Thursday, December 23, 2010

You Can't Be Born a Grownup Jew

Every year at this weeks parasha - Shemot I ask someone in shul about Pharos daughter's hand. And every year, an otherwise intelligent grown up will, quite seriously explain that Pharos daughter's hand grew longer and saved poor baby Moses. In a good year, that same grownup may recant his insistence that the midrash should be understood literally, after a few minutes of gentle ridicule poking. In a bad year he remains firm in his belief that the midrash should be understood literally. Normally at this point I self medicate with a glass of whisky. 

I had a similar conversation with my sister around a year ago. She was complaining of a Ba'al Teshuvah friend of hers, who was insisting on the literal meaning of the most bizarre midrashim. She couldn't understand why the Chozrim Be'teshuva tend to be the most fanatical literalists of Ch"azal. My answer then was that no one can be born a grown up Jew. We all learn in kindergarden midrashim which are fantastic. To a young mind these midrashim are both plausible and spiritually useful. Some of us grow up over the years, and start to interpret them allegorically. Other people continue to live a kindergarten Judaism.

I continuously hope that the phenomenon of kindergarten Judaism in adults, has more to do with a lack of mental effort on their part rather then a true mirroring of their religious world. I find it more frightening to imagine that people who are intelligent in all other aspects of their lives, would leave their religious beliefs - those same beliefs that they would probably claim are a core of their personality -  unexamined with rational thought. However my point is, that a person can not begin life in complexity. This is true not only for religion but for all aspects of life. When my little 2 year old daughter starts to learn torah, I will tell her that Pharos daughter's hand did in fact grow longer. I expect her to nod her head in her knowing fashion, and to have a sense of wonder at God's miracle. I will teach her the midrash in a literal fashion despite the fact that I do not believe it.  It is certainly a better spiritual basis for a little child then to try and explain the complexity of symbolism involved. I trust my child that later in life, she will reexamine the midrash, and be mature enough to reinterpret it. (And not reject it offhand which I consider another sign of an immature mind).

 I suspect that some Chozrim Betshuvah are in a similar category. They are building a new religious basis - and the foundations require a basis of strong unexamined belief.  Hopefully over time they will grow up and develop a mature Judaism. 

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