The Parenting Dilemmas of a Rationalist ZooRabbi
On Friday night, my six-year-old was excited to tell me what he had learned in his (charda"l) school. Last year, he had told me about how one frog miraculously became many, which prompted me to write a post bemoaning how drash becomes peshat (and see too this post). This year, things were even worse. His teacher had told him that the plague of arov did not only include lions and tigers and bears. It also included dangerous humanoids that are attached to the ground, like a vegetable, by a cord emerging from their navel (and which were able to come because God brought the entire patch of ground that they were on), as well as giant octopuses which broke through the roofs of the Egyptians' houses and unlocked their doors from the inside. My son, who knows much more than most six-year-olds about animals, expressed particular surprise at the vegetable-man - he had never heard of such a thing.
My dinner guests, who read my material, saw me wincing. Of course, I was familiar with both these views, which I discuss at length in Sacred Monsters. The first was presented by the Vilna Gaon, the second by the Midrash Sefer HaYashar. Needless to say, with all due respect to these authors, I see these explanations as ahistorical. There is no vegetable-man (and in my book, I explain how such a belief developed). And giant octopuses are probably not capable of such things, although they do come close. So we have recent anti-rationalist drash being taught as historical peshat. (This is not a problem unique to charedi or charda"l schools; modern Orthodox schools teach the same things.) Moreover, there is no particular value to being taught such things; it merely encourages children to seek wonder only in the supernatural and not in the natural.
But on the other hand, as my wife points out, undermining your child's teacher is deeply problematic. It's also not great for your child's self-confidence to dismiss an explanation that he is excited to share.
The next day, however, something happened that changed my mind. My eight-year-old showed me a book that she had gotten from school and enjoyed. It was a wonderful Hebrew children's illustrated storybook about the life and times of Galileo. The book explained how Galileo did not accept by rote all that his teachers taught him, deciding instead to evaluate matters for himself - and he was vindicated.
This is quite a strong introduction into the millennia-old clash between tradition and reason. But my eight-year-old and six-year-old had nevertheless read the story, and were both able to understand it. I reasoned that if they can read and understand such a book, it should be possible to carefully explain why I don't believe in vegetable-men, and to explain how other people disagree, but why one should still respect them. I attempted to do just that; and I also took the opportunity to explain to my eight-year-old, for the first time, and very sparsely and carefully, the controversy over my books.
I hope and pray that I was correct and successful.