves, and a reminder of that experience. Therefore, to me, the spirit of the law dictates refraining from other grain-based products that one might normally eat in leavened form - even if they follow the letter of the law in being produced with no leavened grains, as with the kosher-for-Passover marble cake, pasta, and cous-cous pictured above. I am sure the folks at Osem, Savion, and Gefen are all nice people, simply making a product for a niche in the market. At the same time, I think companies like these have helped create that niche where it did not used to exist.

We have these products in my house right now. We have a toddler, and I would rather her eat, and eat according to the letter of the law in this instance, than violate both the letter and the spirit because she needs more food than we can muster under a matzah-only regime. But I find these foods to be problematic; even for me, even with my own very personal and quirky levels of observance.

Mostly, I find them a challenge to the underlying message of this eight-day holiday: if, throughout Passover, we eat foods that are very similar to those we eat the rest of the year, I fear we will degrade the message of the holiday itself, the teaching from one generation to the next that we should remember when we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the joyousness that came with our freedom. Matzah is that reminder, where kosher-for-Passover faux-Cheerios are not.

Labels: ,