Santa's Story & the Challenge of Disbelief

Santa Claus Delivering Presents
Santa Claus Delivering Presents

She swore she wasn't angry, but she certainly seemed annoyed. In her text, she wrote that she was only sharing the information because other parents might be upset or offended. Upset or offended? Really? Apparently, my five-year-old-son, Nathaniel, had told her five-year-old son, James, that Santa Claus wasn't real. Notably, Nathaniel is a fervent believer in the authenticity of the tooth fairy. (He's got hand-written notes and several single dollar bills to prove it!) It seems that my son's "issue" with the large, bearded man in red has something to do with a need to assert his Jewish identity in what he clearly, already perceives as a Christian - or at least non-Jewish - world. Now in fairness, there is something so magical about childhood that I get why parents might be disappointed if their sweet kids who were dropped off in the morning as innocent believers come home in the afternoon as jaded skeptics. And to be sure, I'd strongly prefer that the ruthless myth-buster not be a member of my tribe or, worse yet, my family. Still, the episode did prompt me to consider how we teach the beautiful and valuable, but literally fantastic stories from our various religious traditions. In short, what happens - and what remains - when our children start scrutinizing more and believing less?

Among the Jewish holidays, Hanukkah doesn't present too much of a problem in terms of incredulous miracles. A small vile of oil lasting a bit longer than expected hardly constitutes a super-natural disruption of universal norms. And the Maccabees' improbable military victory over the Greek Syrians was just that - improbable. (More of an upset, really.) However, other festivals are more challenging. Passover, for instance, depends on some serious Divine intervention. From the imposition of ten plagues, to the issuance of Ten Commandments - with an all-powerful parting of the Red Sea in between - the story of the Israelites' redemption from Egyptian slavery is premised on the Lord's all-mighty strength and beneficence. But many maturing kids will doubt the story. To them, Disney-like Torah tales will inevitably (and understandably) become more suspect over time. So, as parents and teachers, we must find an approach that allows matzah and the menorah to have meaning regardless of fluctuations in faith.

Just over fifteen years ago, when the idea of creating a pluralistic Jewish high school was still under discussion, I vividly recall a conversation I had with my friend Howard. Howard is a Harvard-trained lawyer in New York, who is what many would consider modern-Orthodox. He tends to be opinionated, but Howard is very smart, which is why I enjoy our exchanges. During the call, I actually expressed my hesitation about starting this type of school; I had attended a traditional prep school that included students from many different religious backgrounds and I worried about this new place being too parochial. I'll never forget Howard's response: "Here's my question, Stuart: Would you ever stop teaching your children math or English after the age of 13? Of course not. And yet, that's exactly what many American Jewish families do. The result is kids growing up with a completely infantilized notion of their own religion. A dynamic day school education can help fix that."

He was right. And by "dynamic," I'd suggest that religious teaching not only be developmentally age-appropriate, but that it also be decidedly non-dogmatic. Kids in kindergarten want to believe in angels and elves. Fine, let them. But we can derive meaning from ritual and holiday observance without ascribing absolute truth to their Biblical origins. Moreover, in a world in which hate and violence are being perpetrated daily in the name of Heavenly authority, I believe we have an obligation to approach our sacred texts more critically. We should allow ourselves to admit that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is troubling; in contrast, his comfort with challenging God about the correctness of killing innocents at Sodom & Gomorrah is inspiring.

Perhaps it's not surprising that just two generations into our people's founding, Abraham's grandson Jacob is re-named Israel - which literally means, "to struggle with God." Jews have long accepted that notion that people will question, doubt, argue and disagree - especially about matters so complex, ephemeral and personal. We must therefore allow, indeed invite, our children to fashion their own relationships with our ancient traditions. We know that religion cannot answer the "what" questions about the universe; those queries belong in the realm of science. But "why" is a different story. Purpose, meaning, connection, and spiritual fulfillment are deep human needs that can be met through adherence to long-held customs. Lighting, praying, and celebrating, while asking and adapting, can provide powerful frameworks for families and individuals.

For now, Nathaniel's disbelief is reserved for Santa and his sleigh; but it's just a matter of time before his attention turns to Moses on a mountain. Thus, my work as his father is to ensure that when that day comes, my son's skepticism about a particular myth doesn't lead to complete abandonment of an entire identity. With a dynamic - or more accurately stated, progressive - approach to religion, I think I can do that.