The God Questions Song

The God Questions Song

by Dr. Dan Glass, Head of School 
Last week, driving to a late-afternoon swim lesson one day after school, my kindergartener Lucia asked me to put on “the God questions song.” We have a very well-established practice in our family carpool of taking turns choosing songs, so the request was familiar, but the song very much wasn’t. “The God questions song...” I responded back to her, “which one is that?” As she typically does when trying to get across a specific track that we don’t know by name, Lucia warbled a bit of the tune in her quiet singing voice: “only, I am that I am.”

Ah. She wasn’t referencing the beautiful Peter Tosh track “I Am That I Am,” (though she might’ve been—it certainly comes up from time to time when it’s my turn to choose on the carpool juke box), but rather Vampire Weekend’s “Ya Hey.”

A bit of background on this one. I’ve been enjoying Vampire Weekend’s music since the line in the 2008 song “Oxford Comma” about taking the chapstick and putting it on your lips—an oddball and carefully observed detail of the sort that I came to understand as central to the band’s aesthetic (to say nothing of that song’s titular attention to punctuation, which the writer in me appreciated too). Over the years, I’ve shared their music with my kids, and my 6th grader Alma in particular has taken a shine to it. 

At some point this summer, Alma put on the Apple Music “Vampire Weekend Essentials” playlist, and the song “Ya Hey” came on. It isn’t one that we’d heard much—that third album of theirs, from which it comes, fell through the cracks of the early years of parenting two kids in our family. As we listened, it became clear that the lyrics were in conversation with the notion of God, the the God of the Torah in particular:

Through the fire and through the flames
You won't even say your name
Only "I am that I am"
But who could ever live that way?
Ut Deo, Ya Hey
Ut Deo, Deo

Ezra Koenig, the band’s lead singer, is both a noted Jewish person and a person interested in Jewish stuff, so it wasn’t a shock to discover a song wrestling with God. But it prompted a good conversation in the car among the three of us about what the song is wondering about, and what we ourselves wonder about, when it comes to God. 

Those of you who have recently engaged with the (freshly updated!) Jewish Life at Brandeis document may recall that the first bullet point of the very first of our Enduring Understandings of Jewish Education, holds that “There are many legitimate ways to think and talk about God, including questioning God's existence.” Indeed, that act of questioning, wrestling, struggling with God might be the single most common practice in Judaism

We do a lot to center the agency of students here at Brandeis, beyond just inviting them to have a perspective on the biggest questions of human existence. It’s one of the ways that we connect learning and purpose, as it says in our mission statement, by affirming their role in meaning-making. That can be as simple as choice time in lower school classrooms, or as complex as student-led conferences in the middle school. 

I was reminded of the importance of those practices while listening to a fascinating conversation on the excellent new Shalom Hartman Institute podcast “Perfect Jewish Parents,” during an episode on talking to kids about Israel. In it, Professor Sivan Zakai (who we’ve had the good fortune to learn with here at Brandeis in the last few years, as we’ve brought her to help our faculty and leadership think about the same question) makes a profoundly important point in response to a question about how to talk about Israel in our communities and with our children:

My primary allegiance in this conversation is to the agency of our children… Our teens have agency over their own lives; they, not we, are the ones who will determine how they will situate Israel in that life.

Professor Zakai here reframes the questions of personal or familial or institutional allegiance, placing the focus back on our children. What are their questions, their wonderings? We have to have the courage to invite their curiosity—whether in the classroom, in considering God, or in grappling with the largest challenges our communities face. That belief is central to my understanding of how we move Jewish education—and education, and the world at large—forward into the future. The kindergarten build your own Torah project is an excellent example of that work—and something to look forward to, for our current K families! 

I will close here with a recent Washington Post interview with Jennifer Breheny Wallace, the author of a new book about how parents can relieve the unhealthy stress facing teenagers. Much of what she describes is about helping our kids understand that they are important, that they matter. She notes that: 

Kids who felt a healthy level of self-esteem felt like they mattered to their parents, that they felt important and significant. Over the past few decades, researchers have found kids who felt valued for who they were at their core, by their family and friends and communities… kids [who] were relied on to add meaningful value back, those kids had a high level of mattering that acted like a protective shield. It worked like a buoy that lifted them up and helped them be resilient. 

We affirm our children’s intrinsic value when we make space for their questions, and give those questions the weight and care they deserve; when we ask them what they think, or how they might make sense of a complex topic. That affirmation leads to happier, healthier kids—and, I would argue, more authentic Jewish spiritual practices and stronger and more resilient communities. So the next time you hear a warbling wonder coming from the back seat of your own car, I hope you will make time and space to sing along.