Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What To Teach Children About God.

In MN 1:35, Rambam lists beliefs that everyone has to be taught and inculcated with from childhood. Looking at this list and how Rambam presents it has a lot to teach us about his way of thinking.

1. God is unique.
2. It is forbidden to worship any entity besides Him.

These two are fundamental beliefs that Rambam presents as obvious. He then lists beliefs that are not so obvious; in fact, some are quite controversial.

3. God is not a body.
4. There is absolutely no likeness in any respect between Him and the things created by Him.
5. God’s existence is unlike the existence of His creations.
6. God’s life is unlike any other living being He created.
7. God’s knowledge is unlike that of His creations that are endowed with knowledge.

In addition to these beliefs, all including children, have to be taught that the difference between God and His creations is not merely a difference between more or less but one that concerns the species of existence. “Our knowledge or our power does not differ from His knowledge or His power in the latter being greater and stronger, the former lesser or weaker, or in other similar respects, inasmuch as the strong and the weak are necessarily alike with respect to their species, and one definition comprehends both of them.” This is quite a mouthful for children to be taught! It is also noteworthy that except for the belief in God’s unity, all others are couched in the negative, what God is not. In reality if one thinks about this, all these beliefs are definitions of uniqueness.

What I find fascinating is that Rambam tells us that we have to teach everyone, whether children or adults who are not willing or able to learn the sciences, that they have “to accept on traditional authority” all the above. In other words, they should be discouraged from questioning the veracity of these statements and asked to accept them on trust. However, even these unthinking people have to be taught the definitions of what these beliefs are. Even children are expected to understand that “the term “existence” can only be applied equivocally to His existence and to that of other things other than He.” Is it not amazing that children are expected to understand something that many people at the time of Rambam and even nowadays cannot fathom? Rambam sees this as something that can be taught to all.

Rambam then gets even more daring. Everybody eventually ends up learning some scripture. When that learning occurs, these basic beliefs eventually create a conflict with the texts of the scriptures and force us to start thinking about these beliefs and develop a proper understanding of them. It is not the conflict between science and religion that triggers sophisticated thought but the conflict between belief and text!

When people have received this doctrine, are habituated to and educated and grown up in it, and subsequently become perplexed over the texts of the books of the prophets, the meaning of these books should be explained to them.”

What need not be discussed with children and the uneducated?

But the question concerning the attributes of God, their inadmissibility, and the meaning of those attributes which are ascribed to Him; concerning the Creation, His Providence, in providing for everything; concerning His will, His perception, His knowledge of everything; concerning prophecy and its various degrees: concerning the meaning of His names which imply the idea of unity, though they are more than one; all these things are very difficult problems, the true "Secrets of the Law"”.

The meaning of unity or, to be more exact, uniqueness is taught to all although it requires abstract thinking. His providence, in providing for everything, His will, His perception and His knowledge of everything are just presented as facts without explaining exactly what they mean. That is something that each one develops his own understanding as he confronts the texts, learns how to interpret them learns about the sciences and HKBH’s creations.


  1. So you're saying that the Rambam wouldn't approve of the following video: . . . gotcha!

    (By the way, I know Orthodox Jewish parents who show this video to their kids!)

  2. Matt I know that you have no doubts but unfortunately contemporary orthodoxy struggles with these ideas.

  3. Yes, I am aware. Incidentally, I wrote about this two summers ago:

  4. >>>Is it not amazing that children are expected to understand something that many people at the time of Rambam and even nowadays cannot fathom?

    Isn't this R' Elchanan's kashe? He asks (ma'amar al haemunah) how the Torah can command belief in G-d to a simple bar mitzvah boy when the greatest philosophers had mistaken ideas about faith.