God in the Hallways

by Elana Roth Parker in


I don't know why, but I don't expect God to show up so much in Hebrew School. Even though it's my job, and I spend 6 hours a week with young Jewish minds, I sometimes think we've only come to consider this type of education to be supplementary and perfunctory. Not inspiring or life-changing or even effective. This really doesn't do the kids any real service. But I still hope they'll take something away from our classes, and by some miracle, I happened to have a really big God week with several of my students in different classes.

First, was just the standard Torah study variety. It's hard not to study that book without having certain issues with the character of God in the text. In fact, my students are pretty well convinced that the God of the Torah is a real jerk. To the point where one student said, "Isn't it kind of douchey of God to put the Jews in slavery just so they can thank Him when He takes them back out again?" Marah 1, God 0.

Then, sometime during that same class did another student wisely compare God to a baker of pies. You have to experiment with the pie to get it right, and sometimes throw it all out, and even then not everyone is going to be happy with it, because not everyone likes blueberry pie in the first place.

But the big event was with my high schoolers. I think it is what you'd call a real teaching moment. I've been doing a mini course on Jewish fiction and creative writing. I just pick an excerpt from something Jewish, read it, and have the kids do a writing exercise on that topic. This last class we did Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

It wasn't that serious a selection, but what I wanted to know was how the kids were taught to believe in God. Most of them reported that they hadn't been, but were still expected to. And one kid said, "I'm an atheist because my friend died last year and I can't believe in God after that."

I can relate to that. Who can't? Also, if they've only been taught that God rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior, it's really hard to rationalize why bad thngs happen to good people. I'd stop believing in God too if that's how I thought divinity worked. And it's not like I haven't had my ups and downs with this relationship over the years.

But we went on to talk about the other options and images in Judaism about God. That God is a judge, king, shepherd. We ask to be protected in the shelter of God's wings. God is a potter (which always sung to me) and sculptor in one of the more beautiful Yom Kippur prayers. The options are endless.

I also talked to them about how the word Israel literally means, "struggles with God." We're supposed to struggle. It's right there in the very name we identify ourselves by. God isn't easy. The relationship isn't supposed to be. Only the difficult things are really worth it. Isn't that always true?

Then I had the kids write their own Dear God letters. And at the end of everyone's writing and sharing (if they wanted to), the young atheist asked if he could say something. And when I said of course, he said, "I'm really glad I took this class. You've made me start to believe in God again."

I am still weepy just thinking about it. For more than one reason.