My friend Rachael Rovner posted the following on Facebook last week about her daughter, Chana:

Chana is asking some pretty amazing questions lately. She is very torn about what religion is right. She asked me why I believe Judaism is right. I told her that my understanding is that all main religions stem from Judaism. She reminded me that “Avraham was the first Jew. He came from a family of idol worshippers. So the first religion was really idol worshippers.”
I was stumped. So I told her I was proud of her for asking such great questions and I hope even if she doesn’t find great answers, that she keeps asking such thoughtful questions.
Any ideas from my more learned friends???

I asked Rachael if it would be OK to use Chana’s question here and she agreed.  So here’s my response to Chana.

Dear Chana,

The first thing I want to say to to you, echoing your mom’s response, is kol hakovod (which means “high five” in Hebrew, kind of) for asking the question.  Judaism is a religion in which we are encouraged to ask questions – and if you find that you, your child, or anyone else is dissuaded from, or made to feel dumb for, asking questions about Judaism, please know that the person who dissuaded or discouraged is doing the wrong thing and stunting growth.  Whether questions come from curiosity, lack of education, rebellion, or any other reason, they should be taken and dealt with with honesty and trust in the process.  (Rebellion is a process too.)  Chana, the most important thing I can actually say about your question is KEEP ASKING QUESTIONS.  And if you don’t like the answers you get, ASK MORE PEOPLE YOUR QUESTION.  Judaism has fabulous answers and its tradition is rich with incredibly deep and interesting conversations regarding every question I’ve ever been asked.

The next thing I want to say about your question is this.  People on your mom’s Facebook feed have offered some really good answers to your actual question, and I like a lot of them, so I’m not going to take on the question itself per se.  What I do want to do is explain about the varying answers you may receive in your life to any question you may ask.

Chana, there will be a lot of times in your life, especially if you are a thinker, when you will look around at your world and wonder why you live the religious life you live.  You may (correctly) conclude that idol-worship seemed a viable option at one point, and perhaps atheism appears like a viable option today.  In fact, you may notice, as you grow up, especially if you are a thinker, that there are a lot of really smart people who don’t believe in God at all, or who believe that other religions are better or smarter than Judaism.  The fact that you were born a Jew may or may not be compelling intellectual evidence – after all, people convert to religions that are not their families’ religions.  

So what’s a girl to do?  Religion or none?  Judaism or something else?  How to know?  How to make sense of it all?

The first thing I’d suggest to any person of any faith, asking your questions, is to deeply investigate the faith in which you are born.  What about it makes sense to you?  What about it is difficult to understand?  Ask the elders and the wise people of your faith to help you understand the parts that are difficult.  Are there ways to practice and stay true to your inborn faith that are maybe slightly different from what you know but still valid?  Are there ways to understand the parts of Judaism that are different from social norms that you can live with?  There are many Jews who find meaning and spirituality in other faiths who have not sought their own faiths deeply enough (I hope, when you’re old enough, you’ll read A Jew in the Lotus to understand this phenomenon more clearly).  In fact, when a non-Jew approaches a Jew and asks to convert, the Jew is supposed to dissuade him or her, and instead encourage him or her to find monotheism and morality outside of being Jewish.

The other thing I want to say is about those who believe and those who don’t believe (whether that choice takes the form of idol-worship or atheism).  Chana, you will always find compelling evidence on both sides of the equation.  Don’t make the elementary mistake of thinking that idol-worshippers were stupid imbeciles.  No, the Talmud indicates that they were bright, spiritual beings who simply succumbed to a grave mistake.  Don’t either make the elementary mistake of thinking that people who don’t believe in God are stupid or simply uninformed.  Quite possibly, they are bright, intelligent, thoughtful human beings trying to make sense of their world just as you are.  I believe that God put evidence down in His world on both sides of the faith debate such that it would be possible for humans to choose to see Him – or not.  That it would be possible to choose meaningfulness and purpose, or randomness and chance.  He gave us the option to choose, and recommended a choice. But God hides in this world.  You will always find smart believers and smart non-believers.  Smart people who accept Jesus and smart people who don’t.  

My point is that while you are a child, I hope you will get answers that simply affirm why Judaism is the “right” religion and explain away the idol-worship issue.  But as you grow you may wonder why it seems more nuanced than that.  And maybe you will come to see that faith is not a simple answer to a simple question. 

Faith is a choice.  It’s a choice between two options which will each seem viable sometimes.  Faith is a choice that has to be worked on, fed, nourished, loved.  Faith is a journey that will have peaks and valleys.  Faith is a child that must grow up.  Faith is a loving parent that will hold you in its embrace, even when you’re angry at it.

So keep asking questions, Chana – so faith has a chance to build its relationship with you as you grow.  I’m sure you’ll do great on the journey.  I can already tell that you will.  

And please consider me as a resource, if you’d like.