The Tooth Fairy, Biblical Truth and the Loss of Innocence

After weeks of hanging on a thread my seven year old son’s tooth finally fell out. Later that night I silently crept into his room to deposit the tooth fairy’s money under his pillow. It’s not his first tooth so it’s a routine he has come to expect. I am not sure precisely when he stopped believing in the tooth fairy. I think it happened gradually. He is a bright kid and it didn’t take him long to reflect on the incredulity of a nocturnal visitor bearing a gift of cash. Still he is more than happy for the charade to continue and one in which he plays a willing part by reminding me to remind the fairy and then pretending to be surprised the next morning when he discovers money under his pillow. I don’t think there is a parent on the planet who at some point deliberately sits down with their child to disabuse them of this tenuous belief. It just sort of happens and it happens well before the child has lost all his milk teeth.  Why do we continue to play out this charade? A psychologist or sociologist might have a sophisticated response but I think we continue because the game is harmless and it gives pleasure to our children. It costs nothing more than the pound or two placed under the pillow. There is no real emotional, psychological or religious cost to learning that the tooth fairy is actually one’s parent. It’s a game. Everyone knows it’s a game and our children outgrow it. All too soon

There is however another game that we tend to play with far greater consequences and that is how we teach our children to understand the stories in the bible; particularly those in the early chapters of Genesis.

While younger children will have no problem imagining Adam and Eve lounging in the Garden of Eden, a talking snake and a virtual zoo on a floating ark, older children, particularly brighter ones, are bound to question the veracity of these tales.

Where there really only two people at the beginning of time? Who did Cain marry? How was he able to build a city and who was the city for if there was no one else on earth ? Did people really live for centuries? How did Noah get all of the world’s animals onto the ark? These are questions that are bound to emerge as children read and reread the story. The answers we give them then are crucial to their relationship with, and respect for, this sacred scripture. All too often our bog standard answers are even more implausible than the initial questions. For example, Cain and Able married their sisters (who for some reason the bible does not consider significant enough to mention.)

The problem with this approach is that like the tooth fairy the kids just stop believing it. You know they don’t believe it; they know you know they don’t believe it and they suspect you don’t believe it either. So we enter into a charade except this charade is dangerous because it threatens our children’s life-long relationship with the bible and by extension with religion.

An honest approach is that these stories are not meant to be taken literally. The bible does not set out to write history. It is trying to communicate deep values and truths about God and the nature of human beings. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity, the Garden of Eden is not a geographical locale, it symbolizes a state of innocence and purity. While the story of the deluge might well be based on some historical episode its primary purpose is to draw attention to man’s capacity to destroy and to redeem. It also can be read as a counter-point to the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic.

Can a primary school child take all this in? Of course not. Which is why it makes sound educational sense to allow younger children to approach these stories at face value. There is a crucial point in a child’s development however when responsible educators must gently and careful begin to introduce the concept of non literalist reading. The cost of not addressing this issue is to widen a gulf between a student’s increasingly sophisticated secular education and his rather simplistic and childlike comprehension of the bible. When this happens the only recourse available to the thinking student is cognitive dissonance, or wholesale rejection of the bible.

I believe that the time to introduce non-literal thinking is in secondary school when children are still developing intellectually. Waiting any later is too great a risk. We must engage them before they wander away. What we need are religiously committed, Intellectually honest educators can find  creative ways to introduce the idea of non-literalist reading without shaking the foundations of a student’s faith. They can demonstrate that while history is concerned with factual truth the bible is concerned with timeless truth; the truth of our relationship with God and our place in creation. If we are successful, our children will return to these timeless stories repeatedly, seeking and finding in them an inexhaustible source of wisdom, guidance and truth.

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What Tolstoy can teach us about Tishrei

Several weeks ago my wife and I went to see Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s film adaptation of Tolstoy’s great love story Anna Karenina staring Jude law and Keira Knightly.

It was a magnificent production although for those hoping to see a film you may be disappointed as it is more of a play with very stylized acting and almost the entire thing was shot in a dilapidated Russian theatre.

Yet, despite being a  wonderful production it inevitably cuts out huge swathes of the book (it has to reduce a 900 page tome to a 130 page script.) in the process one loses not just key elements of the story but crucially the nuance of Tolstoy’s brilliant writing which just cannot be captured in a film.

One of the major themes of the book that gets overlooked in the film is the contrast between two relationships: Anna and count Vronsky and Konstantine Levin and Kitty Sherbatsky.

Anna and Vronsky fall deeply and madly in love almost as soon as they first set eyes on each other. Yet as the years move on their relationship begins to fracture. The reason is that it is too intense, too rarefied. There is just too much love and nothing else. They are rich, idle, unsaddled with family responsibilities (partly because they are unable to become a family) and in the end boredom and paranoia set in. The relationship begins to crack under the weight of unrealistic expectations and in the end Anna despondently throws herself under a train.

The contrast with Levin and Kitty could not be any sharper. Levin is a neurotic, self conscious, socially awkward, overly sensitive land-owner who tries, fails and eventually succeeds in winning the hand of the beautiful Kitty Sherbatsky. Their relationship is the polar opposite of Anna and Versonsky’s. The early years of their marriage are not easy. Levin is prickly, Kitty is highly strung. They misunderstand each other, they get angry with each other and they struggle to meld their lives together. Slowly however they manage to do just that and they develop deep mutual love and respect for each other.

The major difference between these two relationships is that the first is a fantasy while the second is built on reality.

The message that emerges from this is that while sparks of intense passion are good they must be harnessed to something more concrete, like everyday life, if they are to sustain a relationship over the long term.

The late Rav Shagar would often return to a key idea when addressing newlyweds under the chupah. He would point out that the western ideal of love is characterized by the two lovers looking only at each other. This is reflected in literature, film as well as in the popular saying ‘he only has eyes for her.’ The Jewish ideal however shifts the focus onto a third point; that of a shared value or ideal. Real love in Judaism is about partnering with a soul mate in pursuit of shared goals and vision. It is through working alongside a life partner that the deepest and most sustaining love develops.

A similar idea could be applied to one’s relationship with God. It is neither desirable nor possible to maintain for any length of time a passionate state of dvekut (cleaving to God.) rather Jewish mystics understood that a relationship with God necessitates a dialectical dance of advance and retreat (known in Hebrew as ratzo va-shov.)

This dialectical dance undergirds all of Jewish religious experience. It is the basic structure of Shabbat and the workweek. If we advance passionately towards God on Shabbat, we retreat (in a manner of speaking) once Shabbat passes and a new week begins. It is precisely because of this temporary retreat that our advance the next Friday evening is so meaningful. It is also because of the intensity of the advance on Shabbat that we are sustained spiritually and so able to retreat during the week that follows.

The same dynamic occurs each day with an intense connection through prayer and a relative retreat as we enter into our workday.

The Tiferet Shlomo, the Rebbe of Radomsk (who incidentally lived at the same time as Tolstoy) offered a very beautiful interpretation of a passage we read in the musaf prayer on festivals. The prayer begins bestow on us the blessing of the festival.. The Hebrew word for bestow is ve-hasi’enu which, says the Rebbe of Radomsk, has the same letters as the Hebrew word for marriage. He develops his idea further by pointing out that the end of a wedding is merely the beginning of a young couple’s future together. The same is true for Jewish festivals. They are moments of intense religious celebration and connection to God. Our prayer reminds us that when the festival ends the real work begins for sustaining a meaningful long term relationship with God.

As we say farewell to another Tishrei let’s keep that in mind.