Almost nothing rattles a religious-school teacher more than a student’s claim not to believe in God. Sometimes this claim is merely an attempt to derail a class, but sometimes it is a sincerely held opinion. In either case, the teacher struggles to deal with it and still continue with the intended lesson.
The same statement would present no problem in an adult class, but would probably not be made at all. In teaching adults, I say that whether to believe in God is not as productive a question as what to believe about God. Contemporary Judaism encompasses a wide spectrum of belief, from a God who frequently intervenes in everyday life to an impersonal God that comprises all the forces of nature. We have no mandatory “Confession of Faith,” and all strains of Judaism teach that how we live our lives is more important than what we profess to believe.
When a class has time to pursue the topic, students may advance various reasons for not believing in God. When a Torah class studies the two accounts of creation in Genesis, or the story of Noah and the flood, students usually point out that the stories differ considerably from what they learn in science classes. Teachers are, of course, well aware of that, but to most Jewish adults, it is obvious that the Torah is not a science book, and that religion and science represent truth in very different ways.
One especially interesting argument is that God, as described in the Bible, does some things, or orders us to do things, that are evil. For example, in I Samuel 15:3, God, speaking through Samuel, commands Saul to exterminate the Amalekites. Saul’s failure to do so is later cited as the reason for choosing David to replace him as king, and Jewish tradition holds that both Haman and Hitler were descendants of Amalek.
In our time, however, a commandment to exterminate an entire people seems self-evidently wrong. Our children, furthermore, are learning that all kinds of racial, religious, and ethnic discrimination are wrong. Jewish tradition suggests that God may make exceptions to God’s own laws, but now we want more consistency.
It is actually encouraging when a student advances this argument, because it shows that the student is learning what we most want to teach—ethics and values—rather than accepting everything uncritically. What makes it difficult in classes is that not all students will be equally ready to deal with inconsistencies and conflicts in the text; some will read literally what others will interpret metaphorically.
In fact, students who raise these questions are bringing up issues that have troubled rabbis for many centuries. It is not always possible to explore this kind of question fully in a single class session, but the essential point is that the purpose of religious school is education, not indoctrination. When a difficult question arises, it is more important for a student to learn how to think about it than to learn what to think.