Parenting Podcast: Raising Moral Children: Know Thyself, Adonai Echad and Ob-la-di, ob-la-da

Parenting Podcastby Rabbi Leora Kaye

I’m a rabbi, and my husband’s an atheist. My husband Doug’s atheism is well thought-out. He’s a loving, intelligent guy who doesn’t believe in God and hasn’t since he was eleven. He is moral, compassionate and Jewish, and he does not believe that his ethics are related to God. We believe parenting should be deliberate and purposeful, much like Reform Judaism. Choices should be based on knowledge, specifically knowledge about what kind of parent you want to be, what works in your family system and what works for your son or daughter.

In this week’s Jewish Parenting Podcast, psychologist Richard Weissbourd says that while most parents do care about raising moral children, few make it their number one priority. Outside of the conversations my husband and I had trying to decide if a relationship between an atheist and a rabbi could work, we had one discussion specifically about this idea of a moral message that was our top priority.

From before we even thought about having children, Doug made it clear he did not want to say Sh’ma with our yet unborn children nightly before bed. It started as an argument. I had done this growing up (and still do), my sister and brother-in-law do it with their children, and I thought it was a beautiful and gentle bedtime ritual. But as we continued to discuss this, especially once I was pregnant, Doug explained his hesitancy by asking a question: Was saying the Sh’ma, with all of the theological implications including a third-person God concept and particularistic Judaism, the number one message we wanted to teach our children every single day? Because by reciting Sh’ma and only Sh’ma every night, we would in effect be teaching that, at least to some degree, its message was what we thought was the single most important thing she should learn from us.

Of course I argued that Sh’ma has so much more meaning than the theology it seems to declare at face value—I’m a rabbi for goodness sake! I argued that there are more mystical and universalistic understandings and interpretations. I told him that bedtime Sh’ma gives a child a firm connection to her Jewish heritage and faith and that ritual is good and healthy. But, at the end of the arguments, discussions and conversations, we both agreed that the explicit message of the Sh’ma is in fact not the number one message we want convey to our daughter every day.

I can hear the objections: “But you can teach this and that!” “What about the centrality of the Sh’ma?” “Maybe a bedtime ritual doesn’t have to be quite so philosophical.” In the podcast, Dr. Weissbourd reflects on his own parenting, saying he wishes he had been more aware that parenting can be trendy and that he had taken a step back to decide what felt right for him and his family knowing that. Even before we heard Dr.Weissbourd, we heard this message, and we had to decide for ourselves.

In the end, our daughter says Sh’ma at services and knows it by heart. We chose a bedtime ritual that’s more about our family’s love of music than a coming to terms with our number one moral message. So, before bed we sing “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da” because, you know, life goes on.

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Rabbi Leora Kaye is the Program Director at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York. She is also the author of study guides for Jewish Food for Thought, animated shorts that spark discussions about ethical choices.

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2 Responses to “Parenting Podcast: Raising Moral Children: Know Thyself, Adonai Echad and Ob-la-di, ob-la-da”

  1. avatar

    Dear Rabbi Kaye,

    Thank you for sharing a story from your personal experience – it makes your message so much more insightful! I also want to express my gratitude that you would include study guides for Jewish Food for Thought episodes. Just in case you haven’t heard it already today – YOU ARE MAKING A DIFFERENCE!!

  2. avatar

    Hi Rabbi Kaye,

    I understand what a delicate dilemma it must be for a clergy person in a theistic tradition to negotiate childrearing with an atheistic spouse. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful thing that it can work out so well, and really a testament to the tremendous power of love to bring together such different people. On the other hand, from a traditionally theistic Jewish point of view, I am sorry to hear that the Sh’ma didn’t make the final cut for your kids’ bedtime ritual. That is such a core practice of Judaism, and a deeply centering ritual. Ultimately, I think it has the power to increase the probability that a given child will grow up believing in God. Perhaps your husband knows this, and would like to lessen the possibility. I guess a good question to think about would be “Do you care either way, and if so, would you willingly do things to attempt to shift the balance?”.

    Personally, as a firmly theistic Classical Reform Jew, I would do just about anything to increase the likelihood that any kids of mine would grow up with a natural connection to the Divine, but would not force belief upon anyone who clearly didn’t want to. Yet, each parent or set of parents must make this decision themselves.

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