Today, a little departure from my regular Visible Child blog fare: a “blast from the past.” It happened quite accidentally. I was looking for an entirely different blogpost to share here, but then I ran across this one, and hey, maybe sharing this set of ideas and reflections is my fate today. I’m a big fan of “signs” and “muses”, so, well, here I am.
So this post is something I wrote a whopping ten years ago this month. It resided (well, it kind of still does, I guess), on a personal blog I used to write called “Here’s What I Don’t Get.” It was called that because, as the blog subtitle noted: “The only unifying thread in my life: Every day, there’s something I don’t get.” That’s still true. So, as I said, here I am. Here’s what I wrote, 10 years ago this month, when my daughter was (gasp!) 13 years old. Enjoy!
Nine, or ten, or eleven years ago, when my daughter was 2 or 3 or 4, we were sitting in the office of the person who is arguably the greatest pediatrician on the face of the earth (i.e. ours), and we were chatting at some length and with great animation on all sides, like you do if you have this particular pediatrician, and I had to open my big mouth. I suppose I was proud of it, and I thought somehow,this wonderful out-of-the-box doctor would nod in the way that she does, and smile. So I told her. I told her (beaming all the while) that we had a frame on our living room (Yeah. Our Living Room) wall into which I had placed a red and white greeting card that said:
Because, you know, questioning authority (which, contrary to public opinion, didn’t originate on a bumper sticker in the 1970’s, but came from Benjamin Franklin) is good, but it just isn’t enough.
Her reply? Well, it wasn’t a smile and a nod. There was a smile, for sure, but it was a subtle, knowing smile, cultivated over years and years of pediatric practice (which, by default, involves dealing with parents, insane and otherwise). Her words, though, were quick and decisive, and I’ll never forget them.
“You reap what you sow. You reap what you sow.”
You could see her laughing on the inside. Or maybe worrying a little bit. Or both. I can see it like it was yesterday.
The frame is still on our wall.
So what I’m saying is: Okay. This is my fault.
So. Now it’s those same nine, or ten, or eleven years later. Bat Mitzvah Year (which not only means hers, which is long past now, but attendance at countless others.) And Passover, replete with creative and engaging seders (if not the excitement of the dramatic productions of the past, which featured water turning to blood, large blow up locusts, ping pong ball hail, etc) is over tomorrow.
“I love matzah,” she said today, as she gently spread a generous layer of butter on a piece for a quick after school snack. (She also loves chopped liver, whitefish salad, lox, and gefilte fish. It’s good to remember how much she loves these things when we have a discussion like we did a couple of days ago.)
“I don’t believe any of that stuff. It’s ridiculous. They’re stories that some man made up and wrote down a long time ago and everyone believes them like they’re true. None of it is true.”
This is where it gets tricky. For me, I mean.
Because here’s the thing. If you really believe in questioning everything, then you have to question your own stances, no matter what they are. You have to question disbelief in the same way that you question belief.
So I asked: “So, you don’t believe Abraham or Isaac or Rebekah existed?”
“How do you know?”
“They’re just characters in a story, there’s no evidence.” She is a scientist, through and through, this kid. She has always been so, the same at two years old as at thirteen. When we read a picture book about the story of Siddhartha when she was five or six, it took months and months to get her to understand that we needed to wait until she was older to go to Nepal to see the ruins of Siddhartha’s palaces for herself so she could see if it was true or not. It wasn’t my idea.
“Well, there is a tomb in Israel where they are said to be buried.”
“Oh. There is? Well, then, okay, maybe they lived (wow, she didn’t ask how we know for sure they’re buried in there). But they didn’t live to those ridiculous ages. It’s just like Jesus. I believe that Jesus lived, but I don’t believe that he did magic things or had special powers.”
“So you don’t believe Moses existed and that he led the people out of Egypt?”
“No. I told you, I don’t believe in any of that stuff.”
Here’s where I’m thinking well, the Passover story must be a little problematic for her, then.
So then I asked the question that to me, is the next logical step: “So why do you think people believe this? How, in the evolutionary process, did people come to adopt religion and believe in God? And why do so many people believe in some sort of God, all over the world?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about that.”
As Leo Rosten says in one of my family’s favorite stories….AHA!!!
Just so you know, in our family, the point of “I don’t know” is the official launching pad for “I’m going to find out.”
And so the research has begun. Damn, this is interesting stuff.
I have spent the last 24 hours reading all about the land bridge under the Red Sea (or the Reed sea), about the wack-job that has “proven” that he found horse and human bones and chariot wheels under the water, about the legend of Moses (which, as far as I can see, does not resemble the story we tell in most ways), about the way the story might be borrowed from the Babylonians of Mesopotamia (now Iraq). I have learned that those who believe in the stories as absolute truth (there are a LOT of those people) insist that the environmental change brought on by the great flood changed the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere and that before Noah’s Ark, people routinely lived to 600, 700, 900 years old, and after the flood, because the whole living conditions of the earth changed, people only lived to between 70 and 200 years, which is, you know, proof of why people don’t live that long anymore (wow). I have just begun to read, barely scratched the surface of, the countless philosophical perspectives (not all of them as cynical as mine) of why it is that people believe in a higher power, and how that came about via evolution. You know, so I can have an intelligent conversation with my daughter.
I have also thought long and hard about the parallel conversations of the last week, about how I really dislike and speak out against “poor us”, “we can’t help it”, and “people hate us” as the foundation of arguments for equal rights for LGBTQ people and our families, and how I disassociate myself from organizations that use those strategies. And about how the telling of endless stories about Jews as victims (“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat”) as a way to keep ourselves strong in our faith has a similar ring to it, an undeniable irony, even if it is sacrilege to say so. (I suspect this is why I love the work of Shalom Auslander, but that’s another conversation.)
Some of you, at this point, are chomping at the bit. You want to tell us, teach us, remind us, about the value of myth, about the power of stories, about allegory, about how it’s not important if it is scientifically true, if every fact is just as it we present or recite it. You want to remind us, teach us, tell us about the history and tradition and culture of a people–or peoples–that lies in the stories that have stood the test of time, the stories we repeat to our children, the prayers that we still say together. You want to teach us, remind us, tell us of the grace of community and the power of shared belief systems and how there are no atheists in foxholes, and how we honor our elders by observing the traditions of their youth. You want to say that we do this for the millions who died (yes, we do).
And to this, I say that I love matzah (et al) too. I love the haggadah that I painstakingly put together so as to ensure a meaningful, engaging, seder. I honor my mother, who taught me to question everything, and my father, who would add “it’s all nonsense.” I honor my Orthodox grandfather who believed in “being and doing good” as the heart of it all, even in the absence of traditional observance.
And she knows these things, too. All of them. She knows of the power of myth, as do I. She knows all of those things, about allegory, about how faith and science coexist for many people. Yes. We have talked about, modeled, lived all of these things. She is a scientist. She’ll make her own way to a faith that makes sense to her. Or she won’t. It ain’t necessarily so.
Yeah. It’s my fault. I reap what I sow.