Can Children Survive Parents who Claim to Know the Absolute Truth?

Stephen Dubner

Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Hi, this is Simon Jacobson and this is a special edition of Toward a Meaningful Life. I’m honored and it’s my pleasure to have on the show with me a close friend, but at the same time someone who has very independent views from my own. His name is Stephen Dubner. Stephen, welcome.

Stephen Dubner: Thank you very much Simon.

Jacobson: Stephen Dubner, for everyone’s information, worked with me on my book Toward a Meaningful Life as editor. He did extensive work in really making the book possible. Before that, Stephen and I had actually met while Stephen was working at New York Magazine doing a piece on education in New York, actually what was wrong with New York, I believe.

Dubner: How to save New York…and we fixed it. You see, everything’s fine now.

Jacobson: Right. It’s not only due to Mayor Guiliani. But most of all, which I believe he’s most renowned for, Stephen has written his own book called Turbulent Souls, which has had quite an impact all across this country. Stephen’s background is quite an interesting one. He’s the youngest of eight children, born to two parents who converted to Catholicism from Judaism, and Stephen grew up as a devout Catholic. Then he went on his own journey, and I won’t speak for him, but essentially he captures in his book his fascinating journey, a turbulent journey, and published the book which has received great acclaim.

I thought it would be quite interesting, both for myself and the listening audience, to speak to Stephen on the show—and I wish I had a lot more time than we have—but I think that with the time we have we can really touch upon some intriguing subjects.

My experience of Stephen has always been very charged. You never know what to expect. He’s an intelligent man who has worked at the New York Times, and is an excellent writer. In thinking about and preparing for what to talk about with you today, (there are so many different angles that we can discuss), one of the things that really struck me as I was reading in your email communications with me today an exchange that you had with David Klinghoffer, that appeared in Slate Magazine online.

The correspondence essentially touched upon the issue of Truth (with a capital T) vs. truths; dogma vs. independence. And for that reason I thought we would begin by addressing the issue of what happens if you grow up in a family that feels they have that type of absolute belief in “The Truth” and they educate their children that way, their lives are driven by it, and they, in their pure conscience, feel this the way to teach their children? I’ve grown up in a family like this, and so have you, so we share much, though we may have diverged in different ways.

In this type of environment, is there room for the type of freedom of expression for a child to grow into his or her own truth? So this exchange between yourself Stephen and David Klinghoffer was fascinating, because his position is of someone who grew up in the secular world and he presented himself as now embracing Orthodox Judaism. From this perspective, he makes a very absolute statement that the Torah was given to us by G-d at Sinai, that it’s the foundation of all of Judaism, and that any other approach to Judaism, his argument goes, is false, because it has no basis since it’s manmade and open to all kinds of subjectivity. His tone was quite condescending, at least his initial communications, and your response was that you felt that there are many, many different approaches to the truth.

As you stated, you have more difficulty embracing one “Truth,” as there are many different approaches. I want to quote one thing that really stood out in your communication. One quote that you had written to David was, “I am attracted to questions and you are attracted to answers. If you think that makes me a less valid Jew, then you win, but if not, you also win.”

I thought that was a powerful way of presenting the distinction between both of your approaches. In another paragraph you said, “In my own family, I have seen how the zeal of the convert plays out. It is an astonishing thing how all that longing and questioning one day explodes into surety. There exists within all these people a need to prove not only that what they have come to believe is the only truth, but that what they used to believe is the most untrue thing of all. There’s a lot to be said for this kind of zeal, but even G-d, I’m guessing here, doesn’t like a sore winner.”

These quotes very much capture at least the spirit of your communication with him, and I think it’s an excellent springboard for us here, because this is an issue that addresses both parents and children and all of us individually. We live in a world where certain people who have fundamental beliefs in G-d often feel they have the claim on what is “truth.” What do you do with that when a person does have that feeling, and what do we do if you’ve been hurt by that?

