While driving Kid #1 home from Hebrew school Tuesday night, the following conversation unfolded. I'm trying to get it verbatim but no doubt I am creating as I record. It seems to me that it is the kind of conversation we have among ourselves here on ITM all the time (ethics, responsibility towards the other, belief, the meaning of life, the universe and everything ...) -- only here I wasn't using my medievalist/theorist vocabulary. It's kind of personal, I realize, but maybe it shows how some of the abstract ideas circulated here need to be translated to make them practical. It also shows that no matter how much Levinas you read, you'll never adequately answer the interrogations of a nine year old.
KID: Dad, if we don't believe in God, how come we have to go to a synagogue?
ME: You don't believe in God?
KID: Not really. I don't know if there is a God or not.
ME: That's different from saying you don't believe.
KID: I guess. I just think that people who believe in God make him into Santa or something they want. He gives goodies if you act like he wants you to.
ME: A lot of people think of God as a parent.
KID: Yeah. Full of punishments if you're bad. But most people don't think they're bad, they just want God to punish people they don't like.
ME: If God isn't anything but vengeance, I don't really want anything to do with God.
KID: Me neither. (Pause) So why do we go to a synagogue? So many religions are more popular than Jews. There are a lot more Christians.
ME: That's true. And Buddhists and Muslims. But your mother and I like the kind of Judaism we're trying to teach you. It encourages you to doubt. It doesn't tell you who God is or what goodness is. It puts you in charge of thinking about those things, and it makes you question and learn and argue. And it makes you realize that we have to heal the world.
KID: Also Jewishness is in our family.
ME: It's an important part of our history. We have family who died because they were Jewish. There were lots of points where Judaism almost disappeared from both sides of our family. So it's important to us to pass along some knowledge and traditions to you and your sister. You might reject them when you're older. That'd be OK, at least you have them to reject. It'd be worse not to have known.
KID: So is there a God?
ME: I don't know.
KID: Me neither.
ME: Sometimes people who are sure there is no God are really only sure the world is human. And small. I think there's something in us that's bigger than what's just human. I see it in the love I have for you. It always surprises me how much bigger it is than I am. It makes me realize that there's something in the way that humans can care for each other that takes us out of ourselves. Maybe God is there. Whatever God is. Or maybe that's not God, that's the best that we can be as humans.
ME: I'm blathering.
KID: No. I just don't know.
ME: Neither do I. And guess I'm like you, I have my doubts about God. I can say what I suspect, and lots of time I'm afraid what I suspect is true. But I always hope the world is better than I think it is at the worst moments.
KID: What happens when we die?
ME: It's questions like that that made us sign you up for religious school!
KID: Can I have a Tic Tac?
If someone were to ask me point blank if I believe in God and an afterlife, my most direct answer is no. In the end, though, questions of belief aren't as important to me as questions of living, doing, acting. I think that's why I like the Jewish emphasis on praxis over orthodoxy. When it comes to the God question, and if I try to force myself to avoid pablum, it is difficult to say much that doesn't sound hollow. And you know, as medievalists, we are staring the God question in the face all the time.