What are your earliest Jewish memories?
My formative memories are of the holidays. Building a Sukkah with my father and brothers. Eating Matzah at the Seder table. Hearing the Ten Commandments on Shavuot.
The rituals and customs of the holidays are especially designed to capture the imagination of children. In fact we make an effort to include the children and ensure that they take an active part. We believe that if they form positive happy attachments to Judaism in their youth it will remain with them as they grow older.
Our youth is the foundation of our lives. The knowledge that we are taught in our youth, the attachments that we form in our youth and the values that we absorb in our youth remain with us. It is amazing, but true. The young are not sophisticated enough to understand the reasons behind the rituals and holidays, but they are eminently capable of absorbing the essence in ways that adults never can.
Children enjoy the celebrations thoroughly and the positive associations they form through their enjoyment buoys their perspective for the rest of their lives. Youth is a delicate and formative time; the impressions formed then are not easily undone.
It is a shame that, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” If only we understood in our youth the magnitude of our opportunities we would have used that time more effectively. Alas, the opposite is also true. If we were sophisticated enough to understand the value of youth we would probably have lost its value completely because the value of youth is its innocence.
It is not only the young that underappreciate the value of youth, it is often also adults. Many educators believe that children should not be taught “difficult” Torah passages. Children are too young to learn about war or polygamy or G-d asking Abraham to slaughter his son. What will the children make of it? There are also those who argue that children should be spared talk of G-d altogether because they are too young to appreciate the idea of an all seeing, all-encompassing and all knowing, but invisible G-d.
In truth, children don’t take issue with fantastical notions that make little logical sense. Children are much more comfortable with miraculous phenomena, all knowing beings and even tragedy, than adults. Children are endowed with a simplistic wholesomeness that enables them to accept the supra rational on faith. Children buy into the greatest mysteries with equanimity. They accept that their recently deceased grandma is in heaven with more certitude and confidence than their parents do.
Adults often have difficulty with fantastical notions and miraculous ideas. Otherworldliness is not our strongest forte. We like our explanations wrapped up in neat little boxes delivered with ribbon intact. We have grave difficulty with ideas that don’t make sense and that we are asked to accept on faith. Our life long exposure to religion acculturates us to metaphysical explanations, but we can’t quite say that we are comfortable with them.
It is often the adults’ concerns that are projected onto the children. How can we teach a child about the punishment of Sodom and Gomorra? What will we tell them when they ask us why G-d acted to intolerantly and globally? The truth is we need not worry that children will ask. They are singularly capable of accepting in absolute faith that G-d knows best. It is the adults that are bothered by this and constantly ask such questions. Because we are bothered by these questions and because we don’t have an answer for it, we fear the children might be bothered by it too. We need not worry.
Children will believe blithely whatever we appear to believe so long as they respect and adore us. If we teach them about G-d, faith, miracles and spirituality with confidence, they will buy into it. Let’s face it. We buy into it because of our lifelong familiarity with religious notions. But this familiarity did not begin in adulthood, it began when we were children.
As we mature and grow older we begin to ask questions and try to wrap our minds around everything we hear and see. It is proper to do so as adults, but children don’t do this yet. The advantage of believing wholesomely and completely before we embark on the sophisticated questions of adulthood is that we won’t chuck the idea every time we fail to find a satisfying explanation. It is good to know the answers where possible, but where we cannot possibly know or find the answer, it is good to be able to fall back on the beliefs that we have held since childhood.
The children will never again be as perfectly conditioned to accept on faith as they are right now. Every day that passes makes the child one little bit less conditioned to accept G-d on faith. With every hour, we lose ground. There is no time to waste. The time to teach our children is when they are young. Fear not that too much exposure will overwhelm them. If it is good and right, it will not overwhelm.
There are educators that have a full appreciation for the preciousness of youth, but want to use it to immerse the children in early French teaching or music classes. To these teachers I say, we can always teach them French later, but we cannot teach them faith with the same efficacy later. Every moment counts. The time to act, is when they are still young.
When Adults Are Young
This is not to suggest that only children are capable of learning to accept G-d. Many adults come to religion and faith later in life. However, there are two points to consider. The vast majority of late bloomers in religion continue to wrestle with their faith on some level in ways that children never do. The second point is that most often when an adult embraces G-d at a later point in life, it is the child in them that bubbles up to do so.
It is often a life changing event that triggers an awareness of G-d. It can be a positive event such as a narrow escape from death or a negative event such as imprisonment or a midlife crisis. In either scenario we come to realize that life events are not random, they are orchestrated by G-d. Our emotional response is to marvel at the precision and attention with which G-d runs His world.
This marvel produces an emotional attraction and a tugging of the heart that drives us to religion and faith. We rarely come to it from a standpoint of logical proof and intellectual persuasion. Those come later. What drives us upfront is the emotional tug that we experience at such times. This is the child in us responding before the adult in us can object. We respond and embrace our faith with alacrity and only then do we formulate arguments and answers to the questions thrown at us by our adult minds.
My point is this: If our attachment to G-d in adulthood is primarily channeled through the child in us, then we certainly ought to recognize that the best time to teach G-d and religion is in childhood.