HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Young Child’s Search for God: A Critical and Formative Journey

by Howard Deitcher Issue: The God Issue

Like many other Jewish early childhood educators, Hadas feels a deep sense of satisfaction upon hearing her students sing with gusto and excitement the words from Birkat Hamazon. One rainy Monday morning Hadas shared with the youngsters the meaning of this blessing and told them how grateful we are for the food that God has provided for us, and for other people around the world. As soon as Hadas completed her explanation, she noticed that Liora, a most curious and articulate youngster, was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to speak. In a halting and cautious voice, Liora queried: “Morah Hadas, didn’t you say that we thank God for giving food to everyone in the world?” Hadas immediately responded, “Of course, that’s what we say with the words ‘Hazan et hakol.’” Liora’s voice rose with excitement: “Well, last night I saw a program that showed people who don’t have food to feed their children. What about them?”

Hadas listened carefully and was perplexed as she noticed how the other children were also pondering Liora’s question. How to respond? At that point Hadas realized that Liora was posing a poignant and challenging question that caught her off guard on multiple levels. First of all, Hadas had been reciting the Birkat Hamazon her entire life, and had never stopped to consider the deeper meaning of this blessing. Furthermore, Hadas realized that in all her professional training, none of her courses had addressed children’s theological questions, and none of her mentors had ever discussed how we might respond to such critical issues in the lives of young students.

We believe that young children are eager and capable of formulating penetrating theological questions, and that early childhood educators as well as parents should consider appropriate ways to respond. In reviewing the recent literature on young children’s questions about God, one is struck by a dramatic shift in the types of issues that are currently being addressed. In his classic 1990 book The Spiritual Life of Children, Robert Coles focused primarily on how children picture God, and the startling differences between children from diverse religious backgrounds. Subsequent studies followed Coles’s lead, and this dominated the research for the next decade. However, current studies on children’s theology focus less on how God looks and consider questions about why God acts in certain ways, attempting to make sense of such knotty questions as miracles, theodicy, the meaning of historical truth, etc.

One might question the need for early childhood educators to probe such sensitive and complex issues. First and foremost, as our opening story demonstrates, these types of questions are pregnant with meaning, puzzling, and relevant for many of our young students. As they try to make sense of the world around them, children are witness to some of life’s most challenging issues and express a healthy curiosity to explore these issues more deeply. Second, allowing children to freely pose theological questions assures them that their concerns are real, and they should never fear to raise their innermost concerns in honest and explicit ways. Furthermore, thinking about God encourages young children to reflect beyond the here and now; it triggers their sense of imagination and stimulates symbolic play, enabling them to explore the critical world of the unknown.

Finally, discussing theology and exploring God’s actions has always played a formative role in Jewish life. Classical Jewish literature has never shied away from confronting these life questions in bold and reflective ways. The Midrash and other forms of rabbinic literature are replete with stories, philosophical debates and polemics that present a plethora of diverse approaches and teachings about theological questions that have challenged Jews of all ages throughout history. In summary, we believe that young children are keen to explore theological questions, and the key challenge is to enable educators like Hadas to best meet this challenge in constructive and age-appropriate ways.

A first necessary step in this process is to encourage educators to contemplate their own theological positions. As noted above, Hadas is part of a significant number of well educated and gifted Jewish educators who have not been exposed to theological ideas, and certainly haven’t considered their implications for teaching. This is a complex and sensitive task, but at the same time is a prerequisite for engaging children in a theological conversation. In practical terms, professional development programs should provide educators with the knowledge, resources and confidence to address their own theological positions.

Creating a Discourse with Children

We need to offer teachers guidelines on how to best raise these questions in ways that are engaging and relevant for young children. Here are several suggestions.

Authentic Dialogue

In order to initiate a meaningful exchange about God and theological questions, adults need to demonstrate a respect for young children that acknowledges and affirms their ability to make meaning of the world around them. This worldview does not underestimate or belittle children’s ability to express wonder about existential issues and to pose sophisticated and rigorous theological questions. It appreciates the fact that children possess different modes of expression than adults. In accepting this premise, adults should consider ways to explain concepts through analogies, stories, the arts and other expressive forms that make sense to children. How do we enter into a deliberation with young children about theological questions in ways that enable them to express themselves coherently and compellingly?

Listening to Children

Adults should recognize and appreciate the multiple languages, symbols and codes that children use to express themselves. We need to listen with all our senses, not just with our ears. We also need to appreciate that effective listening takes time, and that oftentimes this involves pauses of silence. Sometimes, effective listening requires us to suspend our judgments and prejudices and demonstrate a readiness to consider alternative viewpoints which may prove somewhat challenging and possibly unsettling.

