Driving home from the farmer's market on Sunday, Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven came on the radio.
Elysha asked the kids, "What's the name of this song?"
"Stairway to Heaven!" they shouted in unison.
"And who sings it?" she asked.
"Led Zeppelin," they answered.
Elysha smiled and relaxed in her seat, feeling that her job was done. But then Charlie, age six, asked, "What is heaven anyway?"
I opened my mouth to answer but Elysha began speaking first. She explained that some people believe that heaven is the place your soul goes to when you die if you've led a good life.
"Do we believe in heaven?" Charlie asked.
Elysha said nothing for a couple seconds, and then, just as I was about to speak again, she said, "That's up to you. People have to decide for themselves. I'm not sure if I believe in heaven. I'd like to think it's exists, but I'm not really sure. But I hope it does."
"Just like I want to like cucumbers but I don’t really like them?” Clara asked.
Yes," Elysha said. "Sort of."
There was another pause, longer than the first, and then Charlie said, "I don't think I believe in heaven, but I'm not sure, either."
"I believe in heaven!" Clara said, almost desperately. "And I don't want to talk about this anymore!"
That's Clara. Desperately pushing back on the darkness at all costs.
I said nothing. I didn't need to say anything. I thought Elysha was brilliant.
When asked if we believe in heaven. Elysha made it clear that her beliefs and my beliefs need not be Charlie's beliefs. She offered Charlie some information about the spiritual nature of heaven and then carved out a space for him to be himself. To search his heart and mind for what he believes is true.
I've never believed that spiritual belief is passed from parent to child through genetics or hereditary. I don't believe that children should be expected to share the same religious beliefs as their parents. It's odd, I've always thought, that your religious beliefs might be determined by the religion of your parents, which was often simply determined by the religion of their parents.
In this scenario, your spiritual destiny was probably determined hundreds of years ago by someone you never met in some faraway place who decided to be one thing instead of another, and then decided that their kids would be the same thing, too.
Religion doesn't equate to eye color or height. It's Grandma's secret recipe for meatballs. Religion amounts to a determination about how and why the universe exists and what is expected of us while we live within this universe. It might be nice for parents to think that their children will grow up sharing their beliefs and traditions, and this often happens, but not because the child is engaged in a journey of spiritual self discovery and deep introspection. It's most often achieved through the powers of indoctrination, coercion, and familial and societal expectation.
To expect that a child will inherently share a parent's religious beliefs strikes me as selfish and ridiculous. Even worse, it denies that child the opportunity for self discovery.
It prevents them from being themselves.
Elysha and I may be raising our children in the Jewish tradition, but we also celebrate Christmas and Easter because the secular aspects of those traditions are important to me. They remind me of my childhood and make me feel connected to my family.
But when our children ask us what we believe, we answer their questions honestly and then create the space needed for them to believe what they want.
Clara and Charlie are afforded the opportunity to find their own truth. They are encouraged to search their hearts and minds to find what they believe or need to believe is true.
I remained silent because Elysha did all of this so beautifully and perfectly. I sat back, steering our car down a little country road, as my children took one of many, many steps in finding their place in this universe.
Their own place. One determined not by our beliefs but by what they will ultimately choose to believe.