(Help! My Child Just Asked Me a Theological Question!)It’s serious business, asking questions, and at Schechter Manhattan, we view thoughtful questions as both a mark of success and a teachable moment. Perhaps our experience with challenging questions in the classroom can provide a framework for handling particularly tough questions at home.
Questions are central to Jewish living and learning. From an early age, we encourage our children to begin asking and probing for more clarity, deeper understanding, greater nuance, a stronger rationale.
When our children ask theological questions, about biblical narratives, for example, a key consideration in determining how to respond is the age of the child. This factor is likely to influence the questions children ask and what they mean by them, the previous exposure children have had to the particular story or similar stories, and what kinds of answers we adults can offer that are likely to respond to the question they are really asking and, therefore, satisfy them.
At Schechter Manhattan, the Akedah (binding of Isaac) narrative is studied toward the end of Kitah Gimel (third grade). Prior to that time, whether or not they have been exposed to the story depends mainly on home experiences. By the end of third grade, however, children will not only have heard the story; they will also have inquired deeply into it. The questions they ask and the discussions they invite from that point on may revisit or build upon their classroom inquiries.
For young children, the Akedah story is likely to be experienced as a challenge to the safety and dependability of their relationship with their parents. Irrespective of the specific questions they ask, the “answer” they crave, often, is reassurance that mommy or daddy loves them very much and that they will never do anything to hurt them or scare them.
Young children are concrete thinkers, and this can also affect the kinds of question they ask, and the answers they are seeking. Simply being able to visualize a hard-to-imagine scene may satisfy the child’s curiosity at this stage. What’s a fire stone, and how does it work? How could they walk for three days? How old was Isaac anyway? etc.
A central developmental challenge for older children is to become competent young people – good little boys and girls. This task is facilitated when the rules of the game are clear, and complicated when they are too complex or subtle for children to comprehend clearly. The Akedah challenges their sense of right and wrong, and so the moral questions they pose are often attempts to imagine themselves in the shoes of one of the characters, which in turn helps them clarify what is expected of them in real life. Why did Abraham mislead Isaac, or, is it ever okay for me to mislead someone I love? What did Isaac think when Abraham tied him up, and did he resist or cooperate? etc.
Adolescents, including early adolescents, are passionately engaged in clarifying their own identity, which necessitates distancing themselves from their parents and other adults with whom they identified closely as children. Their ability to think abstractly also drives them to pose ethical and philosophical challenges. Therefore, the same kinds of moral questions about the Akedah may mean very different things to them than they did, or would have, only a year or two earlier. Why did Abraham mislead Isaac, or, how can I ever trust my parents? Why did Abraham obey God’s command, or, why should I obey my parents when I think they’re wrong? How can a loving God command Abraham to sacrifice his son, or, should I believe in God?
Because the questions children have in mind are often different from the ones they actually ask, a good approach for teachers and parents can be to answer a question with one or more questions. Responding by asking something as simple as “What do you think?” will sometimes go a long way towards revealing the thinking behind the question that motivated the child in the first place. And probing, or even, with older children, challenging their answers further is likely to reveal even more about the nature of the search for meaning that triggered the child’s original question.
Grappling with difficulties in the Torah does not need to be an isolated event for our children or us, or even for our children and us together. If children find the inquiry affirming or revealing, they will tend to revisit a challenging idea, or story, or turn of phrase, a number of times while growing up, and even more times in adulthood. Therefore, we need not feel pressured to teach everything that there is to know about an issue the first time we hear the question being posed. Answering questions with questions, at least at times, will slow us down in our enthusiasm to share our extensive knowledge, whether or not it’s responsive to the question that the child is really asking about.
Judaism is unusual among religions in the degree to which it affirms and promotes questions of nearly every kind, and reserves a special place of honor for the most penetrating and challenging of all. One of the great pleasures of Jewish parenthood is hearing our children’s frequent spontaneous questions, engaging with them in thoughtful inquiry around them, and in the process, deepening not only their insight and consciousness, but our own, as well.