Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Should Children Choose Their Own Religion?

Parshat Shemini
20 Adar II, 5774
March 18th, 2014

Rabbi Hanina wryly says the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except belief in heaven.”** God can do anything, except force a free human being to believe in Her.

Belief cannot be compelled. A few centuries ago, the philosopher John Locke pointed out the contradiction of forced religious conversion. Forcing someone to convert does not make them a believer, it just makes them lie to you; belief, by definition, is sincere.

So when parents or couples say that they want to hold off on religious education until their kid is old enough to choose religion for him or herself, I understand. Belief is a fundamental choice. The protection of that choice is one of Western Civilizations most sacred values.

Here’s the problem: children are not adults. Children are also possessed of capacities that they will lose when they enter adulthood, especially their sponge-like memory. Rabbis of the Mishnah used to use teenagers as walking encyclopedia. Apparently, young teenagers’ capacity for memorization is near infinite, and fades with age.

The point isn’t academic. That which is meant to be remembered is best taught young. Prayers, melodies, Torah texts, Hebrew, rituals, laws – all these are sucked up greedily by a young mind, and, with occasional reinforcement, last a person her entire life. But any of the above are like breaking teeth when learned as an adult. Some Torah for the cooks and bakers among us: “Rabbi Nehorai said: When a person learns Torah in youth, that person may be compared to dough that has been kneaded with warm water. When a person learns Torah when advanced in years, that person may be compared to dough that has been kneaded with cold water.***

So many adults walk through our doors with the extraordinary desire to learn Torah; so many will struggle because the basic building blocks – Hebrew, the prayers, the stories, the actions – will elude them without considerable work.

When they are grown, every one of our children will choose their own religion. That freedom of choice is a contemporary inevitability. But I worry that, by not educating them young, we actually limit their choice by limiting their capacity. Like all languages, a spiritual vocabulary is strongest when learned earliest.

* He said “every man.” Nobody’s perfect, I guess  
** Brakhot 33b
***Avot de Rabbi Natan 23       

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