Avoiding Talking about God? What Can We Do about It?

Elana Kanter

Dialogue on Jewish Education from The Davidson School 

Elana Kanter is a member of the first class of women to study for the rabbinate at The Jewish Theological Seminary; she was ordained in 1989.

Parents, complementary school teachers, and day school teachers often shy away from speaking about God. They feel a lack of competence in articulating—or, in many cases, even understanding— their own thoughts about God, and consequently don’t feel comfortable broaching the subject with their students. Teachers avoid the subject or tell students to wait and “ask the rabbi.” But, given that God plays a central role in the texts educators teach, and given that kids, from a very early age, ask deeply religious      questions, instructors may be missing choice opportunities for engaging students in theological discussions. There are so many natural contexts for exploring ideas about God to be seized.

It is important to delineate a few challenges to educators’ ability to talk about God. The first relates to a lack of educators with advanced training in Jewish studies, and it is most particular to school settings below eighth grade (early childhood, elementary, middle). Jewish high schools tend to have more rabbis and more Jewish educators with advanced degrees teaching actual Jewish studies classes. Often those teachers are more comfortable discussing theology, because in their rabbinical or doctoral programs, if not before, they were challenged to explore their beliefs.

The second challenge relates to the North American emphasis on the idea of freedom of religion. Jewish high school students often fight tooth and nail for the right to think what they want to think and believe what they want to believe, and to not feel compelled to use that freedom to have a belief system. Knowing what they believe is not the most critical thing for them; simply knowing they have the right to choose what they believe, and zealously guarding that right even if there are no beliefs to defend, seems to suffice.

The third impediment is the dominance of Christianity in our culture. It is common for Jews of all ages to think that Christians talk about God, Jews do not; that we are an action-oriented religion, concerned with mitzvot, which are concrete sacred deeds, and that faith takes a secondary role in religious life. This is partly true—we are, indeed, an action-oriented religion. But the idea that Judaism is concerned only with action is not an accurate portrayal of Judaism. A more accurate picture would be that Jews are deeply concerned with both faith and works. We are a God-saturated religion, and the more we own that and dispel the myth described above, the more we express the fullness of Jewish tradition.

How to overcome the impediments to theological discussions in Jewish schools? In many Jewish high schools, including the one in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was an educator, seniors were required to take a course that challenged them to write their own theology, based on argument and evidence. They read ancient, medieval, and modern Jewish thinkers, and through “argument” with those thinkers and discussions based on the reading, they developed their own “take” on God, theodicy, and other theological issues.

But what about those educators who have not had opportunities to explore their own theologies and are not well-versed in Jewish theological ideas? How do we help teachers become more comfortable discussing God with their students? In solving most schools’ challenges, including this one, guidance and modeling need to come from leadership. Leaders of Jewish day schools need to use the word God in conversation and make the subject a regular part of discussion, in order to give teachers and students permission to do the same. Faculty meetings can be used for helping teachers grow Jewishly by helping them grow theologically, leaving nuts-and-bolts administrative discussions—which take up precious face-to-face time—to be handled by email.

In addition to reading about, writing about, and discussing theological questions, theology needs to be broached experientially in prayer, in nature, and artistically. God is not only—or even primarily—to be found in linear argument. From very early ages and continuing through the high school years, students want to reach out spiritually. I remember taking students into the mountain preserve in Phoenix during my first year teaching high school. After hiking for a while, I asked them to find a quiet place and write a letter to God, or alternatively to their own deepest self. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but they all did the assignment without hesitation. The letters varied widely in tone and topic, but I remember being surprised by how open the students were to the activity, and how seriously they wrote.

Teachers need these opportunities, as well—and I think if offered such opportunities, they will jump at the chance to reflect on theological questions, and on what they think and believe. The great beneficiaries of investing in teachers in this way will be their students. If teachers are able to make more of a place for God in Jewish classrooms, learning will deepen and may become not just good—but compelling and transformational.

Rabbi Elana Kanter is a graduate of Barnard College and a member of the first class of women to study for the rabbinate at The Jewish Theological Seminary. She was ordained in 1989. She is director of the Women’s Jewish Learning Center in Phoenix, Arizona, and co-rabbi of The New Shul, in Scottsdale. In 1998, Rabbi Kanter received the Covenant Award, an award recognizing exceptional Jewish educators, for her work in adult Jewish learning.