And I must say, for the record, that I did not reject my parents beliefs, who also felt the same way, of course within Judaism, and you, in a sense, did reject your parents beliefs.

Dubner: That’s an awfully big kettle of fish (is it kettle of fish or can of worms?… I guess you could use the can of worms to catch the kettle of fish). I’m most intrigued to begin with the idea of a child growing up in a home where there’s a religious truth.

My over-arching answer to your question is: I don’t know. And if I did know, and if any of us did know the answers to these questions, then obviously there wouldn’t be any need for such debates. If we knew the absolute word of G-d, if we knew for sure how our lives would play out, including the afterlife, which is obviously a question that drives so many people’s religious searches, then there wouldn’t be this debate, or this questioning and so on.

I guess the first thing I should say is that the fact that my brain and heart and mind and soul have become engaged in a constant search to find such answers, (I would say using part of the philosophy that we discussed in the book Toward a Meaningful Life), the first thing I should say is the recognition that that search is connected to G-d somehow.

In other words, the fact that I’ve been equipped with a mind and a heart and soul and eyes to undergo such a search must mean that the search itself is connected to G-d. Now, if that search itself is connected to G-d, and that search is one in which I’m trying to discover a route to or a portal to G-d, why does that search exist if it’s not necessary? In other words, if there were no need for me or for any one person to explore possibilities, to look at conventions and to accept or discard them, or to look at possibilities and try to find their way, we wouldn’t be human and we wouldn’t have that kind of G-d-given need to connect.

So the first thing I’d say to myself is, well, I wish that I were sure the way a lot of people seem to be sure, but I take the fact that I’m not to be a sign of a connection to G-d. So that’s one way that I comfort myself instead of feeling like a dummy. I feel like, “You know what? It’s not that I’m stupid, and it’s not that I’m misguided, it’s the fact that my antenna are attuned, and this is part of the price you pay for trying to find some answers that are satisfactory.”

The big question of children growing up in a home where there’s a real, almost fundamental belief is such a tricky one. As someone who hopes to be a parent soon, I say to myself, well, now that I know I’m going to raise my children within Judaism, well, what happens if a son or daughter of mine gets to be the age of sixteen, let’s say, and says, “Hey Dad, Mom, this Catholicism that Grandma and Grandpa Dubner practiced, that sounds pretty interesting. I think I’d like to explore that.”

And I wonder how I would react to something like that. Even though I tell myself that I would like to think that I would react very cooly and encouragingly, I’m sure that I would be hurt because I think that what every parent wants is to teach their children a love for the way that they’re bringing them up.

Religion is a tricky, though, because you can talk about bringing your children up to have certain morals—the way they treat other people—and you can teach your children to have certain ideas about education, about achievements of different sorts, but religion is tricky because it encompasses all those things: it encompasses morals, it encompasses ideas about education, and so on. But it also incorporates a belief in something much bigger and broader, which is G-d and why we’re here, and where we go afterwards, and so on.

Of course you want your kids to believe the same as you do. On the other hand, much of teaching religion to a young person is teaching that young person, especially a child, how to do something that they don’t really understand. You’re teaching them to begin to believe in something that they can’t yet comprehend. And that’s why when you get to be an adult and you start to have new questions that you couldn’t even have dreamed of when you were a child. I’ll give you an example.

When I was a 10-year-old boy, my father died. My mother and father had always been very active in the Catholic church and we were a very devout family. When my father died, the priest and my mother and my mother’s friends all said to me, “Oh, you must recognize how fortunate you are to have a father who was so loved by G-d that G-d would take him from you—recognizing how painful that would be—at such an early age.”

Now as a kid of ten, (a) this didn’t make sense to me, and (b) it was of no comfort to me whatsoever. Now I understand what they were trying to say, and I understand the belief that their teaching was based on.

