How Young is Too Young For Kefirah?

So, obviously, I wouldn’t ever (intentionally) expose my children to actual kefirah, but I mean to say at what point can I begin to explain to my children the nuanced views I hold about Torah, History, Science, Hashqafa and the interaction between them (which some people may think is kefirah)?

For example, my four and half year old daughter, who is in nursery (a program that is defined by the IRS as child care, not education, and therefore reimburseable from a Dependent Care FSA), was talking to me this past Friday night about what she learned in school this week.  Ya know, one of those “good parenting” things you’re supposed to do (ask about what they learned) and one of the things she mentioned was from the Parsha.  Specifically, she told me that Eisav tried to bite Ya’akov’s neck, but Hashem turned it into stone and he couldn’t.

At that moment, I was faced with a decision.  Ultimately, I said nothing, but I was considering whether I should try to explain to my daughter that is but one interpretation of the story, and it’s a metaphor at that; it didn’t really happen that way.  The reason I didn’t, was that I think 4 is a little young to understand metaphor and other literary devices, so I held back.

But this is a fundamental problem in our religious instruction, imho.  As children, we are taught the simplest, most child friendly stories.  We learn parsha through “The Midrash Says” and other books like it.  Except we don’t learn (or teach) that the Midrash is a book of metaphors not to be taken literally, not do we learn that the stories in the Midrash are therefore not accurate history.

With regard, for instance, to the above-related story: Rashi has several explanations for the story.  Mind you, Rashi only feels the need to comment at all because of the dots that exist above the word “kissed” in the Torah.  Otherwise, there is no gap in the story that needs explaining to begin with.  Rashi wonders what the dots mean, and concludes, that there was something strange about the kiss.  Among the explanations given, is that while Eisav truly hated Ya’akov (with good reason, imho), at that moment, he kissed him with sincerity and brotherhood.

But all that nuance and exegesis is lost on my four year old daughter.  So I let it go.  But at what point do I start?  At what point, when she comes home with similar fanciful stories and Midrashim that she’s been instructed to accept as fact, with complete disregard for the actual text and history, do I tell her different?  Do I risk undermining her confidence in or respect of her teachers?  Obviously, I would do it in a respectful way, but when?  First grade?  Second?  Later?  I don’t want to wait until it’s too late, lest she be like me, and come to these discoveries in adulthood, after already being disillusioned with high school torah education (see, here, for instance).

To the parents of older kids out there: when your son or daughter comes home from school and tells you what they learned in parsha, do you ever set them straight?  How do you do it?


11 responses to “How Young is Too Young For Kefirah?

  1. Been wondering the same thing recently.

    I think there’s a balance – if there’s another pshat in what happened, why not say it? Say, Makkas Tzfardea – I’d have no problem saying that while some say it was a frog that kept splitting, many also say it was just a ton of frogs. It also depends on what the pshat is, and whether I think it could set the kid on the wrong path or not. If it’s a harmless moshol, fine. If it’s accepted as “this is what happened and anything else is wrong”, problem.

  2. Ezzie – that makes total sense.

    For me, pedagogically speaking, I’d much prefer her to start with the “problem,” so to speak, that led to the peirush.

    To use your example: Why do we need these meforshim? Because the text says “vata’al hatzfardea” in the singular. This, on its face, doesn’t make sense.

    I’d much prefer my kids to know the questions than the answers. Midrash is fine, if you understand why it came around in the first place. It’s learning midrashic stories without context that bothers me.

    Again, 4 is obviously too young for that kind of Torah study, and I suppose every child will be ready at a different time, but I just wish that was the actual way they were taught.

  3. Hi,
    I just found your blog because I googled “Did Eisav bite Yaakov.” I am in the middle of writing a nasty letter to the menahel of my son’s school and I need ammo to show that teaching this particular midrash is not helpful to kids. My son is 1/2 and he could have learned that there was a fight between brothers but they made shalom, instead his little head was filled with a midrash that has more to do with Roman Occupation in 2nd century Palestine than biblical events. I am still searching for source material of Tannaim who say Eisav was OK and meant to kiss his brother. What gets me the most upset are fundamentalists who substitute Drash for P’shat. They believe the Midrash as being historical [sic]

  4. I am in the middle of writing a nasty letter to the menahel of my son’s school and …My son is 1/2

    Damn!… forget the letter and send that kid over to MIT or NASA or something:)

  5. Daniel Eisenberg

    3 1/2

  6. I’ve been thinking about this and have come to understand something that I never realized before.

    Growing up, in cases such as these when my father wanted to point something out he never did so on the spot. It always happened at a later time, either later on during the meal or at some other point that day (or the next day if it was Shabbos).

    Thinking about this it may have had to do w/ not making it a ‘contest’ btwn what the school/teacher taught and what he was teaching me – to not pit one against the other.

  7. From my experience even six (first grade) is too young to explain the difference b/w pshat and drash. I think when they start learning chumash inside as opposed to simply learning parsha they can better understand the differences. Second maybe even third grade is my guess. I see nothing wrong in explaining it to a younger child I’m just not sure they will fully grasp the difference. Obviously each child is different. I also wonder if many of their rebbeim/teachers fully understand the difference/ recognize that drash is just that.

  8. I didn’t read all of the comments yet but your daughter is definitely young enough to learn without your added nuances. I would say all of elementary school is probably too young. By late junior high school or high school, you can address these issues, assuming your daughter will care about them. You don’t want her trying to tell her teachers in elem school that they are wrong. You also don’t want to risk opening her up to your thoughts when she might be satisfied with the simpler approach taught in school. Assuming she’s interested, you can certainly open up her mind a little by bas mitzvah age-ish. But be very careful in how you approach the issue if you want her to take any Torah taught in school seriously.


  9. YA – It’s very interesting that you call them “[my] added nuances”, when I advocate learning pshat. I think it’s the opposite. I think learning ahistorical, anachronistic, METAPHORICAL drash as though it was the only true way to learn chumash is the “added nuance” and that first learning pshat is more important.

    Let me ask this another way: if a child came home from school, and told you that he/she was learning something in math or science class that you knew to be wrong? Would you correct it? Would risk undermining that child’s confidence in his/her teacher to correct the error, or let is persist? Why does it matter that this is “Torah”? If it’s being taught incorrectly in school, I don’t want my kids taking any of it seriously.

    I want my children to grow up knowing that they have a right to be critical of everything they learn, and that their father will support them for it. I support critical thinking in every endeavor. I would not expect my children to accept something they found dubious or incredulous without asking. If it’s right/true, it will stand up to scrutiny. And if it’s not, I don’t want it being taught. This applies to Social Studies, Math, Science, History or Torah, equally.

  10. Do other religions tell their kids fanciful stories that sound nice on the basis that when they’re older, they’ll be told the truth?

    I don’t mean this in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus sort of way, since there’s no real religious symbolism to either of those characters.

    What I mean is, why do we have to make shit up?

  11. What I mean is, why do we have to make shit up?

    I have an answer for that, but it’s not one that some people who read this blog are going to like to hear. Maybe I’ll email you directly.

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