HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Hating God in Front of the Whole School
How personally do you take God? Does God matter to you on a daily, tangible basis? If you work in an elementary school, like I do, chances are your middle to older students take God very personally. What they feel about God is different from their kindergarten wonder or first grade awe, and it might surprise you.
In the middle of all-school tefillah at Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, one third grader announced publicly that he hated God and that he hated prayer. The outburst had its own behavioral issues; the theological quandary, though, also needed to be addressed. In the spirit of recognizing the divine value in each of us, I noted that the moment was not the best time to address the student’s feelings. I did, however, offer a quick response with implications still to be worked out.
My response was informed by a pivotal experience I had when I served as a pulpit rabbi. A divorcee told me that I had given her the most important advice she could have received when she began her divorce process: I told her that God could take whatever anger she had, so she should bring it. In the logical framework most of us operate in, God’s infinitude should mean that God has the capacity to absorb all the anger we may feel, all the frustration, all the sadness, and then some. By sharing those feelings and getting them out of us, God might just end up being our greatest ally.
What I shared with the school in response to the outburst was similar. I said that it is okay to be angry with God. I also said that I believe, though others may feel differently, that God—who we say is infinite—is big enough to take our anger without getting mad in return. I then noted that this idea of God would take a longer time to discuss and that we had to move on at that moment.
The challenge, especially in a school system which prides itself on excellent academics, is that God-as-ally is a foreign concept. Third graders are very good at getting stuck in a logical mindset, but they are not the only ones. The irony is that logic is applied first to a personal God: God did not answer my prayers; God did not stop that fire; God did not save so-and-so; my life is so hard, and it is God’s fault; etc. The calculus takes away all chance of God being close or caring.
When we teach students to reason and to think critically, we often tear down possibilities. When it comes to God, there is little room for a God who is neither ephemeral and removed nor anthropomorphized and absent. There is the biblical God of personhood and the tefillah God of omnibenevolence. With a broken world and enough brokenness in students’ lives, neither God satisfies.
How can we open our young students to the notion of a God who is infinite and personal? How can we align our curricula with opportunities to talk through God-ideas? How can we not try?
In my follow through with the third grader, I found that his hatred of God was really a search for God. He reported that he does not see God doing all the things that would make life better. He has never experienced God, at least not in a way he recognizes on his own. This student is bereft of a God with whom he can relate.
Relationship is, I believe, our challenge. We talk about God, we teach God, and we pray to God; but do we relate to God in school? Expressions of generalized gratitude or High Holy Day promises to do better are not the substance of a relationship. A relationship has more of, at least, a feeling of being two-way. In the apparent absence of a God who intervenes in our daily lives, we need a God with whom we can relate: a God who gives us the space we need, absorbs our sorrow and our anger, and who loves us.
We have been particularly adept at explaining that God made room in creation for us to act, to repair the world and complete God’s work; we call it free will. Otherwise, our strong emotions are relegated to a school counselor’s office or another appropriate place of removal to gather ourselves. Could we teach a relational God by sending students to the prayer room by whatever name we call it, beit knesset or mikdash me’at? What would happen if the school counselor, or another adult, accompanied a student in crisis or meltdown to a space before the school ark? How much holier would that space become and how much whole-er would our students be?
One student shouting out his hatred of God is the tip of the iceberg. Underneath their achieving exteriors, our students’ souls, and perhaps our own, too, are storming without direction. It is time to offer more than solace or strategies for handling strong feelings; it is time to offer an immanent God who can be there for us without speaking or intervening. Each of our schools has its own unique culture; we should open that culture to include the chance to come before God to yell, to cry, or to be acknowledged. If we start to talk about it, we will find ways to teach this God and to bring ourselves and our students into relationship with God, for the better.
A 21st century community Jewish day school is the perfect place for this effort. God is bigger than any denominational divide. God is more than a sparring partner for atheists. God is not stuck on a workbook page. God is a Presence and a Place. As we welcome people into the warm community of our schools, let us welcome our communities into a relationship with a God big enough for us to bring our full selves. If we do, the next outburst is likely to be much more positive.
Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school of Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, a K-5 community Jewish day school. firstname.lastname@example.org
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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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