By Rabbi Paul Kipnes
That’s what I was thinking, as I sat with the CITs (Counselors in Training) at URJ Camp Newman by the Bay for yet another mind blowing t’fillah (prayer) session. The incisive questions these deep, challenging, earnest young people kept asking had my head spinning. As we analyzed the first prayer on my first morning with them, they kept asking and struggling, contemplating and challenging.
I wanted to exclaim, “WTF!” So I did.
That first morning we prayed:
Elohai neshama shenanta bee
(The soul you have given me,
Is a pure one.)
After which the teens asked:
Is there a God?
What is a soul?
Is it, and am I, truly pure and good?
And I thought,
We kept praying:
Ata b’rata, Ata n’tzarta, Ata n’fachta bee
(You created, You formed it, You placed it within me.)
V’ata m’shamra b’kirbee.
(And You guard it within me.)
About which the teens again asked:
Does God really shape and form and predetermine what I am and will be?
Does God really protect me?
And so I shouted:
They looked at me. Incredulity spread over their faces. They looked at each other, doing that frustratingly-fascinating group-think thing teens do, which I interpreted as “Did the rabbi just say WTF?”
But that’s what I was thinking: OMG WTF.
(Oh My God!
Where’s Thy Faith?)
Were these teens really all atheists? Were they anti-God? A simple pshat-level hearing of their questions might suggest that. Or was there something deeper going on beneath the surface of their piercingly honest questions?
So we agreed, there and then, to dedicate our daily prayer time to deep exploration of the five questions they articulated. Each day, three CITs would collect their thoughts in writing about the chosen question. Each morning during t’filah we listened to their ideas, accepting them for the offering of vulnerability that they were. We snapped after each (that’s how we supported the sharing and vulnerability, and sometimes showed our agreement too). Then we embarked on deep discussion about the issues they raised.
I quickly learned that most of these young people were not atheists (as I suspected). Rather, they were struggling for nuance in belief. They were seeking an understanding of holiness and the Holy One that embraced both the wonder of life and the deeply tragic actions taken in God’s name.
Each day we delved deeply, amidst the music and words of matbeah t’filah (set order of prayer), dabbling in the ideas of past and present thinkers: Kaplan, Heschel, Plaskow, Adler, and Grushcow; scientists Einstein and Sinervo; the mystics and the rationalists; the easily digested and the challenging; and others. Taking seriously their questions and ideas, we tasted and tried on such a variety of theological options that my own head was spinning.
OMG WTF soon metamorphosized into Oh My God! Wow, They [have deep] Faith!
Yet again our youth illuminated possibility in the midst of complexity, embracing hope in the face of cynicism. Again we their teachers were reminded that teens are ready to soak up significant thinking, if only we engage them by first embracing seriously their questions and doubts.
Thank you CITs at URJ Camp Newman for leading me on a journey of prayerful contemplation and learning. You amaze me!