Talking about G-d in a Pluralistic Day School

Nathan Somers

Due to these factors, it would be easy for us to get into a difficult situation with respect to the way we talk about G-d. I think the initial question needs to be broadened. How do we teach about G-d in a pluralistic Jewish day school that aims to educate a diverse community of students and families about Judaism? How do we validate and educate while being respectful of the atheist, agnostic, and religious families that call our school home?

As a Jewish educator, I need to both respect where each child is coming from and validate their right to make decisions for themselves, while at the same time sharing with students the ways Judaism and important Jewish thinkers have described G-d. Generalized discussions about G-d have the potential to alienate students and make them feel defensive or confused about their own beliefs or their family’s way of observing Judaism. There are several ways to combat the potential for hurt feelings and confusion among students when it comes to G-d.

The first line of defense needs to be a strong understanding of community. Students need to be part of and understand what makes a community and how a community operates, and this is something we teach across all content areas. Even the most homogeneous communities contain a diversity of thought, and the better students understand this the more resilient they will be when confronted with ideas that differ from their own. A strong classroom community is built upon trust, and it is trust that allows students to share their own perspectives without fear of ridicule. Teachers can’t rely on the bonds of friendship and shared classroom experiences to build community; the rules and value of community need to be taught.

At the Lerner School our teachers and students focus heavily on creating an open and respectful classroom community through stories, discussions, middot and setting expectations. This hard work presented itself to me several weeks ago when I visited a 1st grade classroom. As soon as I entered the room I was approached by two students who had come to me to clear up a theological debate they were having about the story of creation. They disagreed about the “truth” of the story. I took the students aside and asked each to share with me their side of the debate. At the conclusion of each student’s argument they asked if they were right. One student saw the story of creation as a symbolic story in contradiction to science, while the other student viewed the Torah story as a true description of how the world began. In the end I told them they were both right. I discussed the diversity of Jewish thought about creation and explained that there was no one right answer. We also discussed that this diversity of thought is what makes our classroom and school community great. At this the students nodded their heads and returned to their classwork. Their understanding and experience of community, personal perspective, and trust made this argument a positive part of their Jewish education.

Often as Jewish educators we want to simplify Judaism as a way of making the ideas easy to digest and simple for students to understand. I think this does a disservice both to our students as individuals and to diversity within our school community. Over the last few years I have learned that the best way to create a debate-driven classroom is to empower students with access to diverse Jewish viewpoints around any topic. Contradictions within Jewish thought or within the Torah itself are a great starting place for amazing discussions that allow students to build a stronger appreciation for the myriad ways one can express their ideas about G-d while still being Jewish.

Comparing Kohelet’s, Maimonides’, and Baruch Spinoza’s thoughts about G-d leads us to vastly different G-d concepts. Often students coming to a pluralistic or community day school don’t feel “Jewish enough” in comparison to some of their peers. When these students gain a broader understanding of what Judaism is and of the diversity of thought about G-d embedded within it, they are more likely to see themselves as part of the group rather than outside it.

G-d is a difficult concept for students to understand and an equally difficult concept to teach about honestly, because each student has their own concept of G-d and these beliefs are often surrounded with anxiety about whether or not they are “right.” By teaching community, the value of personal perspective, and the diversity already existing within Jewish thought, we have the ability to create a nurturing Jewish environment for students to explore what they think about G-d and Judaism.

Nathan Somers is the director of Jewish life at the Lerner Jewish Community Day School in Durham, North Carolina. [email protected]

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HaYidion The God Issue Spring 2015
The God Issue
Spring 2015