Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Teaching Sensitive Topics In Chumash

A Simple Jew asks:

How would you advise that sensitive topics in the Chumash be taught to small children?

Dixie Yid answers:

One thing some have difficulty with is talking about death or killing in Chumash to young children. Our approach has been that children can hear about these issues. So that when Achashveirosh has Vashti killed, or when Shimon and Levi kill Bnei Shechem. Death is a part of life, and I think that when kids know about it, they can begin to process what it means, over time. Our five year old really tries to grasp this issue and always asks us if people she is learning about (like people mentioned in Tanach) are still alive or not. She asked me recently several times if Rabbi Juravel, whose tapes she listens to almost every night, is still alive. When I said that he is, she wanted to go visit him and make a drawing to give him as a present!

Another kind of topic which is difficult to explain to children is any minhag or halacha where the only explanation that I know is too esoteric for a child's ears. For instance, my 8 year old daughter once asked me why I place the right-hand challah under the left-hand challah on Friday nights, but I place it on top of the left-hand challah Shabbos day during hamotzi. I just didn't know any child-friendly explanations for this. In cases like that, I have to be satisfied with a simple, "Because that's our minhag."

The most common difficulty that comes up is when intimate relations are mentioned. The general rule is that my wife and I always replace the the appropriate word used with the word "marriage." i.e. "Yehuda married Tamar." "Zimri married a non-Jewish lady." "The Bnos Midyan, the Midianite girls wanted to marry the Jewish men and get them to do avoda zara." "The wife of Potifar wanted to marry Yosef, even though she was already married." "Marrying someone you're not allowed to marry is called Gilui Arayos."

This serves us in pretty good stead and it makes things pretty clear, on a child's level. I cannot claim credit for thinking of this method though. We learned it from the Rabbi Juravel tapes that my children listen to every night while going to bed for the last 5 years. For those of us who are trying to raise our children as Bnei Torah, I would be interested in hearing at what age frum children should be taught "the truth" behind these type of pshatim (and for that matter, life in general). At Bar/Bat Mitzva age? Do they find out about the "birds & the bees" on their own from their friends in yeshiva?


At January 16, 2008 at 7:23:00 AM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

That is a FUNNY GRAPHIC! You're a creative genius.

-Dixie Yid

At January 16, 2008 at 8:56:00 AM EST, Blogger Spiritual Dan said...

Lol. Nice picture. And nice answer dixieyid.

I was surprised one time when a Rabbi was reluctant to talk about the Igros Moshe's view on surrogacy etc in front of his children... is there an age limit on those concepts?

At January 16, 2008 at 1:05:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many schools skip parts of Chumash with young children – but IMHO this doesn’t really help much. I once asked a Belzer Chossid (after he told me that they had skipped it as children) if he thought it was a successful or wise approach, and he said (in Yiddish): “Are you kidding? We all went back and learned those psukim out of class and tried to understand what we skipped them for. We knew those pieces better than anything else.”

Personally, growing up I learned straight through, and I never grappled with any of these “disturbing” issues – I think they only disturb the adults. I have yet to find a child that blinks an eyelash at these topics – when they are young, they (it seems to me) take it all in stride and relate to it on their level. I don’t even think they understand that there is anything problematic – and the more sheltered they are, the less contextual data they have that would cause them to be shocked. And for those that are less sheltered, well, they’re already exposed anyway. But this is probably a contemporary problem. In the “old” days, I think that any kid that lived near farms and animals knew how babies were made, and they probably didn’t think of it as a big deal. Death? Death was a regular occurrence. Actually, what exactly would they have seen in Chumash that was shocking in the first place?

My kids learn from the begging on through. I have six of them between the ages of 2-15 and I have yet to field a question or otherwise deal with a child grappling with these matters (which is not to say that I can never happen of course).

At January 16, 2008 at 2:37:00 PM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Chabakuk Elisha,

What you're saying makes a lot of sense. But when you say that you teach it all the way through, how exactly do you express to your younger children what happened between Yehuda & Tamar or Zimri & Kozbi?

-Dixie Yid

At January 16, 2008 at 2:41:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We would just translate the words...

At January 16, 2008 at 4:03:00 PM EST, Blogger Schvach said...

What about the drunken and wayward son of Parshas Ki Tetzei? To attempt to explain this to a child I think is nearly impossible. In a shiur I attended, a rabbi tried to explain this to a group of adult students without much success. So too is the
tragedy of Yiftach and his daughter in the Book of Judges - nicht fur der kinder.

