What is God? — And Other Religious Questions from Children

One of the Web sites I frequent is InterfaithFaily.com. This online publication provides an abundance of articles and resources for interfaith families, especially ones that are exploring Jewish life. They recently published my  piece, Your Child Asks, What Does It Mean To Be Jewish. The text that follows is the article that appears on their Web site on April 22, 2011.

A few nights ago, I was reading Sunrise, Sunset to my 3-year-old daughter, Sophie. Sunrise, Sunset is a story using the words of the famous Fiddler on the Roof song. As I was reading the story, Sophie interrupted and asked, “Mommy, why is that man wearing a scarf?” I told Sophie it’s called a tallis, or prayer shall. People wear them to pray. The questions did not end there. “What is it to pray?” asked Sophie. I thought quickly, responding, “It’s when you talk to God.”

I got a reprieve since Sophie did not ask who God was. But this interaction really got me thinking about the best ways to talk to Sophie — and other young children — about theological concepts such as God, Judaism and praying. I knew this would not be the last conversation we had on the subject. So I decided to do some research and get ready for the next time Sophie brings up the subject of religion.

Religion — Judaism included — and its concepts can be very difficult for young children to grasp. Even adults have a hard time understanding the religious reasons behind some of our traditions and actions. So how do you explain these things to children?

Having a child reminds us that nearly every interaction is a teaching moment. I try to keep that in mind when I talk to Sophie about religion. And the best strategy I’ve found for those teachable moments is to keep explanations simple and understandable.

Sophie is learning about holidays, tzedakah and praying at her Jewish preschool. The teachers do an excellent job of breaking down these ideas, rich with meaning, to a very basic concept. For example, each Friday at the preschool, the children get out their coins and donate them to tzedakah. I asked Sophie what tzedakah was, and she replied that it’s giving coins to help people and animals. Of course, there is much that goes into tzedakah. But Sophie explained it in a simple way in which she fully understood.

Even before a child enters a formal religious learning environment, there are things that can be done at a very young age that will help plant the seeds about religion and core beliefs. Reading books with Jewish elements is a wonderful start, especially for toddlers and very young children. One of the first books Sophie received was Goodnight Sh’ma, which we would read nearly every night. The book is a sweet story that shows a little boy and his mother partaking in bedtime rituals — reading a story, getting into bed and saying the Sh’ma prayer. When I first started reading this book to Sophie, she didn’t know what the Sh’ma — or a prayer — was. But since we’ve been reading it for so long, she knows the story. She can recite the Sh’ma. And she understands that it is a ritual that is done every night. It’s those types of learning moments that will help her understand her religion and prayers as long-term concepts

While it’s easier to talk about concepts such as holidays and tzedakah, talking about God and explaining Judaism can be quite challenging. Many children have heard the word God and have some sort of idea as to what that word means. I’m always in awe when Sophie recites the Ha’motzi (a blessing said over bread) and I hear her chant, “We give thanks to God for bread…” She knows about God and that God has something to do with providing us with food.

Rabbi David Wolpe, in his article entitled How to Talk to Your Kids About God, emphasizes the importance of responding to children’s questions about God with honesty. Rabbi Wolpe suggests letting the child guide the conversation about God and not to let our own preconceived notions rule the discussion. He encourages parents to ask children about God; let them speculate and imagine. Their understanding of God will grow with them over time.

Telling stories is also a helpful teaching technique as children learn to form concepts based on characters, says Rabbi Wolpe. And along with stories, he suggests using descriptive language to teach about God. For example, instead of saying “God knows everything,” use a more concrete phrase such as “God helps people and animals grow.”

Rabbi Wolpe also suggests bringing God into our everyday lives by telling children that God loves them. One way to teach this concept, he says, is to tell them that all these people love them — mommy, daddy, grandma, grandpa, and God. This plants the seed for children that God is a comforting source and cares about people.

As my daughter and I exited the preschool recently, Sophie asked me why those “big kids” (religious school students) were at her school. I wasn’t prepared for (and Sophie was not ready to understand) a long explanation about how kids attend religious school to prepare for their B’nai Mitzvah and to become Jewish adult. So I thought quickly, and told Sophie the kids were there to learn about being Jewish. Because she didn’t ask any follow-up questions (a rarity for Sophie), I guess she had enough understanding of the term “Jewish” and my response to satisfy her… for the moment.

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