But as a child, it was wildly ineffective. So I have to ask myself, “How do you want to talk to your children when it comes to matters of belief and religion?” That’s a topic that I’m obviously not an expert in, but what I do see right now (being an adult now and having been a child of very, very religious parents), is that children are an awful lot more attuned to spiritual matters than their parents give them credit for.

They’re a lot more, I won’t say spiritually sophisticated necessarily, but they’re a lot more spiritually curious: they have questions that they don’t know how to articulate; they have desires that they don’t know how to meet. I think a big job for us as adults, and therefore as adults when teaching children, is not just to show them the rituals, not just to show them the steps to take and the movements to make and the way to light candles and what not, but to address within them the reason why we do things, the reason for G-d’s sake, the reason for our sake, the reason for the family’s sake, the community’s sake, and so on.

And that is something that I don’t feel we’re doing a very good job at yet.

Jacobson: Well let me ask you. Do you think your parents did a good job at that?

Dubner: You know, at the risk of sounding nothing but heretical, no, because of what was given to me. But the reason I don’t want it to sound heretical is that even though I left Catholicism and my family remains Catholic, I harbor no ill will against Catholicism, so I want to speak about the strategy as opposed to the surety of it all.

What I do think is this. When you’re a child and you form an idea of what G-d is and why you’re here and what you’re meant to do in the world, that’s a very, very strong idea and image that is emblazoned on your mind and on your psyche. And when your intellectual attachment to that image, or when your intellect outgrows that image, then you’ve got to deal with it. Then you’ve got to say, “Oh, the G-d that I pictured, the cliché that we’ve all heard a million times, the image of G-d sitting up there in a chair with flowing robes and a white beard…” many of us started with that as kids, and then many of us come to have a more nuanced or a more complicated understanding of what G-d is or is not.

But when you start with that childlike image, and you have that kind of drilled into you, and then you grow up and you understand that the questions of good and evil and the questions of this life and the afterlife are not as clear as they were when you were six years old, your mind, if you have any kind of mind at all, and we all do, starts to play with that and challenge that, and then you have to do your own growing and stretching and searching.

We’re seeing this sort of thing happening in this country, now more than ever. I’m not a theologian and I’m not a historian, but I think it’s accurate to say that we’re witnessing in this country something that is utterly revolutionary in that there are more people who are exploring more religions, other than the ones they were born into, than there ever has been at any place or in any time in history.

The number of people who are investigating different faiths or deepening their own connection to the faith that they were born into, but that their own parents neglected, is extraordinary. You know there’s a Yiddish saying (I don’t know it in Yiddish, I’m sure you do) that goes something like, “That which the grandfather chooses to preserve, the father chooses to forget, and the grandson chooses to remember.”

There’s a real pattern here of reaching back past one generation and finding an attachment to something that came a generation before you. Like many, many people in the Bible, and like I did, it feels almost a natural thing to reject your parents at some point along the way.

Jacobson: The reason I asked you was obviously not to put you on the spot of having to make any statements about Catholicism, but my question was really in this context: had your parents presented and offered you religion or spirituality the way you think it should be done, the way you’re going to attempt to pass it on to your children, do you think it would have made any difference?

In other words, when you do realize that your parents could not tolerate any way but their own way of seeing the truth, does that in any way contribute to rejecting it when you come of age and you begin to question?

Dubner: Yes I think so, and here’s the reason. When you’re told that something is 100%… for example, if you’re told that 5+5=10 always, every time, and then you go to a different culture where 5+5=100 somehow, you say, wait a minute, I know that’s wrong. And then they tell you, no, look, here’s the proof of it, here’s the mathematical proof. The minute you begin to understand that there’s a chink in the truth that you grew up with, you start to question everything.

So I’m not saying I have the answer to this question, because it’s a very, very tough one. How you teach your children to believe in a way that they will want to continue within that faith and tradition, is a question that I dearly hope I will be able to answer for myself and my own children, but I’m not saying it’s an easy one. And the reason it’s not is because of the very paradox of raising children, which is that because they’re young and because their minds aren’t formed to the point where they can make their own decisions and glean their own understanding of the world, of course we instruct them. That’s what we do: we teach them, we instruct them.