At January 16, 2008 at 4:10:00 PM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Chabakuk Elisha,

"וַיֵּט אֵלֶיהָ אֶל-הַדֶּרֶךְ וַיֹּאמֶר הָבָה-נָּא אָבוֹא אֵלַיִךְ כִּי לֹא יָדַע כִּי כַלָּתוֹ הִוא וַתֹּאמֶר מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי כִּי תָבוֹא אֵלָי." "And Yehuda turned off the path and said to her, 'Please give me permission to come to you,' because he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law, and she said, 'What will you give me that you may come to me?'" This is how you translate it? Without explaning what this means or why he sentensed her to death for allowing some unknown man to "come to her?" What do you explain that phrase to mean, since the translation doesn't tell you?

-Dixie Yid

At January 16, 2008 at 4:13:00 PM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...


I don't see why it's so hard. We tell just what it says in Chazal. When there is a boy who, at a young age, steals money from his parents and eats meat and drinks wine with the money, that he is killed while he has still not done anything so bad, lest he grow up to be a Rasha. You might also explain that one opinion in the Gemara is that such a thing never happened, but that it is there to teach a lesson and to give us schar for learning Torah.

-Dixie Yid

At January 16, 2008 at 4:31:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We translated it simply “to be with” or “to come to.” No further explanation is really necessary. The same goes for Adam & Chava and anytime intimacy is mentioned. What's nice about Hebrew is that the words always translate in a very non-graphic, sanitary, way. Kids will associate that with whatever makes sense to them.

When they get older, you may have to discuss this more at length. For example, my son once asked me: "Why is there an issur for a brother to be with his sister? I have lived all my life with my sister" (but they don’t usually get to those psukim until they’re getting older) But once they start learning Mesechta Kiddushin, they find out pretty quickly...

I don't know about everyone, but I heard about it from classmates, and I imagine most children hear about it that way as well (but living in a less sheltered city, I knew at a pretty young age).

At January 16, 2008 at 7:32:00 PM EST, Blogger DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Chabakuk Elisha,

You say you learned from classmates. Would you recommend preempting that with one's own children. Or do you think it's fine to let them learn about it that way, and that the parents should take a more hands-off approach to teaching these facts?

-Dixie Yid

At January 16, 2008 at 8:59:00 PM EST, Blogger Gandalin said...

Wonderful post, fascinating discussion. There are so many deep and rich points here.

Please let me examine a few minor sidelights.

1) The language of Tanakh is so wonderful, in that the words are multifaceted and, I think, very clear on each of many levels, so that each of us, at whatever age, can put ourselves in a position where we can "relate" to the stories, and, hence, we can orient our receivers to the frequencies that Tanakh is using to broadcast the Divine revelation to our neshomohs. Depending on our level, and on the quality of our receivers, we will receive more or less of the revelation, and different aspects of it, but it is all good, and all important. Each time we connect with the transmission, we have the opportunity to derive more, and to have our receivers open up to "higher" levels. With respect to Yehuda & Tamar, as tinokim we don't understand the full depth of the story, but we can perceive the change in Yehuda's attitudes, and we can learn that it is worthwhile to acknowledge responsibility for our own actions.

2) In the secular world in which I grew up, many times as a child I was told not to read a certain work of literature, because I was too young to understand it. Having a reasonably good command of the language, I didn't appreciate what that really meant, and thought that I could certainly understand any book if I understood what the individual words were. But of course there were many things that I did not understand. And upon re-reading certain books later in life, I perceived many things, and appreciated many things, to which I had been completely oblivious as a child. The stories in the Tanakh also yield an incredible depth when they are confronted by a prepared mind. To some extent, literature and Tanakh are like a mirror, and if a monkey looks in, a philosopher doesn't look out. By virtue of repeated and concerted study, however, and with the learning that comes from being buffeted by the storms of life, we can derive more and more.

3) Children in many cultures are exposed to stories that appear to be horrific on some level, and they do (we do) take it in stride. The European folklore collected by the brothers Grimm is replete with murders, cannibalism, incest, warfare, pestilence, and suffering. The stories of the Tanakh include sibling murder, adultery, incest, drunkenness, warfare, treachery, and plagues. Perhaps the best way to be exposed to these realities of the world as it is, is through exposure to Tanakh in childhood, and this exposure will be a sort of inoculation, so that as we mature and understand more and more of what is at stake, we will in fact be less shocked and our neshomohs less injured than we might be if we confronted the full adult meaning of these phenomena "cold." Rabbi Sears recently wrote about Buddhism in these pages; well, the biography of the man who "discovered" the principles of Buddhism, the Buddha, is that he was an extremely rich and privileged princeling somewhere around Nepal, and that he had been sheltered from even the slightest knowledge that old age, sickness, and death even existed in the world, until one day, as a young adult, he discovered all three -- that set him on his quest. By exposing the child to small doses of reality from a young age, we may protect his neshomoh from such a shock.

3) It is certainly true that hiding something may make the child search for it with ever greater intensity. So make sure you hide what you want him to seek!

Thank you for this very interesting and worthwhile discussion. I hope that there will be more of it.

At January 17, 2008 at 10:58:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dixie Yid,
Honestly, I don't know.

Very well said!


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