Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Devil Gets No Details

Does anyone else find it difficult to explain religion to a child? I find myself, in explaining religion to Bambina, realizing how ridiculous the whole thing sounds: God, omnipotence, spirit, source of all life and good things, no you can't see him, I suppose he's a him I guess... Oh my god! (pardon the pun)

Well, as I write this, perhaps the truth is that it is very difficult to explain religion to your child when you remove all the dogma and certainties. I want her to love and live Judaism, but I can't bring myself to tell her that it's the only way to believe in God. Or, more precisely, I don't want to teach her that someone else's religion has to be wrong for ours to be right. (Yeah, I get it for the true believers on both sides: Jesus either is or is not the Savior). But I guess I'm just going to challenge the premise that it has to be about correct or not correct theology, rather than explaining that different families have different ways of worshiping the same God, and different ideas of what God is. Which makes it hard to explain.

We just got the new Dan Zanes CD called The Welcome Table. It's a collection of funked-up traditional religious tunes like Jesus on the Mainline, Home in that Rock, Oseh Shalom. A really great collection. But (or maybe because?) it inspires questions that make me go Hmmmm. The Jesus on the Mainline of course begged the question of who is Jesus and can you really call him on the phone? I was bumbling over my description of Jesus beyond "he was a really nice man that Christians believe is very holy and very special (she has no concept of saving someone from sins so I didn't go there)." I added that Jews don't believe in him, then quickly reworded it to say that we believe he existed but that we don't see him as special as our Christian friends do. The last thing I need is her going around telling her Christian friends that there is no Jesus... Anyway, I was struggling to put it into words in a way that didn't devalue the religion of our family and friends when she helped me out. She said, "He's a nice man but we just don't think about him." Bingo, preschooler! Exactly.

Okay. But then another song, Roll The Chariot, has a line about "if the devil is in our way, we'll roll it over him." Which of course raises the issue of "what is the devil?" Well, folks. I don't believe in a devil. There is no hell in Judaism, and even if I weren't Jewish I can't see myself believing in a place presided over by a truly evil somethingorother; a place to which people are sent after death. It's just not Sound Haggis Theology, IMHO, if you also believe in a loving God--or even a non-loving God. Maybe an indifferent God would be all about having a Hell, but any god worth my time ain't havin' that. So while I recognize the power of the Fear of the Devil in keeping kids well-behaved, I'm just not going to fill my child's head with that kind of evil idea, that she might burn somewhere for eternity if she masturbates or lies or steals something. That is some sick shit to tell a kid, if you ask me. So on that one, I said to hell with ecumenism and here's to my child's mental health: "Honey, there is no devil. Some people believe in him, as a bad man who is just totally bad, but it's not real. There is no devil, period. But this is a great song, huh?!" Maybe when she's older we can have a real discussion about how hell is a place you create for yourself, whether in this life or the next. About how guilt and shame and fear and hate are their own special hells to be avoided or escaped as necessary. About how the Hebrew word "satan" simply means "adversary, " how Judaism believes that all humans are imbued with a yetzer hara (evil inclination) and a yetzer hatov (a inclination toward good), and how it is our challenge and calling to listen to the latter throughout our lives. How God is all-powerful, which means that there is no fallen angel with any power to rival God's power; all angels are obedient servants of God, end of story. Which means that the power to do right and wrong are all ours, not some personification of evil's.

Someday we'll have that discussion. Until then, I've got your backs on Jesus, my friends, but on the Devil you cats are on your own!


Anonymous said...

I was raised in a home with lots of fear of the Devil. note how I still capitalize the name. You are right. It is a terrible terrible waste of religious teaching to have your kids focused on evil and what it will do to you if you are not a good Christian. Any doubts about the church? That was the Devil. Any normal human impulses like horniness or jealousy or anger? I remember doing good things not because I wanted to go to heaven but only because I wanted to avoid Hell. Not the best foundation for my religious life which I have long since abandoned.

Anonymous said...

Devil? I dunno. But do BAD people get punished in the afterlife? I certainly hope so! (like child molesters, cold-hearted killers, Hitler, Saddam and his sons, etc, etc history is littered with BAD folks, irredeemable in my opinion) How can a good God not punish the truly bad(not just sinners, that covers everyone who didn't die in infancy), that wouldn't be just. Mother Teresa and Josef Mengele - come on in to heaven?! I pray not.

I think it is OK to let kids know that REALLY bad people get punished when they die. Why not? Not to scare them, but to give them a sense of right and wrong and that God does judge our actions here on earth.

Anonymous said...


God, Devil not necessary for moral grounding.

Film at 11

St said...

What's up with all the anons? Great post, it added so much to my crisis of faith! I didn't realize that there is no hell in Judaism, fascinating considering the role it plays in Christianity.