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Religion | ON FAITH / Rabbi STEPHEN J. EINSTEIN

Children's Questions About God Are the Kind We All Have

November 14, 1998|STEPHEN J. EINSTEIN

I love receiving e-mail! On a daily basis, I receive letters from family, friends, colleagues, students and congregants. Questions are asked; answers are given. It's a nice give-and-take.

Of course, not all the answers are so simple to compose. Just last week, I received an e-mail from one of the teachers in our congregation's religious school. Her fourth-graders had posed some questions about God, and she was forwarding them to me for some pithy answers. This time, instead of writing a response, I felt a face-to-face exchange was in order. So on Sunday morning, I presented myself to the inquiring youngsters for an interview.

The questions that the children had about God are the type that don't go away as we get older. Let me share some of their questions and--in brief--my approach to providing responses.

Q: Why does God punish people who are good sometimes?

A: All of us do good sometimes, and at other times do otherwise. However, I don't believe that when bad things happen to people, it means that we've been bad. There is no one of us who hasn't had our share of difficulties. God is not the cause of the problems we face. Rather, as the psalmist phrased it, "My help comes from God." We cannot say for sure why we go through hard times, but we can assert that God is here to help get us through those rough days and nights.

Q: Does God have feelings?

A: As we read the Bible, one thing becomes very clear: God cares about us. Isn't it amazing? The creator of the universe isn't some disinterested party, but actually is concerned about our actions. When we describe our religion as ethical monotheism, we mean that we believe in one God--a God who wants us to live by high moral standards.

Q: Why do some people say God is a boy?

A: When people talk about God, they often refer to God as "he" or "him." This may give the impression--the wrong impression--that God is a male. Our language is limited. We don't want to call God "it." That sounds rather disrespectful. We believe that God is neither male nor female--God simply cannot be understood in terms of gender. Ever since a first-grader told me he was sure God was a man because people call God "he," I have endeavored to watch my use of language when talking about the deity. I refer to the divine as "God" or "the Eternal" and I address God directly as "You." Old habits die hard and I sometimes misspeak, but I do try to be careful. I don't want my students to get the wrong idea by a slip of my tongue.

Q: Why do we pray to God?

A: Some people pray because they want to get things--such as an A on a test. Here is my idea: Prayer is fine, but you'd better study first! Actually prayer can help us to focus on what is really important in our lives. Our prayer book teaches us: "Pray as if everything depends upon God; act as if everything depends upon you." God is not my personal butler, and prayer is not my list of orders for God to follow. Rather, prayer is meant to help me understand my higher self and direct me to finer living. As one wise teacher put it: "Who rise from prayer better people, their prayer has been answered."

Q: How did God make the first people?

A: We learn in Genesis that God formed the first human from the dust of the Earth. Our rabbis taught that God took dust from every part of the world--some of it was black, some white, some brown, some yellow and some red. Our first ancestor wasn't just one color. Therefore, no one can claim superiority because of skin pigmentation. Similarly, the Torah says God created just one person at the beginning. This is to teach us that all of us are brothers and sisters and no one has the right to claim that "my ancestor was greater than your ancestor" since all of us have a common ancestor.

Ultimately each of us has only a limited understanding of what God is. However, if our beliefs about God enable us to create a better world, then the answers we offer to questions about God will provide a lasting blessing.

Einstein has been rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek since it was founded in 1976. A Reform congregation, it is characterized by "a warm feeling for Jewish tradition" and an accepting attitude, Einstein says.

B'nai Tzedek, at 9669 Talbert Ave. in Fountain Valley, holds Shabbat services at 8:15 p.m. Fridays. On the first Friday of the month, the congregation instead holds a family service at 7 p.m.

On some Saturday mornings, about once a month, B'nai Tzedek holds a traditional service.

More information is available from the congregation at (714) 963-4611 or on the Internet at http://www.shamash.com/reform/uahc/congs/ca/ca054/.

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On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views and opinions on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson at 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626. Submissions also may be faxed to (714) 966-7711 or e-mailed to jack.robinson@latimes.com.

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