What is going on in a child’s mind when they ask a question? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the amusing story of the parent who wanted to provide sophisticated theological answers to his five-year-old son who had asked about God. The father explained how God wasn’t really a person, but was instead a spirit, a miraculous presence. A few minutes later the five-year-old came back to his father and said, “I got it. God is like Casper the Friendly Ghost.”
Developmental theorists like Piaget and Kohlberg provide us with some guidelines about the kinds of answers that are most helpful to children of different ages. They suggest that children under eight are “egocentric.” They want information that is highly personal and imparts a sense that their world is a trustworthy place filled with imaginative possibilities. Although we will mostly use traditional ideas about God and the stories in the Torah when talking to young children, we will still want to plant the seed that may one day lead to a more nuanced, less literal interpretation. We can do this by using phrases like, “Our stories tell us…” or “We read that…”.
Children between eight and 12 are information junkies. This is the age when stories are the most magical. Give them lots of good information, lots of detail. Slowly expand their perspectives to show that there is more than one understanding of an idea or value.
Young adults over 12 can actually begin to judge and juggle controversies. They appreciate that there can be multiple or even contradictory ways of understanding the same thing. Finally, they can begin to analyze for themselves the values and assumptions that lie beneath the surface of the information they receive.
To make this very concrete, we have provided three different answers, reflecting our general sense of a child’s development. There are two important caveats, however. The first is that we must always respect and encourage the child’s questions. They will often let you know what they are thinking in ways that make even the most sophisticated developmental theories seem like cookie cutter models of the human mind and spirit. Consequently, the second caveat: always expect the unexpected. Young children will sometimes make extraordinarily interesting and sophisticated comments, while older children (and adults) may request the most basic of information.
Sample Question: What happened when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai?
- Answer for Kids under 8: Our stories tell us that God gave the Jewish people a wonderful present that we continue to study today. It’s our Torah. We call it matan Torah, the gift of Torah.
- Answer for Kids 8-12: The Torah says that the people of Israel heard thunder and lightning, and a very long and loud shofar blast; during this Moses went up to the mountain; the noise stopped and there was a pure silence; and God communicated the Ten Commandments. Some of the rabbis who interpreted this episode said that the entire Ten Commandments were heard by the people “from God’s mouth”; some said that only the first word, “I,” was heard; and some even said that only the first letter of the first word, a silent aleph, could be heard. Matan Torah is a great mystery; who spoke what to whom, and who heard what from whom, is open to interpretation. But amidst all that, something of what we today call the Torah was communicated.
- Answer for Young Adults over 12: We think of Sinai as one of the great moments of Jewish tradition not because we know (or whether it even matters) whether “it really happened” but because it is a powerful symbol of the Jewish people’s search for moral and spiritual insight. Somehow it is here that the values we most treasure are communicated to us by God. But how does the communication occur? Does Moses figure it out and then hear from God that he got it right? Does God lay it out for Moses in all the great detail of a computer program? Are there other possibilities? As we begin our study of the text and the traditional midrashim, let’s keep a running account of all the possibilities. You too can add your own voice.
Most of the answers developed in this FAQ are written on a level that will be useful for older children and adults. The teacher of younger children who wishes to make use of this material will need to keep in mind these developmental factors when using the FAQs, and revise them accordingly to match the level of the child who is asking the question. If you write your answers out, please send them to us in the JRF office.
The Reconstructionist Paradox
This project may seem unusual or even “un-Reconstructionist.” After all, Reconstructionism has usually stressed questions more than answers, the process more than the conclusion, and generally shies away from attempting to give definitive answers. Wouldn’t it make more sense if a Reconstructionist FAQ were a list of questions without the answers? or a list of questions with more than one answer?
Anyone who has read Kaplan knows that the Reconstructionist approach is not usually about the short answer, and this project doesn’t deny that at all. But we have found, in conversations with educators throughout the country, that they need to feel more comfortable in their knowledge about Reconstructionism, and in their ability to answer questions about it. In addition, many of our educators are not self-identified Reconstructionists, and these FAQs may help them negotiate the differences between Reconstructionist thought and the positions they bring from elsewhere.
What about the educator who says, “But I really believe in Torah from Sinai!” or “I really disagree with the Reconstructionist position on patrilineal descent”? To them we say: Good for you! We could not model openness and acceptance to our students if we were to stifle it in our teachers. But take the time to look over these questions, and try to find a way that you can satisfactorily answer from a Reconstructionist perspective without compromising your beliefs. You might set up a program where you engage in a conversation with the rabbi in front of the kids. Model different points of view, without judgment. When in doubt, plead pluralism!
The point of these FAQs is to enable our educators to feel more comfortable with the types of thinking and answering of questions that would be considered “Reconstructionist.” The FAQs themselves are only a tool for this purpose and should not be considered the end of the conversation.
If the essence of Reconstructionist education were to be boiled down to one idea, it would be that each child must be treated as an “image of God” whose voice should be fostered – and that goes for the teacher as well. Please also remember that Reconstructionist education is all about welcoming questions – from ourselves and from our students.
The Difficult Question
Our children can ask us any number of questions that will be difficult to answer, often because the questions make us – the adults – uncomfortable in some way. Perhaps the child seems to dismiss God too readily; or perhaps she is choosing to interpret a text in what we consider to be the narrowest possible way; or perhaps he is questioning what we consider to be at the core of our values. Any of these may cause an emotional reaction on our part.
When this happens, we are far better off answering the question with respect and patience than we are cutting off the question, refusing to answer it, or trying to enforce some form of orthodoxy. (For a look at what can happen when we shut down students’ questions, we recommend reading “The Conversion of the Jews” in Goodbye Columbus and Other Stories by Philip Roth.) Most children ask questions because they honestly want an answer; even if the question seems confrontational or facetious, there is usually a kernel of wanting-to-know buried somewhere within it, and that kernel is what we must find, and cultivate.
Recognizing that this is a part of any teacher’s experience, there are places in these FAQs where the question posed may seem particularly hostile or may make us uncomfortable, or even angry. In these cases we ask, first of all, that you realize that these questions are not meant to be interpreted as if we as individuals, or JRF as an institution, were the ones asking them. They are meant to be in the “voice of the student” (or, sometimes, in the “voice of the teacher”). That is why the questions appear in quotation marks.
But also, and more importantly, questions may be worded this way simply because this is often the way our students ask questions. We want to show by example that no question, no matter how biased or loaded it may be, is off limits — that all such questions can be brought, and that they will be answered honestly, respectfully and seriously. It is by asking the questions here in such a pointed way that we can model that most successfully.