Is religion a choice in childrearing?

Religion is usually a topic I tiptoe around. On this blog, and in life in general. It seems to be so touchy. Of course, religion comes with a fair amount of judgment, but that’s supposed to be done by The Big Guy, not by us lowly practitioners of the faiths! So to avoid accusations and assumptions, I often find it’s easier to just talk about sports and politics…

Sometimes, however, religion becomes an inevitable topic of discussion, and one of those times is when it comes to childrearing. I just wrote a column on the subject for Hashalom, KwaZulu-Natal’s monthly Jewish journal, and I thought I’d share it with you here. I’d love to hear your thoughts!



I have a friend who is an atheist. She had a really negative experience of dogmatic doctrine as a child, and has decided that organized religion is the root of all the world’s evils. We have many colourful debates on the subject, and haven’t yet come to a firm conclusion.

She believes religion is a choice (and a misguided one at that); I’m not so sure. Of course, I’m coming at this from a very entrenched position. I am and always have been very Jewish. Mom’s Jewish, Dad’s Jewish, school was Jewish, hubby’s Jewish, kids are Jewish. Very heimishe, but is that enough to make a life decision on? Just because something has always been a certain way, do I have to continue it? Is it really a choice?

“Is religion really a choice?”

I suppose it is. Well, halachic authorities may um and ah about whether a shul-shunning, bacon-bolting, tattoo-flaunting, Friday-night-disco-jiving type should still get a hechsher (kosher stamp), but at the end of the day it is my choice whether or not I follow my faith. Hashem (God) blessed me with that very free choice. He’s not going to thunderbolt me down if I drive to town on Saturday and order a cheeseburger (at least, I don’t think He would!).

Jewish by birth though I may be, I do choose to practice my Judaism. And today I was reminded why. This morning I came across an article in a parenting magazine that informed readers how to foster “non-denominational spirituality” in our children, and I couldn’t help but think of my friend. Fascinatingly, our discussions have intensified since we’ve both become parents. The stakes are suddenly raised – we’re not just debating our own lives, but the futures of our precious children, too.

She begs me not to “brainwash” my kids with dogma. She expounds upon the spiritual restrictions that indoctrination will place on them. So I’m alive to the “risks” of religion. But this article gave me a lot of food for thought. Some of the more interesting points that were suggested were:

  • Develop your child’s sense of wonder. Point out the miracle of life – a new flower, a snail making tracks across the garden.
  • Use reflection. People benefit from shutting down the noise of technology and quietly reflecting, whether this includes prayer or not.
  • Take time to be together with your family. Spend the weekend unplugged from electronic devices.
  • Teach gratitude. A tasty meal, a warm bed at night – gratitude is about being aware of what has been received.

Every point was valid. Can’t argue with any of ‘em. But the question that gnawed at my mind was this: what made these ideals “non-denominational”? Who says these values are incompatible with religion? In my religion, anyway, they are an integral part of it.

“What makes these ideals “non-denominational”? Who says these values are incompatible with religion?”

Judaism is all about building a child’s (and indeed an adult’s) sense of wonder with the world. We even have special brachot (blessings) for extraordinary things we encounter, from fragrant flowers to rainbows, shooting stars, mountains and oceans. (I’m not sure about the snail, but I’ll check the Talmud and get back to you).

Reflection is also built into our lives as Jews. Not just through prayer, but through structures like fasting or sitting shiva over loved-ones, and symbols like mezuzot or the seder plate that cause us to reflect on what they stand for. And of course Shabbat (Sabbath) gives us a regular occasion to unplug from technology and plug into family time.

And as for gratitude? We have mitzvoth (commandments) designed to teach awareness and appreciation of almost everything in life: the laws of kashrut for food, bedtime rituals for peaceful sleep, rites of thankfulness when we wake up. (Aside: I’ll let slide for now the question about from Whom the author of the article assumes these blessings have been received.)

The obvious question, then, if I can cultivate spirituality in my children without divine instruction, is this: why bring up my children with any religion at all? For me, the answer is simple. It’s because I can offer my kids all that and more through Judaism. The practice of Torah laws and lifestyle compels everything the author encourages, as well as providing a sense of history, heritage, belonging, and a deep culture. Call it spiritJEWality, if you will.

That’s not to say that one can’t inculcate good morals into children without religion. Of course you can. Everyone knows you don’t have to be Jewish to be a mensch. But you do have to be a mensch to be a real Jew. It’s part of our value system, and part of our religious law. Rules for tzedakkah (charity), shmirat halashon (guarding one’s speech), and gemillut chassidim (acts of kindness) help us to become better, more virtuous, dare I say more spiritual people.

You don’t have to be Jewish to be a mensch. But you do have to be a mensch to be a real Jew

Judaism gives me a framework for all these things my friend is going to have to figure out and teach her kids on her own. Halacha shares a grammatical root with the word holech – to walk – because it teaches us direction in life. Why shouldn’t I want my kids to learn that?

It’s not “brainwashing” or “indoctrination”. It’s laying a foundation from which they can make educated decisions about how they choose to live their lives. I’m no fan of dogma, but – to keep with the parenting imagery – I don’t believe in throwing out the beauty of religion with the spiritual bathwater either.

Our job as parents (and with the help of our teachers) is to enlighten our children to the infinite possibilities of the universe, and then to let them choose for themselves.

Yes, it is a choice. Huh. I guess the atheist was right about one thing. Anyway, I sent her the article. I hope she gets something out of it. And I hope you get something out of this column. Until next time.


For more columns like this, click here.