Bringing Your Kids to Synagogue

Writing in Slate, Marc Oppenheimer has a thoughtful piece about bringing his young daughter to synagogue:

I don’t kid myself that Rebekah has some unusual, precocious spirituality. She loves ritual, as all children love ritual. Nothing, except milk and maybe Graham crackers, is more comforting to a toddler than a fun routine enjoyed at predictable intervals. Little boys and girls love the sense of mastery that comes with repetition. They’re so proud to finish our sentences as we read them a book for the 50th or one 100th time (“old lady who was whispering…” “hush!”). If we skip bath time, they know. But as much as I love seeing my daughter get excited about any of her routines, I acknowledge that there is something a little more complicated, for me, about religious enthusiasm. After all, I want her to be an enthusiastic reader and an enthusiastic bather. But I want her to be thoughtful and critical about religion. Although I’ve never asked, I think most of my fellow synagogue parents are atheists (as I am, about half the time). Is it wrong to educate our children in prayers whose value we feel ambivalent about?

I recognize these sentiments. My parents sent me to Sunday school for quite a few years. As I recall, I hated every second of it. Parts of the Torah work well as fiction (the story of Joseph is a good yarn independent of whether any of it is true), but even as a kid it did not seem plausible to me to believe the supernatural parts. That is not to say I am not now grateful that my parents gave me a religious education.

A while back there was a movie called Other People’s Money. Danny DeVito played a cutthroat corporate raider targeting a company owned by Gregory Peck. He developed a relationship with Peck’s stepdaughter, played by Penelope Ann Miller, who was also the lawyer protecting Peck’s interests. Miller asks him why, since he is so hostile to lawyers, he has so many lawyers working for him. DeVito replies, “Lawyers are like nuclear weapons. The other guys have theirs, so I have mine. But once anyone starts using them, they f*ck up everything.”

That’s pretty much how I feel about my Judaism. The other guys have their religion, so I have mine. If we could all just agree to keep things in their proper place, everything would be fine. I elaborated on my thoughts about Judaism in this post.

Oppenheimer writes:

Beleaguered clergy tend to have two responses. First, they are thankful that children bring in parents who otherwise would never join a religious community. But, second, they can’t help but feel used: They’re supposed to educate children in the value of religion, even as the parents–who may be golfing or shopping while the children are at confirmation classes–signal in all sorts of ways that religion doesn’t really matter. Such behavior cheapens religion, makes clergy hate their jobs, makes children cynical, and leads to jokes like the one about the father who says to his son, “You hate Sunday school? Well, I hated Sunday school, you hate Sunday school, and someday your children will hate Sunday school–that’s tradition!”

Actually, I suspect a fair percentage of the clergy don’t really believe their own dogmas. And since community building is one of the main purposes of religion, there are probably a fair number who think participation is the important thing, independent of what their parishioners believe.

After devoting some time to answering his own question, Oppenheimer closes with

It is always possible, of course, that children take religious teaching to heart in a way that, as they age, makes their parents uncomfortable. By exposing my daughter to Judaism, I take the risk that she will believe all of it, literally. For some Jews, this would be the perfect result, but not for me: I want my children to grow into mini-mes, skeptical but enthustiastic! Questioning but curious! Proud but not chauvinistic! I hope she’ll develop my religiosity, in which devotion, beautiful in its own right, need not be tested against rationality. Alas, that’s probably a vain hope. My daughters are young yet, but from what I hear, children surprise us. Sometimes the surprise is that they heed our teachings too well. I know a faithful Catholic who is horrified that her son became a priest; lots of good liberals are upset that their children are radicals. My daughter may not turn into the Jew who I vigorously pat myself on the back for being–but that’s just another way of saying that she won’t be me. In the meantime, I can expose her to activities I love–and I love the mysterium of Sabbath services–trusting that when she turns them to her own ends, she’ll do so in a way that makes sense for her, though perhaps not for her dad.

The mysterium of Sabbath services never did much for me, alas, and the target of your devotion has a lot to do with how beautiful it is, but otherwise I like this paragraph. My parents wanted me to have a Jewish education, and they probably would have been okay if I had become, say, a Reform or Reconstuctionist rabbi. But a strange look indeed would have greeted any announcement that I had gone Orthodox.

Go read the rest of the essay!

Comments

  1. #1 Takis Konstantopoulos
    May 13, 2009

    I grew up in Greece, under a military junta (from 1967 to 1974-supported by Kissinger and his cronies), where religion was shoved up into our rears day and night. There was no question about the difference between religion and state for, according to the military Generals, you could not be Greek without being Christian. I was tortured with years of religious education as well as Church attendance. Fortunately for me, I managed to faint once or twice in Church (I couldn’t tolerate the heavy incense of the Greek Orthodox Church in poor ventilation conditions) and so I had a doctor’s notice that I couldn’t go to Church for health reasons. Alleluya! Whereas other schoolchildren had to stand in line and march in unison to Church, I was allowed to stay behind.

    Indeed, religious education and Church/Synagogue/Mosque attendance should be avoided as much as possible (as they say in Greek: one should avoid it like the Devil avoids the Church incense; on second thoughts maybe I was a Devil?)