Encourage Wonder Questions

Meaningful theological inquiries require a sense of openness to wonder. It stirs us to search for questions, rather than insist on answers. Wonder questions are generated by curiosity, doubt, desire and uncertainty. They cannot include a priori assumptions that prescribe responses as this can inhibit or stifle candid ongoing conversations. In that sense adults should prod the young child to ponder issues in an open and non-judgmental way, and thereby create a community of young learners who demonstrate mutual respect and care.

Legitimacy of Stating “I Don’t Know”

Rashi is widely recognized as one of the greatest pedagogues in Jewish history. At several points in the Bible, Rashi offers the following comment: “I don’t know what this teaches us” (e.g., Genesis 28:5). We well know that Rashi did not explain all Biblical verses, and he could easily have skipped over certain puzzling ones. However, in making this statement, Rashi is endorsing a crucial pedagogic principle which encourages educators to candidly share with their students that there are valid and legitimate questions that at the present time, we do not yet have satisfactory and compelling responses. We encourage all Jewish educators to consider the relevancy of Rashi’s practice for our teaching students of all ages.

Modes of Engaging Children in Questions about God and Theology

In attempting to provide educators with practical strategies to promote theological discussions, here are some ways to explore “everyday theology” within early childhood settings.

Stories

The power of children’s stories to shape and impact children’s lives on multiple levels has been documented and researched extensively. In addressing theological issues, we share stories that engage the child’s imagination and thereby allow her to explore these questions in safe and constructive settings. Among the stories that we have used, the following have proven most effective in capturing children’s attention and generating powerful theological discussions: Old Turtle (1992); Bagels from Benny (2001); Yellow and Pink (1984); Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy? (2005).

Walks in Nature

In a deeply insightful educational message, Maimonides argues that one of the most effective ways to achieve a love of God is by actively exploring the world of nature (Basic Principles of the Torah 2:2). We believe that allowing children to probe the wonders of nature inspires them to ponder God’s omniscience and at the same time, may provoke additional theological questions. When embarking on a nature walk, imagine the impact of studying the following verse: “In His greatness, God renews every day the acts of creation” המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית. Children will seize the opportunity to actively search and identify everyday miracles that we might otherwise ignore in our hectic daily routine.

Dramatic Play

A fascinating example of a project which helped young children contemplate theological issues was conducted at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, a lab school at Tufts University that serves three-year-olds through second graders. The “Beliefs Project” began with children drawing pictures of their theories and questions about God. The children and teachers then discussed these theories and generated additional questions. This was followed by meetings with parents and religious leaders, and then the youngsters listened to and discussed music with spiritual significance.

They then transformed the dramatic play area into a children’s vision of heaven. Children were invited to submit drawings and other creative works, and eventually, the area included individual, small-group and whole-group activities. The amount of excitement, sharing of ideas and curiosity that this project generated is extraordinary and worth examining for its application in Jewish early childhood education. (See http://ase.tufts.edu/epcs/documents/newsFunThing.pdf.)

Ritual

Much has been written about the power of ritual in the lives of young children. Like adults, children are constantly seeking ways to introduce different forms of ritual into their daily lives. One of the most spiritually uplifting and powerful Jewish rituals is the weekly Havdalah ceremony. Unique to Havdalah is its ability to engage the various senses and to stir our emotions in dramatic ways. The traditional Havdalah ceremony signifies our parting from the extraordinary peace and serenity of the Shabbat experience and reentry into the daily routine that we all experience. Havdalah can be a transformative experience as we activate our senses of taste, smell, sight and feeling as a means to help us anticipate the challenges and exciting new possibilities that the coming week presents.

Imagine Jewish early childhood education centers beginning the school week with a collective Havdalah ceremony. Imagine children’s excitement if they were able to plant and grow the spices that are used for the Havdalah, crafting the candles that light up the darkness, or drinking the grape juice that accompanies the ritual. And finally, imagine if at the end of the Havdalah ceremony we invited each child to consider how they would like to do something different during this new week. How can the upcoming week be enriched by a new thought, insight, behavior, or feeling that the child shares at the conclusion of the group Havdalah?

In conclusion, we have attempted to show how young children are eager, competent, and creative theologians. Our Sages believed that “young children’s breath is free from sin.” Let us exploit this outstanding educational period of their lives in order to allow them to think about God and consider theological issues in open, thoughtful, and constructive ways that will ultimately enrich their lifelong spiritual development.


Dr. Howard Deitcher is the director of the Florence Melton Institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. howard.deitcher@mail.huji.ac.il

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The God Issue

In Jewish tradition, God alone is the Creator of all and the ultimate embodiment of unity, Oneness. In the 21st century Jewish community, however, God can often be a source of contention and divisiveness. Our community is far from united around questions of God's existence, nature and way of acting, the ways that we can understand God and relate to God. The authors in this issue approach the Big Questions from a wide variety of perspectives and thinkers, but they are united in their concern to bring the God Issue within the classrooms and halls of Jewish day schools.

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