A visualization of a black hole. (Illustration/Wikimedia user Yukterez)
A visualization of a black hole. (Illustration/Wikimedia user Yukterez)

There’s a big God-shaped hole in Jewish education

“When I think about God, I picture Morgan Freeman.” I bit my tongue to repress a laugh as I looked into the eyes of the third-grader who had answered my question — who or what is God to you? — with complete sincerity.

Part of me was amused by her image of the Divine as the iconic Black actor who is a member of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. But I also felt disheartened, because our Jewish institutions were partially responsible for this child’s non-Jewish contextualization of God.

As educational programs prepare to resume this fall, we must correct this massive educational failure, helping Jewish students fully appreciate the innumerable Jewish conceptions of God.

As a rabbinical student who has spent years teaching and working with Jewish children, I recognize why some imagine God this way. According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, Jews represent only 2.4% of the U.S. population, meaning that with the exception of some ultra-Orthodox communities, Jewish children are raised amid a deluge of non-Jewish God language and imagery.

They grow up seeing portraits of Jesus on posters and watching Zeus send thunderbolts down from heaven. They experience an “old man in the sky” every December as their friends await the arrival of Santa Claus and watch movies like “Bruce Almighty” that depict God as a human with supernatural abilities.

Furthering the problem is our general uneasiness with discussing God. Many Jewish educators don’t know how to effectively teach about the Divine. So while God may be mentioned in connection to Jewish text or prayer, students’ understanding and relationship remain surface-level. Concurrently, Jewish parents might teach their children that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, or quote the popular Bible verse that reads, “God created human beings in God’s own image,” but rarely will they introduce kids to the wisdom and diversity of medieval or modern Jewish thought about God.

They grow up seeing portraits of Jesus on posters and watching Zeus send thunderbolts down from heaven.

The result is an overabundance of Jewish children who either understand God in non-Jewish terms or abandon belief altogether. But this need not be the case, as Judaism has a rich history of wrestling, engaging and redefining God. For thousands of years, our people have debated if, when and how God shows up in their lives, and the young Jews of today deserve to be brought into that ongoing conversation.

Struggling with conceptions of God can ground kids throughout their spiritual journeys. But in order to struggle, they first need something to struggle with. They must be exposed to the poetic imagery of God espoused by the mystics, the writings of the philosophers who believed God’s true nature was beyond human comprehension and all the various understandings of the Divine from Jews past. They need to know that some Jews understand God as far beyond us, while others see the spark of the Divine in the faces of strangers walking by. They should be taught that there are Jews who feel God’s presence when alone, and those who find connection within community. They should learn that God can be heard through the melodies of Jewish music and in the cries of a protest for social change.

As they grow and struggle with this knowledge, Jewish children will inevitably challenge the theological ideas they have been exposed to. Their questions should be met with respect and seriousness. And when the answers are unclear — as they often will be — the children should be given opportunities to wrestle with them and come to their own conclusions. The goal of Jewish education related to God should never be to “get it right,” but rather to expose students to the numerous pathways of spirituality and support them through their own unique exploration.

I am not arguing that Jewish children should be suffocated with 3,000 years of Jewish theology, nor do I believe they should be reprimanded for any nontraditional views of the Divine they have come by honestly. But Jewish tradition has a distinct history of God exploration and development, and our young people deserve to be a part of that legacy. So as parents and educators prepare for the school year, let’s work to correct this error. This year, let’s give God back to Jewish children.

Max Antman
Max Antman

Max Antman (he/him) is a fifth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.