I have no idea what to call this post. I thought of it late at night, as I was drifting off to Dreamland. That is, of course, when I get ideas—right on the precipice of consciousness, so that I usually forget them during my few hours of sleep, and then in the morning feel really frustrated that I had this awesome idea and I cannot remember it at all. Except that it was awesome.
Luckily, I actually remembered this one: Often, children grow up with certain slightly distorted ideas about Judaism. This is in spite of, or perhaps because of, intensive Jewish education. These “ideas” are only loosely connected, in that they are all things that bother me. And I intend to clarify them for my own children, as a sort of complement to their Jewish education.
In no particular order, here are my Five Things About Judaism I’d Like to Clarify
1. Purim happened before Chanukah. For years, I assumed that because Chanukah is celebrated before Purim in the Jewish holiday cycle, it happened first, historically. However, Chanukah, which took place during the Second Temple, actually occurred hundreds of years after Purim, which occurred in the period between the First and Second Temples.
And this is part of a larger issue of context. We need to ensure that we do not teach our children in a vacuum. All kids know that Haman tried to kill the Jews and that he had pointy, prune-filled ears. But do they know what was actually happening in Jewish history at that time? Where is Shushan? And why were Jews living there? And is Pharaoh involved at all? It’s hard for children to understand the concept of “history,” especially one that stretches out much further than they, or their parents, or even their grandparents can remember. But focusing on the historical context of the holiday, in an age-appropriate way, should be as much a part of the holiday curriculum as is teaching Megillat Esther.
2. Sefirat HaOmer has nothing to do with sadness and mourning. The original sefirat haomer had two reasons: Agriculturally (and biblically) it was counting from Pesach until Shavuot, when a sacrifice made from wheat would be brought to the Temple; spiritually, it is a countdown until the acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The mourning bit came about much later, when tradition tells us that 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died during the omer period, as punishment for a lack of respect among them.
3. It’s okay to believe in dinosaurs. This one may not be for everyone. But here it is. I believe the dinosaurs existed. I’ve been to the Museum of Natural History. I’ve seen those bones. Yet I firmly believe that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. How can these two things reconcile? How can the world be billions of years old if it’s only 5772.5 years old???? I used to wrestle with this. And it’s a good, admirable thing to want to find answers, to think and analyze and delve. But it’s also okay to say, “Yes, they contradict. I don’t know how it all works out. And I’m okay with that.” We don’t have all the answers, and our religious lives shouldn’t depend on finding them.
4. Rashi did not learn Rashi. Or: We need to get away from our heavy emphasis on midrashim and focus a little more on the text, on the actual words of the Torah. The various interpretations and stories add color and understanding. But there is immense beauty and value and truth in the words themselves. In addition, our intense focus on finding explanations and aggadot for every verse in the Torah can be detrimental to our children’s education. It becomes hard to figure out what is “pshat” (the words) and what is “midrash” (the stories and explanations.) Children haven’t developed the necessary tools for teasing out differences between text and story, and when both the pshat and the drash are lumped together in a lesson, the two become mixed up. To the point that when a child is reading the actual text, he or she confused because, “I can’t find where it says that Abraham smashed all the idols in his father’s store!” I’m not saying to give up midrashim. Just give be clear about what the Torah actually says and what other people say about it.
5. You did not get the Barbie doll because you davened (prayed) for it. Prayer is not a letter to Santa. Yes, we should pray to God. For things we want, for people to get better, for lots of rain in Israel. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, say that something definitively did or did not happen because of our prayers. Long ago, God’s will was very evident. He spoke to the people, He clearly stated what He wanted and what the potential reward or punishment would be. But it’s not that way now. It’s hard to delineate the exact action-and-consequence, cause-and-effect. And that can lead to dangerous conclusions, “Well, I davened, but I didn’t get what I wanted, so it must be that Hashem didn’t listen to me.” Or, “This [insert terrible thing in Jewish history] probably happened because the people didn’t daven enough.” Prayer is important, it is a cornerstone of our religion, but in the end, we can’t pretend to know why God does what He does.
Well. I feel much better now. Dear members of the JVO-niverse, if there’s some misconception that’s been bugging you, please feel free to sound off below.