I figured out today that I've been going to Poly Prep High School, once a year, for the past 17 years, to visit a friend's world religion class and be the Jewish representative to attempt to answer any all questions about Jewish life and civilization. For seventeen years in a row, I always get asked the following questions:
1. Did man write the Bible?
2. How can we think of God as all-loving when there is so much suffering in this world?
3. How did the Holocaust effect the Jewish faith?
4. What is the Jewish understanding of a Messiah?
5. How should we as an individual and as a society respond to anti-Semitism?
6. What matters of faith would you say are key to the dogma of the Jewish faith?
7. How can the State of Israel justify using repressive measures against the vast number of Palestinians who have committed no crime?
8. Can you explain the idea of the ‘Chosen People’?
I had 45 minutes. Talk about speed dating.
I usually make the same strategic decisions each year. One--answer a few questions directly--because that's all you really have time for. Two--keep the smart kids wanting more--and this you do by treating them intelligently, respecting the depth of their questions, and try to convey that Judaism is not as much about answers as it is about approaches to wisdom.
This year I found myself telling a story I had never told the Poly Prep kids but have definitely told other high school kids: that in 1980, when I was a junior in high school, I was convinced that the world was going to end because the United States and the USSR were going to blow each other up with nuclear weapons. This got me started on reading seriously as a young man, which got me on a path of seeking a like of wisdom and meaning, which got me into the classrooms of great professors in Madison and at Hebrew University, which made me a rabbi. One can actually trace these things. And so I tried to demonstrate to the students today that on one level the questions they were asking were the questions they were asking but that the answers they were seeking was another matter altogether.
One question that always makes the list--it's rarely written but is spoken, about fifteen minutes into the presentation. "What is the Jewish view on pre-marital sex?" Or, "Can rabbis have sex?" Given the uncertain terms of future health care in this country, I counsel a moderately prudent view. "Procreative, monogamous, generally in the context of marriage which should take place after high school," I say--getting a laugh and solidifying my invitation for next year--while adding that of all the couples I've married over the years, the gay marriages have no divorces while a few heterosexual couples have broken up. "Go figure." I'm pro-gay marriage and I think most high school kids appreciate the openness.
This year I ended up on a tangent defining the Jewish view of the messiah--a pathway of thinking that is intellectually entertaining but damn it all, beside the point when one considers all the work we have to do ourselves to make this world a better place.
Still, it's useful.
I rushed back down Fort Hamilton Parkway for more meetings at shul--a meeting with an artist/educator; a family in mourning; some staff and phone calls; and then with the 6th grade to discuss their impressions of their study of the Holocaust. I found the 6th graders to be deeply immersed in the material; capable of tremendous nuance; and very sensitive to the many complexities of a study of the Shoah. Initially mixed about when might be the proper age to begin a discussion about the Holocaust and its dimensions, I have come around to the view that if handled correctly and sensitively, 6th grade is an acceptable time to begin the study. I mean their world is so brutal and with varieties of forms of entertainment so close at hand, they also run the risk of being gravely desensitized to human suffering precisely because their digital reality makes the visceral so abstract.
I have to say, these kids were thinking on a very deep level. I was so proud to be their rabbi and to be their parents' rabbi. And so between them and their older cohort out in Bay Ridge, I'd say with some more wisdom, this next generation, at least here in Brooklyn, has a firm grasp of reality.
And in this world as we know it, that's an awfully hopeful thing to say.