But how do we teach them in a way that allows them to use their own G-d-given mental abilities, even from a very early age? That’s what I mean when I say that children are much more spiritually inclined then we tend to think, and have a greater appreciation for nuance and question.

Maybe this is my theory alone, but I think that when every child discovers that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist, he or she is a little bit relieved, you know. It’s all a little bit too perfect. It makes a little bit too much sense. And then there’s always those lingering doubts like, why do we always hear Mommy and Daddy in their bedroom at 3:00am on Xmas eve if everybody is supposed to be quiet and Santa Claus is coming down the chimney? Shouldn’t they be quiet too? Maybe they’re wrapping presents and so on.

So there’s almost a sense of relief when you find out that this “Truth” that you’ve been encouraged to believe all along turns out to be not so true in the end.

Similarly, and this is a bit of a dangerous syllogism perhaps, when you are brought up to believe in a religious truth that allows for no questioning, then when you get old enough to question it for yourself, where do you go from there? Do you reject it, do you explore it on your own and try to deepen your understanding of it? Every person is going to do a different thing. That’s the beautiful part about humankind; everyone’s got his or her own brain and are all going to react in a different way.

Jacobson: I identify with some of what you say, because I also grew up in a “fundamentalist” home, just to give it a title (I don’t know if my parents would appreciate that), but I think that maybe part of what you’re saying is, can you turn to your parents when you have those questions? Will they allow you to turn to them? Because if they don’t, they’re essentially cutting off a channel of communication, which causes you to lose the trust. And how would they handle questions like that?

Dubner: Did you ever come to your parents with fundamental, spiritual questions as a child or teenager?

Jacobson: That’s a good question. Who’s interviewing whom here?

Dubner: I don’t mean to put you on the spot!

Jacobson: Look, as I prefaced, you and I worked all those hours on the phone and our communications—before email—

Dubner: The bulletin board system (BBS).

Jacobson: Well, give and take is great. I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t feel comfortable coming to my parents with those big questions, but I’ll tell you, I didn’t feel uncomfortable to share it with them. So I didn’t really turn to them for answers. But it wasn’t like a rejection type of thing. My parents had a certain laid-back attitude, which is completely subjective to my parents, because there’s no question that, as was captured in David Klinghoffer’s exchange with you, many religious parents have a condescending attitude, which my parents did not have.

The condescension is an independent issue. Once there’s condescension, then you’re dealing with arrogance, and it repulses us to be preached to. But in my particular case condescension was not an issue. In my parents home, I really felt a certain laid-back attitude. Though there were clearly truths that were taught in my home, and the school I was sent to definitely had a very absolute approach, their particular attitude, particularly my father’s, was more of a very laid-back one. As a journalist, and with his particular personality, my father is very tolerant of opinions other than his own. And that does give, I would say, a certain confidence that you can trust somewhat.

Not that you have to accept the truth: just because he’s tolerant doesn’t mean his absolute truth is necessarily the right one, but you just trust the environment more. I think that there’s a certain sense—as you said, children are extremely spiritual and very instinctive and sensitive—that if they feel there’s a deep insecurity in their parents, and sometimes holding on to certain beliefs is just another expression of insecurity, than that insecurity is projected upon the children.

I could see that being a major contributing factor in one’s rejection of parents beliefs (I’m not speaking about you now but about people in general) because then, in addition to this Truth, you sense an insecurity on their part, so what are you left with? So it becomes an issue of, am I going to become like them? Am I going to have to close my mind? And you fear embracing any firm beliefs.

I should add that your mother just passed away a few weeks ago (I came to a shiva call) so first of all I extend my condolences to you and your family…

Dubner: Thank you.

Jacobson: And the juxtaposition of the two worlds was interesting to me when I came to you for the shiva call, because your mother passed away feeling as a Catholic, and you’re sitting shiva as a Jew, so that’s a book of its own.

