One of my friends once brought it to my attention that children ask all of their toughest questions in the car. They wait until you are most distracted and, of course, caged in a vehicle, to ambush you. But my five year old seems to be especially crafty. She'll start off with easy questions: "Mommy, why do I have to wear boots to jump in muddy puddles (thank you Peppa Pig for making this hobby so popular)?" "Because you don't want to get your socks wet, silly girl!" "Mommy, when will Joshy be my age?" "In 2 ½ years. But then you will be older too." "Oh. Okay. Mommy, did Joshy and I both come from your belly?" "Yes." "So, did you make us?" "Yes. Mommy and Daddy made you" (uh oh...where is this going?)... "Oh. But didn't God make us?"
There is silence. Then the thud of my unreadiness for this moment drops squarely atop the car.
Religion is a difficult subject for me. I went to Hebrew school at a reform temple until 10th grade. I had my bat mitzvah, and when my parents gave me a chance to quit afterwards, I chose to stay on. This decision was made not because I was devoted to Judaism, but instead because I had a crush on a boy whom I knew to be continuing as well. I would get to hang out with him two evenings a week, and go on a retreat with him for a whole weekend. I was not about to pass up that chance!
Generally, I have always been a passive bystander, when it came to religion. I was never passionate enough or sure enough to be an atheist, never felt strongly enough to even call myself an agnostic.
There are many things I like about religion. I like the fact that it creates for me a smaller community within my community. I like that it brings my family together around the table, at times when we are all too busy to do it on our own. I even like going to temple events, when I know I will see people I may not see more than once or twice a year, and yet, at that moment, there will be recognition, shared history, and shared acknowledgement that we are a family, extended, but a family nonetheless. Religion gives all of this to me, and this is nothing small.
But the question of God stops me in my tracks. Can I consider myself Jewish if I also question his existence? I think the very ability of its adherents to question, may be what makes Judaism so unique. But it feels false, somehow, to me. Like I am getting away with something.
Obviously, my five year old daughter and I are not going to have this conversation. We will not have it in the car, while my son cries for gummies and juice, and snow threatens and other cars pass me by. So I search for the quick answer, and wonder at the same time, how I will discuss something that seems so simple to her, and yet is ultimately so complex for me.
I remember asking my brother-in-law how he dealt with the topic of religion with his own son and daughter. I thought his response brilliant and very user-friendly! He told me to learn three words: "Some people believe..." And I have used these words on this most recent occasion, and many others as well. "Some people believe that God created all of the beings on this planet, including, you and Josh, and all of the animals and plants and other people we see all around us." And this is fine as far as it goes. I try to keep my voice neutral, so as not to belittle those other people, because I have no right to do so. And more than that, I want my children to grow up with the choice of what to believe. They will attend Hebrew school. They will go to temple. They will have both Jewish and non-Jewish friends, as I did. We are lucky enough to raise them in a diverse community with a sizable Jewish population. I realize this. I am thankful for this. But I still don't know how to approach the larger problem of my own confusion.
I want the answer to be simple. More than that, I want all of her questions to be simple. But there is no simple answer for belief. It fluctuates, when none of my other opinions do. But she is 5, and I struggle to explain this to her. And so, when she inevitably asks the follow up question: "But what do YOU believe?" I say that she and Josh came from my body, and that was a result of being made by her Daddy and by me (that is a discussion for another time), and that is why she looks like me, but wears glasses like Daddy, and why Josh looks like Daddy, but has my dramatic flair (well maybe some of that is from Daddy as well). And for now, she is satisfied with this.
However, I'm not sure that I am. Or that I should be.
Perhaps it is the teacher in me that wants to tell her to question. I want my children to question everything they see, and especially anything that tells them what to see, or how to see. I want them to know that though someone may claim to be an expert, that doesn't take away from a child's or a student's or anyone's right to question that expertise. I want them to challenge dogma in all of its forms and to find their own ideology. And I want them to know that it's okay for that ideology to be a muddle of lots of different belief systems, and as long as they are honest with themselves, and keep questioning, they will be alright.
So, for right now, maybe I am okay with the "Some people believe..." response, because it leaves an opening for her belief to grow and change. And I will continue to try to remember that she is 5, and has probably already forgotten that the topic ever came up.