For the last number of years I have talked to adolescents about arguments (not proofs) for the existence of God. We explore concepts like intelligent design (e.g. the human body is so complex and intricate that it could not all be random) or that the continued existence of the Jewish people against all odds points to some supernatural force behind their survival.
There are other arguments as well, and the goal is not to have kids think that the arguments are all convincing, and certainly not that they are scientific proof, but to find one or more arguments that are a good fit for them at any given time.
One approach is different than the others in that it is not as much logical as it is experiential. It argues that a person experiences a connection to God at some point, perhaps as a result of an intense emotional moment, and for him, that is argument enough for God’s existence.
The experience is not something you can convey to other people, since only you had it but that should not make it any less compelling for you and your continued belief. In that context, I ask students if they themselves have ever experienced a moment of connection and I am often saddened when I hear that they never have. But then I ask myself, why should they? Where should they have learned this?
On the one hand, I should not be too disheartened because Rav Soloveitchik often bemoaned the fact that it was not possible for him to convey the religious experience to his students. It is one thing for him to say that “… When I am thus immersed in study, I feel as if the Almighty is there, standing behind me, putting His hand on my shoulder, looking with me at the text lying on the table and asking me about it…” but it is quite another to get the listener to actually feel that same emotion him or herself (Rav Soloveitchik. “Confrontation,” Tradition, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1964), pp. 5-29.)
One can marvel when the Rav writes that in a moment of profound need he prayed to God. “…I could not pray in the hospital; somehow, I could not find God in the whitewashed, long corridors among the interns and the nurses. However, the need for prayer was great; I could not live without gratifying this need. The moment I returned home I would rush to my room, fall on my knees and pray fervently. God, in those moments, appealed not as the exalted, majestic king, but rather as a close friend, brother, father: in such moments of black despair, He was not far from me; He was right there in the dark room; I felt His warm hand, ki-veyakhol (as it were), on my shoulder, I hugged His knees, ki-veyachol. He was with me in the narrow confines of a small room, taking up no space at all.” (Rav Soloveitchik “Majesty and Humility” in Tradition, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring 1978), p. 33). I recall the Rav making similar remarks about Kol Nidre night or the night of the Seder, but hearing them is different than actually experiencing them and if you weren’t there or you weren’t ever in that situation, then how are you supposed to get in touch with it?
The irony is that young children seem to have this experience frequently and while it may be easy to dismiss their descriptions of their feeling Hashem is everywhere or talking directly to Hashem, the truth is that many researchers point to the innate spiritual capacities of all children. The problem is that for a variety of reasons we can or are conditioned to lose touch with it as we grow older. How, then, do we help our kids develop it and hold onto it?
I would like to suggest that the answer is that they need to learn it from us, the adults in their lives and especially their parents. There is, of course, modeling. My wife pointed out to me that she was standing in shul recently as prayers were being recited for those murdered in Pittsburgh. There was a man she noticed from afar who was standing saying those prayers with the utmost intensity, with his eyes closed but looking upward, and beside him was a young son who was looking upward too, not at God but at his own father who was in a moment of devout heartfelt prayer. Witnessing his father’s religious experience no doubt had an impact, for even if he did not understand it or couldn’t really feel it himself, he knew that his father was feeling something authentic.
But modeling, as researcher Jeffrey Kress tells us, has its limitations. “I can watch a highly skilled swimmer, violinist, or Torah reader but make little progress on developing my own abilities. The limitations of modeling are particularly pronounced in the intra- and interpersonal arenas, which have many elements that may not be fully visible. If an educator is practicing self-control, for example, how might the learner see that? One implication is that educators should make some of these invisible elements more visible to students. Just as educators often think out loud to demonstrate, say, the solution to a math problem, they can also feel out loud to share with their students their emotional experiences, moments of spiritual connectedness, and so on.” (Jeff Kress, “Setting the stage for spiritual, social and emotional growth.” Growing Jewish Minds, Growing Jewish Souls, p. 258.)
The same is true of parents. We need to tell our kids how we feel when we daven, when we light Shabbat candles, when we say a blessing, when we see a beautiful Fall day or sunset or learn a new insight into Torah. We need to share with them not only what we see but what we feel and ideally it should always involve God’s Name or Presence somehow. If we can share with our kids the when and the why of experiencing connection, then we can build up a reservoir of potential opportunities, of potential feelings, of potential language that they can tap into when they ultimately have their own experience.
As one of my students recently wrote to me: “…sitting down to learn with my father is always a time when I regain the experience of feeling and truly knowing Hashem is there. I see the world through the eyes of my father who always views life as a gift, constantly helping others no matter the toll it has on his day. Just being able to watch him live a Torah lifestyle is an experience that reassures my faith on a constant basis.”
This sharing between this parent and child was not something that just began in adolescence. The more we can “feel out loud” with our children from the time they are young, then the more likely it is that they will come to have their own feelings when they are fortunate to hear the still small voice of HaKadosh Baruch Hu calling or responding to join Him for a moment or a lifetime of connection.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.