It’s obviously very personal and emotional and I don’t really want to tread in an area unless you welcome or invite it, but it makes me wonder, one of the things our parents give us is nurturing, emotional balance—forget about religion now for a moment—just the basic comfort of a having a home. And as you shared with me, you had that. You had a healthy home, in the sense of functionality.

Dubner: Absolutely.

Jacobson: Some of your best memories were there; it was your dream life. So when you have that, which is extremely healthy, because that’s what parents should be giving, at the same time, this nurturing is so woven together with their religious beliefs, it sure creates a big issue as you grow into an adult and you do reject what they consider to be so much connected to their nurturing and you have to separate the two.  I can almost see it as an impossible task, frankly. What are your feelings on that?

Dubner: I agree that it does seem not impossible but very difficult. When I think about it, I grew up, as you said, the youngest of eight children, and my family and our family friends were called the “crazy eights,” because almost all the families that we were really close with had at least eight kids (some of them had ten and twelve and so on). There were all these big families: the O’Donnells, the Kennedys, the McNamaras (all these Irish Catholics) and then us, the Dubners!

Now, we talk about the divorce rate in this country, which has surpassed and maybe now has gone back below 50%, still they talk about how one in every two marriages these days ends in divorce.

And then look at the rate of children falling away from the faith in which they were brought up in this country—either falling away from or, conversely, someone who grows up in a non-believing, non-practicing home who becomes very religious. The incidence of people in this country who grow up in a home with “x” religion, whatever that religion is, and end up as adults practicing “x” religion, is not very high. The ratio is not very firm there.

So it does make you ask, and I think the question you asked is a great one (it’s a different one than the one I asked), how do we nurture our children and create a home where a child feels encouraged to be loved and to love back, to express him or herself and receive expression from other people, but also, how do you encourage open-mindedness and tolerance while imparting morals and beliefs, be they political or religious?

Again, I’m not a parent yet, so I haven’t failed at that yet. I’m sure I will in some part; I hope to succeed in some part too, but I do think it says a lot about the way we approach passing on religion in this culture—I won’t say this country necessarily—but this culture. What I’m saying is that I don’t think we do a very good job of it.

I have no number in front of me (and probably a statistic like this doesn’t exist), but if you look at the incidence of the number of people who grew up in this country who are practicing a different faith or who practice it radically differently from the way they were brought up, you have to say we’re not teaching it right; we’re not talking to our children right. But then, on the other hand, you look at a home where there’s a more orthodox version of a religion practiced, whether it’s Orthodox Judaism, whether it’s a certain form of Islam, and you see that orthodoxy does tend to do a better job for obvious reasons: it includes schooling as well, it makes the family the cornerstone of the community, a community was is not necessarily a closed one but a very insulated one, which makes a departure from that in the end all the more painful.

But looking back at these families that I grew up with, easily more than half of them are no longer practicing Catholics. Easily more than half of the kids I grew up with. And it just makes me say, first of all, thank goodness it wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just me who had some kind of failing with it, and it wasn’t just my parents who had some kind of failing with it—because I’d like to consider it not a failing, what I’d like to consider it is some kind of possibility of maturation where your own soul finds a different place and a different direction and pursues it.

Jacobson: There’s no question. I’m not surprised that this show was not meant to be an easy one—you’re dealing with absolutes.

Okay, let’s take a short station break. You’re listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. We’re here every Sunday from 6-7pm, and you can contact us (and I will pass along any questions you may have for Mr. Dubner) at (email). You can also call us at 1-800-3MEANING (1-800-363-2646) or access our website at www.

We’re here with Stephen Dubner, and it’s very moving to hear you speak, as always, but particularly on this topic because it touches so many personal issues. If you’re just tuning in, I’m here with Stephen Dubner, who just authored a year ago the book Turbulent Souls… Was it a year ago?

