Jewish Orthodox institutions.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The education of children in most Orthodox institutions usually follows the same pattern. First, the child is told about God in preschool and taught to sing that: Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere! As the years progress, the child is taught biblical stories and learns to read the alef bet. From there comes the siddur, Humash, Rashi, Mishna, and Talmud.
Along the way, a whole bunch of laws are taught, usually the ones pertaining to the upcoming holiday season.
This comes hand in hand with a complete immersion in Jewish life and ritual. (This part is crucial in the child’s development and later attachment to Yiddishkeit, as it concretizes everything learned in school.) Yet, what is rarely ever taught again is the subject of God. It’s not that God is absent from the classroom or home; he is an ever-present character in almost all of the stories, hovering and pulling the strings.
What’s missing is an updated discussion about God using mature terms and ideas.
As a result, children are stunted in their growth and handicapped from developing a theology that is suitable for an adult.
While other subjects like love, relationships, math and literature are constantly updated to suit the child’s growing intellect and maturity, God is left in that song stage, leaving the child with a wrongheaded pantheistic view. While hours a day are spent studying legal texts, very few if any are spent on theological texts.
When our children become young adults, they begin to question what they’ve been taught, and I have found all too often that when it comes to questions about God, the issues arise from their childish notions of God. In other words, the God that they doubt or sometimes even reject, is not the living Sovereign of the Universe, but the juvenile, petty, small God of their childhood imaginations. If I were stuck with their stunted view of God, I, too, would reject Him.
The problem is exacerbated by the false notion that “Jews don’t do theology.”
The study of theology is seen as Christian, something decidedly “unJewish.” In yeshiva, I remember, if you were reading the Kuzari, the Guide for the Perplexed, or even Tanach, you kept it under your desk. It wasn’t seen as being as respectable as having your Gemara on your shtender. Questions of faith were relegated to one weekly hour informal study group. They never had a prominent place in the yeshiva curriculum.
Our Christian friends, lacking a halachic system such as ours, had a lot more time and creativity to develop their faith to produce some outstanding theologians. We Jews have been sorely lacking. It seems like since the mid-20th century, we have seen too few Jewish theologians emerge. We have become too atheological.
Part of the problem is that Orthodox Jews aren’t demanding theology from their rabbis or their booksellers. Why is it that almost every “Ask the Rabbi” column deals with the ins and outs of Halacha and not with the balance between the immanence and transcendence of God? Where are the questions of theodicy? Is there nothing new to say about Holocaust theology? Forget the halachic implications of a cloned lobster being kosher, what does it say about man’s relationship with God if he, too, can create? The more medicine advances and the more we understand the cosmos, the more God shrinks into the background.
How do we coax Him into our lives and make him more of a reality? One reason for this is that since the mid- 20th century, as other streams of Judaism have abandoned Halacha, Orthodox Jews have retreated into it, digging their heels into a line of scrimmage to protect it. Yet, by withdrawing into the arba amot of Halacha, Orthodox Jews have abandoned theology as a core subject, and by doing so, we have abandoned the forest for the trees.
I know that we are a religion of deed, not creed. And I understand the problem of faithbased religions. But what is the point of following the minutiae of Halacha when there is no relationship being created with God? Keeping the mitzvot has become an end unto itself, divorced from God or any real sense of covenant with Him. It has been argued before that what ends up happening is that we end up serving the Shulhan Aruch instead of God.
A good Jew is often referred to in our literature as a yira shamayim. This term has been misunderstood in both English and modern Hebrew as one who “fears” God instead of one who is in “awe” of God. When fear is substituted for awe, the emphasis on Halacha makes sense. But instead of following the law because we fear what God might do to us if we don’t, how about following the laws as an expression of a relationship with the wonder and majesty of the divine? The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many post-high school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.