This year I, along with 4 other members of the Davis Jewish Studies team, have been rotating through grades 1-5 for Tefilah. Each of us has 4 sessions per grade. Our theme: God. Our goal: to create a space for kids to learn about, explore, and reflect on God and God ideas. We're each approaching the theme with a unique pedagogical perspective. Mine is creative writing.
During my most recent Tefilah session with 1st grade, I asked the kids to write about how they/we can be God's "helpers." After a few minutes of scribbling pencils they had a chance to share their thoughts out loud if they wished. The first child to be called on, Eli K. [sharing his name with his parents' permission] said, "We can help people."
Though he was sitting toward the back of the room I could tell that Eli had more written on his page than what he had read aloud. I praised him and then asked if that was all he'd written. He said, "I've written more, but I'm not sure if it makes sense." I told him, "Our ideas don't always have to make sense." And I asked him if he'd like to share the rest.
"We can be like angels and kiss the mezuzah."
Well that took my breath away. I told him as much and added that what he'd written made sense to me. And even though a week has gone by, I'm still reflecting on the experience.
Part of what inspired us to take a thematic approach to Tefilah and focus on God is the fact that there's a pretty remarkable dearth of compelling, thoughtful, authentic, and helpful God language in the Jewish community at large. Lots of Jewish people claim to believe in God, but aren't able to tell you about the God they believe in. Others are quick to say they don't believe in God, but can't tell you "which" God they don't believe in. It's a shame because Judaism is a "big tent" when it comes to God-- lots of different and sometimes conflicting ideas, lots of tentative notions, lots of potential. There's a disconnect between the rich and complex discussion of God in Jewish tradition across the ages and the widespread lack of ability to articulate our God ideas today.
That brings me back to the 1st grader who first said, "We can help people," and then added, "We can be like angels and kiss the mezuzah." "We can help people" is a pretty safe idea to express in a God conversation. "We can be like angels and kiss the mezuzah," is a much more complex, spiritually vibrant, and robust idea for a 1st grader to express. Below you'll see a photograph of Eli's written response. You'll notice, as I did, that he switched the order of his answer when given a chance to share. In writing he went straight to the angels. In speaking he took a more cautious approach. If we hadn't done the writing, if we hadn't given him the space to reflect on what God means to him, then it's possible that he never would have expressed either of these ideas.
I don't think that the lack of vibrant God language in the Jewish community and beyond is because Eli and the rest of us don't have the yearning, the imagination, or the vocabulary to think about God. I think it's because we don't provide safe or engaging spaces to do so. I think we put the God conversation on the Procrustean Bed very early on. Consequently, the vast potential of the child's spiritual and religious imagination slowly atrophies. Here at Davis we have the ability to nurture rather than neglect that beautiful aspect of humanity within our children.
Here's Eli's actual writing, a beautiful artifact that illustrates what I'm writing about here: