Monday, February 11, 2013

Jewish parents - How do you feel about these cartoons?

I am a big believer in the message of Rabbi Elazar (Avot 2), "Know how to respond to an apikorus."

To me, this is important not in terms of merely knowing how to counter criticism, but in terms of understanding our flaws, and correcting them. The apikorus, when not caught up in his personal baggage, can be the best "lie detector" for us, keeping us honest. Sometimes, the response to the apikorus is "You're right; I made a mistake."

With that in mind, here is a cartoon from a site called The Oatmeal, originally published as part of a broader piece criticizing the ideals as well as excesses of various western religions. [Some of the other cartoons are stronger examples, but the language isn't really for my blog.] You may need to click on it to get a clear image:

So, Jewish parents: How would you respond?
Is it entirely inapplicable to us, or too much of a caricature to be relevant?
Is it accurate in its depiction, but wrong because this is proper pedagogy?
Is it accurate in its depiction, and correct in its criticism?
None of the above?

My first instinct is that this criticism isn't about religion at all, but about poor parenting. On the other hand, religion can bring out the worst in parents, particularly those who don't have a clear understanding of the religion they are promoting. I can see insecure parents, who know they are supposed to market ideals they don't really understand, falling into the trap of this kind of parenting. So in a sense, it's an on-the-mark critique of the nexus of poor parenting and religious ignorance.

What say you?


  1. With the caveat that I’m not a parent:

    1) The cartoon falls into a common anti-religious trap of thinking that deep down religious people think their beliefs are as subjective as atheists think they are. Someone with strong afterlife beliefs wouldn’t think those beliefs are as subjective as a choice of favourite colour, so the criticism, valid or not, is ignored. So even if it is an accurate criticism (which I’m not saying it is) it’s badly presented.

    2) We want to pass on our mesorah to our children. At the same time, sooner or later our children are going to encounter people who don’t share our beliefs (non-Orthodox Jews, members of other religions, atheists) many of whom will be sincere, moral people. If we denigrate these people’s beliefs, we simply make it more likely that, on encountering moral people who are not Orthodox, our children will feel deceived and angry and assume that Orthodoxy is unnecessary and hypocritical. If we demand unquestioning adherence to our beliefs we increase the likelihood of outright rebellion. If we present other beliefs too attractively or open-mindedly, we run the risk of presenting Judaism as one equally valid option among many.

    I am not sure what the solution is. I certainly do not think Orthodox beliefs should be taught as one equally valid idea among many, but at the same time respect for those who do not share our beliefs must be instilled from a young age. The grounds for our beliefs must be taught too, and halakhically-legitimate differences of opinion acknowledged (at an appropriate age).

    (Not quite sure if I've really answered your question here.)

  2. I don't find these kinds of things interesting or provocative. It reminds me of the kind of anti-religious caricatures that Christopher Hitchens used to write. If you already don't like religion, you think it's a real zinger. But it's not an intelligent expression of any ideas about religion.

  3. Daniel-
    You haven't, but good thoughts nonetheless. And the key, I believe, is that "at an appropriate age" qualification.

    To me, it's yes and no. It's not about religion, but it does speak to a phenomenon which occurs among religious people.

  4. Interesting. It's important not to discount any questions that kids have, yet frame an answer (if we have one) rooted in mesorah.

    1. Like Rav Wolbe used to say:

      "There's no apikorus question...only apikorus answers."

    2. Neil - Indeed.

      Shmuel - Hadn't heard that one before, thanks.