This past week I spent an hour with 40 fifth grade Day School students talking about prayer, faith, rational and intuitive thinking, science, religion, and God.
I found these eleven-year-olds not only keenly interested in our conversation but sophisticated thinkers already at their young age.
My goal was first to open with them a conversation in which they felt comfortable thinking freely and expressing themselves without being judged. I explained that when it comes to matters of faith there is no right or wrong, that faith is deeply personal.
I explained to them the fundamental Jewish idea of achdut, the oneness of God, the Jewish people, humanity, nature, and the metaphysical, and that this idea is carried fully in the Sh’ma. They understood.
I also talked about the limits of the rational mind and the intellect, that faith is a function of the non-rational mind that it is beyond linear thinking and does not depend upon that which can be proven through observation or empirical evidence. Faith is founded, I explained, upon the intuitive capacity and is based on our experience of awe and wonder.
I asked the students what they believe is the purpose of prayer. They responded that prayer is our opportunity as individuals and as a community to praise, to give thanks, to feel appreciation, to forgive, and to hope. These were their words, not mine.
I asked whether prayer changes us or God. They said that prayer changes us, not God, though one boy said that prayer is also about asking God for things. I probed – “What kinds of things?” He answered, “When we most need something from God, when we’re sad or sick, and when people we love die.”
“Yes,” I said, “but what is it that we are likely to receive?”
We kept talking. I suggested that when we’re really sad prayer can help us feel less alone, that God is the loving unifying and creative force in the universe and that can be a source of comfort. When we pray, I explained, many people gain the sense that we are all part of something far greater than ourselves and beyond our capacity to understand, that we can gain in courage through prayer to face the sadness and loneliness we feel and feel inspired.
One girl asked about the fairness of human suffering and why God allows people to die when they are young. I spoke to them about two of the many names for God in Jewish tradition. The holiest Name is YHVH, the Name we call God that appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai and inspired the writing of the Torah. The other common name is Elohim, the God of the Book of Genesis Who creates the heavens and the earth (the Torah portion last week was Bereishit, the first chapters of Genesis). Elohim is the Name of God that sets the physical world according to the laws of nature.
Whereas Elohim is the Name of God that is the author of natural disasters, illness, and death, I explained that I do not believe that God singles out any individual human being to suffer. We are human and mortal and some people unfortunately get sick while others stay healthy for most of their lives.
I emphasized, however, that YHVH is the Name of God that met Moses on Mount Sinai and inspired Torah, and that when we act in a Godly way by virtue of our being created in God’s image, we bring God’s love and generosity into the world. When we do that, we inspire hope.
As is the case in the adult Jewish population, there were doubters among my fifth-grade students. I asked, “Do you think you can be a Jew without believing in God?” Some thought so but others weren’t so certain.
I told them “Yes,” because Judaism is far more than a religion. We are a people, a culture, civilization, and a faith tradition with a vast literature, four Jewish languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Ladino, and Yiddish), philosophy, rite, ritual, holidays, life-cycle events, and ethics codified in law. I explained as well that Judaism is the longest continuous surviving tradition on the planet reaching back to Abraham and Sarah 3600 years ago.
I reminded our students that a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother in traditional communities or of a Jewish parent in the American Reform movement, and that Jewish identity is established and thrives when we study Torah and our tradition, perform the mitzvot (commandments), stay close to Jewish community, and identify with the people of Israel around the world and support the State of Israel.
Our mission as a people, I explained, is Tikkun Olam – repairing an imperfect, unfair, and sometimes unjust world. There is much work to do, I said, and that each one of us has the responsibility to make a contribution to a better world.
I left this conversation feeling hopeful. Our young people are thinking, smart, kind-hearted, and committed to our community, and they are asking all the right questions and struggling to understand who they are in these initial decades of the twenty-first century.
We are not the “ever-dying” people. We are alive, and when I am with young people like these fifth-grade students, I feel alive!