A Place for Ritual?
Posted: 28 September 2007 10:59 PM   [ Ignore ]
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So, my kids went to a Jewish preschool (I was raised nominally Jewish) and I enjoyed some of the rituals, especially the lighting of Shabbat candles on Friday evenings.  It was a nice way to sing some songs and end the week.  I am conflicted, now that they are nearly both in Elementary School, with continuing this ritual even though we are not affiliated with any synagogue nor truly participate in the religion in any formal way.  The kids enjoy it, but I’m afraid they may begin asking a lot of questions (about God and what it means to be Jewish) that I am completely unprepared to answer.  Is there a place for this sort of ritual in our life that doesn’t have to be related to God?  Or am I kidding myself?  I’d be happy to simply enjoy lighting candles and singing some other non-religious songs on Friday evenings, but I’m unsure how to transition my kids away from the tradition we’ve created.

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Posted: 28 September 2007 11:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I don’t know anything about Judaism. But I have two boys and they love Christmas. And I do tell them that on Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus who was a very good man. We listen to and sing religious songs and we even begin our dinner on Christmas Eve with a passage from the Bible about the birth of Jesus by Luke (or whoever the heck wrote it.). On Christmas, and on Christmas only, I love all that stuff.

[ Edited: 28 September 2007 11:21 PM by George ]
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Posted: 29 September 2007 12:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Well, we’re ethnically Irish/Scottish, but our daughter also went to a Jewish pre-school for 3 years and can sing the hamotzi with the best of them. We also go to the Highland Games and the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, sing lots of gaelic songs, and celebrate a pretty secularized Christmas. She knows I don’t think it likely that God exists, and she vacilates in her opinion (sometimes she’s an atheist, probably to be like Daddy, other times she admits it’s hard to imagine how the world exists if no one made it, since the competing scientific explanations are less intuitive and a bit hard to convey to a 6 year old). Some questions do come up (“If we’re not Jewish, what are we?” etc), but I just answer them the best I can and let her work through the issues of religion and identity in her own time. They are complicated, and she picks up new data and fits them into her evolving set of concepts all the time.

I guess I’m saying that I don’t think we as parents have to have all the answers or present a completely worked-out paradigm for our kids to absorb. I know lots of secular Jews who use ritual for cultural more than religious purposes, and I don’t think it has to be all that confusing to their kids. When they’re ready to understand the practice and how it differs from true religious ritual, they’ll get it and then they’ll decide what, if anything, they want it to mean for them. And I firmly belive ritual is an expression of some pretty fundamental, probably innate psychological needs. I don’t think it is automatically a bad thing, and I think contrived, de novo rituals deliberatly designed to supplant traditional ones often don’t have the resonance of practices honed as psychological theater by hundreds or thousands of years. I think it is possible to enjoy the rituals without making a commitment to everything they say or represent. And over time these practices change organically. Halloween is pretty secular, Thanksgiving is going that way, and I’ve had a pretty easy time celebrating a Jesus Light Christmas for years. I don’t see why a secular Shabbat should be too hard to continue in good conscience.

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Posted: 29 September 2007 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Hi Vanessa—My brother’s family belongs to the Society for Humanistic Judaism <http://www.shj.org>.  They have chapters all around the US and other countries.  It is a non-theistic approach to Judaism.  All the stories and customs, none of the religious.  Many members are atheists.  Some are not.  The central god-belief is that there may or may not be a god, but all work and change comes from us.  All decisions we make should come from analyzing the situation and then reaching a conclusion.  Science and the scientific method are prized.  The contributions of Jews throughout history are recognized.

Although I am a Secular Humanist and gave up Judaism many years ago, I found much to appreciate from this group.  In fact, I taught Sunday School for a few years to the 3-5th graders.  It was fun.  We discussed everything.  I always had a “Person of the Week,” like SJ Gould or Louis Brandeis.  We used Dan Barker’s “Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong” to discuss personal morality and behavior.  And we used the Biblical stories as well.  Truthfully, not every story got the kid-glove treatment.  And that’s the point of Humanistic Judaism.  There are no sacred texts or people.  It is right and proper to criticize it all.

This may be a good alternative for you. 
Good Luck.

Linda

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Posted: 29 September 2007 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Excellent question, vanessa, and some great answers as well. I’d say you might do yourself a favor by preparing yourself to answer these questions yourself ... try to hash out what you believe about Judaism. That way you will be prepared for the questions when they come. The most important thing for your kids is that you be open and honest about your own beliefs when asked. If you don’t believe in any of the mythology, but still enjoy the music and rituals, say so. If the school becomes overbearing about religion, consider moving your kids elsewhere. Young kids may enjoy rituals but I don’t think they’re really so important for them in the scheme of things—more important, by far, is to have honest parents who are comfortable with the way their children are being taught.

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Posted: 29 September 2007 03:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thanks for all the thoughtful responses.  I appreciate the suggestions for further readings and the Humanistic Judaism website too. (Thanks, Linda)

It’s good for me to face the uneasiness I have with adopting religious ritual for use in my pretty secular home.  I absolutely am getting questions from my kids about God and who/what that is and I simply haven’t thought through my answers yet.  Since my and my husband’s families are blended (religiously-speaking), and since we’ve never stayed for the winter holidays at home, we have a tradition of simply adopting the traditions of the grandparents we visit.  (Christmas with my dad or my husband’s mom, Chanukah with my mom, etc.)  I suppose we’ll just have to have both the xmas tree and the menorah if we ever celebrate the holiday at home.

One of the issues related to this for me, and I appreciate Brennen’s comments here, is that I do want to enjoy the ritual without “making a commitment to everything they say or represent,” but I’m not sure how far I can take that.  For example, my husband was also raised in a pretty secular household, but in order to “fit in” to his group of friends in college (who, for some reason, were predominantly Jewish), he told them he was Bar Mitzvah’ed (the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood).  No one ever questioned him, but of course he felt very strange about it later.  I’d like for my kids to be critical thinkers, but peer pressure is strong.  How do I make it “okay” to “sample” religious ritual without buying into the whole package?  And even if I figure out a way to do it, how do I ensure that my kids can make their own decisions later using (hopefully) their developing critical thinking skills?  (Because our “sampling” of ritual is probably not the norm for many of their friends.)

Vanessa

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Posted: 30 September 2007 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I think whatever kids experiecne becomes “normal” for them. If syncretism (sampling and blending various religous practices) is the norm in your household, they’ll assume it is normal. The only problem comes when they realize other people don’t see it this way. Your only hope at that point is that by then they’ve already gotten the idea that the correct response to criticism or ideas contrary to their own is to use those critical thinking skill, look at both sets of ideas, and make up their own mind. The trick is how does one teach such skills? Since you have two kids to my one, you must know twice as much about parenting as I do grin, so I don’t know that I can help you there! Modelling, as Occam has said with regard to morality in your introduction thread, is probably key. Both seeing you work through challenges to your ideas in a thoughful way and seeing you respond to their challenges of you and your ideas will give them an example of how such thinking can work. Sadly, you can’t protect them from peer pressure. They will feel it, sometimes fall prey to it, and hopefully more often find their own ways to resist it. You can show them tools for doing so, but it’s like riding a bike—they won’t really be able to do it until they’ve tried and failed for a while. It’s one of the hardest things, I think, about being a parent, not being able to protect your children from what is, in some cases, necessary suffering.

I also think Doug has an important point, which is if you do the best you can to be clear in your own mind how you feel and what you believe, you’ll be better able to communicate it. But if you aren’t clear, let your kids see that and how you deal with it, because again that will be a model for them.

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