by Howard Deitcher
As part of my professional responsibilities I supervise novice teachers who teach Jewish studies in Israeli public (secular) schools. In that context, several months ago I had a meeting with a bright and conscientious young early childhood educator who came to my office in a most despondent and frustrated frame of mind. Talya (a pseudonym) had recently told her class of 5 year old students about the story of Passover. Talya felt confident that the kids had understood, appreciated and internalized the key ideas, practices and values about the holiday and then asked the children if they had any additional questions. As the little hands shot up, 3 youngsters posed the followed queries: “Can you please explain what actually happened in the tenth plague with the Egyptian firstborn sons”? This was followed by: “Whatever happened to the Egyptian horses when the soldiers drowned? What did the horses do wrong”? and finally: “Does Elijah the prophet really visit every Seder around the world”? After recounting this story I commented; “Talya, these are all excellent questions. Why are you so upset?” Talya responded: “I agree that the questions are very rich. But I didn’t know how to respond, and therefore I told the kids that they will learn more about these issues when they get older.” At that moment, Talya realized that because she had not anticipated these provocative questions and was uncertain about how to best respond, she and the class had missed an extraordinary learning opportunity. These creative and engrossing questions mirror theological discourses that outstanding Jewish thinkers have pondered and debated throughout Jewish history.
This anecdote raises a series of fundamental educational challenges that should not be ignored and therefore, deserve serious thought and deliberation. We shall briefly discuss two key issues that are salient and present various challenges for both parents and educators. In our attempts to appreciate the world of young children, it is clear that they are naturally curious and this triggers their imagination to pose theological questions about the world around them. These young people are immersed in a lifelong search for meaning and therefore questions of faith and spirituality play a central role in their development. They spend much time exploring the world around them and questioning many of the natural and human phenomena that adults oftentimes take for granted. As illustrated by the students in Talya’s class, they are eager to understand the laws of nature, what is a miracle, and the reasons why bad things happen in this world.
From a psychological perspective, studies show that children are eager to engage in theological discussions with their friends as well as with adults, and constructive conversations of this nature help children mature and give them a sense of personal satisfaction, happiness and stability. In wrestling with these issues, children also learn to pose penetrating and critical questions that allow them to explore other complex and troubling issues that they confront. These encounters trigger children’s abstract reasoning, and help them develop their use of symbolic thinking.
Finally, engaging with young children in theological discussions introduces them to the world of Jewish ideas and concepts. Great Jewish thinkers never shied away from complex theological issues; rather they embraced the challenge and presented a myriad of diverse and oftentimes competing ideas that demonstrated a plethora of approaches and worldviews. In so doing, we expose young children to the colorful and inviting world of Jewish pluralism that can shape their ongoing Jewish identity. Stepping into this world at a young age launches a lifelong journey that is infused with meaning and significance, and thereby encourages youngsters to experiment with Jewish language, concepts, and symbols.
After accepting the premise that broaching theological challenges with young children is a worthy and viable undertaking, we advance to the real challenge of how to best encourage educators and parents to assume this responsibility. On the one hand, most adults confront theological questions (although they don’t label them in that way) on a regular basis. In fact, many of us are troubled by the same questions that were raised by the children in Talya’s class. However, many adults have learned to bracket these questions, and have built a variety of mechanisms that allow us to move on without actually digging deep into the meaning of these questions in our lives. In that sense, engaging with young children will allow adults to explore their own issues all the while helping their children make sense of the world in which they live.
In order for this to happen, we need to help parents and educators embrace this critical educational opportunity. We must work in tandem with these curious adults, and provide them with the confidence, skills, and knowledge to pursue this educational challenge. By taking on this endeavor, we will help them launch an educational journey that will engage Jewish families in an ongoing search for meaning that will shape and impact their lives.
A final note: Rashi, the premier Bible commentator in Jewish history, who was also one of the greatest pedagogues of all time, offered a wonderful insight that deserves our consideration. At four different points in the Bible, Rashi states: “I don’t know what this verse teaches us”. This invaluable lesson gives us the confidence and license to tell our young children that they have posed an extraordinary question to which we don’t yet have a credible response. At the same time, Rashi suggests that it is our responsibility and mandate to continue wrestling with these issues as part of our lifelong commitment to Jewish learning and practice.
Dr Howard Deitcher is a faculty member at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University. He is currently leading educational projects in 5 countries worldwide.