How do I explain God in Jewish terms to a 4-year-old?
Technically this is a question that a friend of mine directed not just to me but to many of her Facebook friends, including at least a few rabbis. However, as a parent whose kid is still several years from age 4, I was intrigued by the question and the great comment thread that resulted. I had to simplify her question for the title of this column, because in truth it was a whole lot longer:
Can someone Jewish give me the Cliff’s notes, age-appropriate, Halachically legit explanation of God for a 4-year-old? My kid is asking things like: Where is God? What does God look like? How come I don’t hear God? … So someone more knowledgeable: Do Jews believe God is everywhere and in everything? Is God all powerful and all good? Do loved ones go to “heaven”? What can they even understand?
Obviously, I’m not a rabbi. Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, the founder of Seattle’s innovative Kavana Cooperative Jewish community, is most definitely a rabbi. She gave me permission to quote a portion of her response to my friend’s question, for which I’m most grateful. Rabbi Nussbaum responded, in part:
“Mommy, where is God and what does God look like?”
“Wow, those are really big questions you’re asking. Even grown ups don’t always know the answer because nobody can see God. Lots of people have different ideas about God… For me, I’m pretty sure that God is nothing like a person, with a body. That’s why we don’t know what God looks like or where God lives. I think of God being more like a feeling, kind of like love.”
And a few key Jewish concepts you might want to draw on:
1.) The creation story says that all humans are created in God’s image (b’tzelem elohim). This doesn’t mean that we look like God (again, no physical body), but it does mean that we need to treat every person as special, holy, unique.
2.) God has lots of names = lots of different aspects/dimensions. Can’t see/experience them all at once.
3.) In the burning bush story, God tells Moses the special four-letter name. It’s connected to the Hebrew verb “to be.” God simply is.
My son is just 9 months old, but I’m told children go from crawling to toddling to taking the family car out for a spin before you can say “empty-nest syndrome.” So my wife and I will be talking about how to explain God to him well before he’s able to ask. I can’t predict exactly how that will go, but I can say with some certainty that Liz and I have a pretty good understanding of how we both view God, and how our views differ. I’m more the “God is the divine spark of life in all beings” and “God is love” type of person. I’m Jewish, agnostic, and very fond of Buddhist thought and spirituality, so my approach will likely incorporate elements of those religious/intellectual traditions.
Regarding my friend’s specific questions — “Do Jews believe God is everywhere and in everything? Is God all powerful and all good? Do loved ones go to ‘heaven’?” — the answer to questions one and two, traditionally, is yes: God is omnipresent, omnipotent, merciful, and just. When it comes to heaven, the short answer, from the helpful website Judaism 101, is that “because Judaism is primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife, Judaism does not have much dogma about the afterlife, and leaves a great deal of room for personal opinion.” (If you’re interested in learning more, you may want to check out an article I wrote in 2008 for the Seattle-based website Jew-ish.com about Jewish views of the afterlife.)
In any case, I appreciate Judaism’s non-dogmatic approach to heaven. It means that in theory every Jew must wrestle with the idea of heaven and either reject it or come up with a way to understand it and, as a parent, explain it to children when they begin asking about it.
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