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.
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!