    However, having been to Synagogues and Buddhist temples, etc, I find that attending *other* religions’ rituals is more tolerable. Perhaps fun at times. Because I have no association to them.

    Religious service attendance is a rape of one’s mind. In fact, you can tell who goes to Church and who doesn’t. There is a certain positive correlation between a stupid look on one’s face and his/her frequency of Church/Synagogue/etc attendance. (Not a deterministic relation, but a certain statistical correlation; it definitely exists.)

  2. #2 Robert O'Brien
    May 13, 2009

    There was no question about the difference between religion and state for, according to the military Generals, you could not be Greek without being Christian.

    I agree with them. Are you sure you are not descended from Turks?

  3. #3 Robert O'Brien
    May 13, 2009

    Religious service attendance is a rape of one’s mind. In fact, you can tell who goes to Church and who doesn’t. There is a certain positive correlation between a stupid look on one’s face and his/her frequency of Church/Synagogue/etc attendance. (Not a deterministic relation, but a certain statistical correlation; it definitely exists.)

    Sorry, I missed this manifest stupidity the first time around. You are as odious as an Ottoman Turk, so I suspect there is some miscegenation in your pedigree.

  4. #4 Takis Konstantopoulos
    May 13, 2009

    Robert O’Brien:

    This is very plausible and possible: The geographical region known as Greece has hosted Slavs, Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, etc. So the likelihood that I have some Mongolian blood is not negligible.

    But what does this have to do with what I wrote? Being a Christian is an abomination, regardless of what you or the military junta believe. As a matter of fact, I should have added to my posting that the current government of Greece is very much inseparable from the Orthodox Church: they share financial and sexual scandals for mutual benefit. At the same time, they ask people to pay taxes to support the Church.

    The Orthodox religion (as well as any other religion) is an anathema and has nothing to do with being Greek, Turk, American or Kyrgyz.

  5. #5 Takis Konstantopoulos
    May 13, 2009

    Robert O’Brien:

    I don’t think you use the right words: Had I known I did have Turkish/Mongolian ancectry (which is, as I said, likely) I would be very pleased for this is how diversity is established: by mixing populations. It would not therefor be “miscegenation” but a positive aspect of my heritage.

    However, I am not sure. What I am sure about is the stupidity one one’s face after this person has attended Church (or gone to a Mosque) for a while.

    As for Ottoman Turks, why are they odious? If you refer to Islam, I definitely agree, Muslims are as much odious as Christians and Orthodox Jews. Any kind of religion produces malodorous human beings. Please avoid them if you wish to preserve your health.

  6. #6 Robert O'Brien
    May 13, 2009

    Being a Christian is an abomination, regardless of what you or the military junta believe.

    Dr. Konstantopoulos,

    I would say you are an idiot savant in that you are a savant in stochastic analysis (one of my favorite subjects, btw) but an idiot in everything else about which I’ve seen you opine.

    The Orthodox religion (as well as any other religion) is an anathema…

    I am not a fan of Orthodox Christianity (The doctrine of the trinity is pure flatulence and I loathe icon veneration) but I would not say it is an anathema.

    I am glad Hellas is a solidly Christian country and I hope it remains so long after we are gone.

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 13, 2009

    Takis and Robert –

    Okay boys, let’s take it outside. You’ve both made your points, now let it go.

  8. #8 R E G
    May 13, 2009

    There is no doubt that, taken to extremes, religion can be harmful to young and old alike.

    What does not get much press is the benefits a small dose of religion can bring.

    First of all, it is part of our cultural heritage. How would it be possible to discuss our own history, and omit the conflicts that nations and religions had? the contribution religion made to cultural imperialism? or to public education and health care?

    Up until fairly recently, religion was a huge part of daily life. Seeing even a small percentage of that gives insight into the actions of our parents and grandparents.

    Also overlooked when demonizing religion, is that many mainstream churches devote considerable effort to living the teaching in real life. They run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other support programs that are not conditional on membership.

    I have even met individuals who have joined congregations, not for the ceremony, but for the opportunity to work for social justice with like minded people.

    Yes I realise there are similar opportunities without the religious flavour. But then we come back to culture. If church is familiar to you, it may be where you are most comfortable.

  9. #9 csrster
    May 14, 2009

    I sometimes worry that the total lack of religion in our household will result in my daughters failing to develop a proper immune response to it.

  10. #10 Takis Konstantopoulos
    May 14, 2009

    Jason,

    You are absolutely right for not wanting fights in your blog. But I only see a one-sided fight: please take a look at what I wrote: (1) Personal experiences and (2) facts about religion: Religion makes people stupid (not all the time, but quite often). Any country, Greece, US, whatever, would have been better without religion. Unfortunately, religion is (still) a biological need of many.

  11. #11 Johan
    May 15, 2009

    “Parts of the Torah work well as fiction (the story of Joseph is a good yarn independent of whether any of it is true), but even as a kid it did not seem plausible to me to believe the supernatural parts.”

    Of course if it were a non-sacred text no one would dream of having children read it. The level of violence in it, and the glorification of it, makes “A Clockwork Orange” seem suited for kindergarten.

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