Dubner: A year ago in hardcover.

Jacobson: And just recently in paperback. And Stephen has been on an extensive book tour, and people are really moved by this book and I definitely encourage everyone here to read it. You’re hearing the “turbulent soul” live on air. Now frankly, when I finished the book, it left me in some ways with more questions than answers, but I guess you’re comfortable with that, saying that you’re more comfortable with questions than answers.

Dubner: Yes, you know it’s funny. When you do a reading or a talk somewhere, or you get mail, people want those answers. They say, “You know, I read the book and you delve deeply into your mother’s life and your father’s life and then your own life, and all three of you made radical religious changes, but I still don’t know the words to put in my pocket to describe why it is that your mother converted, or why you did what you did, for instance.”

I don’t want to say it was intentional—it certainly wasn’t intentional to leave people hanging, and I certainly told all I could tell—but the thing that you all have to remember is that when it concerns a matter of the soul in particular, these are not journeys that can be reduced to some mathematical equation.

First of all, I think every religious journey is obviously unique, and second of all… it’s funny, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I know last week you discussed the AOL/Time Warner merger (I guess it’s a merger), and there are all kinds of questions, not just based on that deal certainly, but in the culture in general about privacy, and we are concerned about people crawling into our homes through our modems, or having too much information about us based on every time we use our credit card and so on.

So privacy has become a big issue. We wonder what will happen when sometime in the future we will have a microchip in our fingerprints and from that day forth, everyone will know where everyone else has been for the preceding lifetime of that person.

That’s a scary thought, obviously, in a number of ways. And it’s understandable that we’re very, very concerned with our privacy and we’re concerned with our political feelings and our feelings about certain issues, but when it comes to religion, it seems as though we expect people to be able to describe in great detail, and in language that is perfectly universal, the emotions and feelings and so on that a person goes through in trying to attain or maintain a relationship with G-d.

The irony, or the paradox, to me is that a relationship with G-d has got to be the most intimate relationship any of us will ever experience or attain. And so while I think there’s great value in speaking about it as we’re speaking now, and I think there’s great value in speaking about it with other people, I think that in the end, what we need to most understand about ourselves and about each other (but probably about ourselves most important), is that yes, there is a great deal of mystery in our relationship with G-d. And there is a great deal of the ineffable and the inexpressible, and I think we need to learn to handle that as well as we handle the finite stuff.

When I was researching and writing my book, I read a great deal of conversion literature, and I must say, a lot of it left me very cold. A lot of the stories were like, “My life was going along terribly, I had problems of illness, poverty, etc., etc., and I woke up one morning and saw a light and everything was better.”

I’m skeptical of that kind of story because I think that things aren’t usually so black and white and I think that humans are a lot more complicated than that. But if we look at the models for that story, the image of Saul of Tarsus being blinded and hearing a voice from the heavens and falling off the horse. I guess that’s why there’s a reason for that type of tradition in our literature, but I think we need to understand, and I guess this would apply to children as well, that when it comes to matters of the soul, it’s not math, it’s not even close to math.

And that’s why I feel that, while in math, the answer is the thing that you want to arrive at: “Show your work,” as the teachers would always say, “show your work in the margins, but all I really care about is that ‘x equals what?’”

This is the opposite. It’s not the “x equals what?” it’s “what is ‘x’?” What are you dealing with? What are you trying to achieve here? It’s a very, very different endeavor.

Jacobson: So on a practical level, what would you say to parents if they came to you for advice, obviously with a disclaimer that you’re not a parent yet and all of that. The parent asks you “I do feel that I know the truth, in an absolute way,” how do I communicate it to my children, while allowing them the freedom of self discovery? The parent is not condescending about it, because if they’re condescending about it, then they are immediately invalidating themselves as models for their children. There is no place for condescension, even if you feel you have the truth. There are gentle ways of teaching: with love and confidence.

In this case we’re talking about parents that are not condescending. So the question the parent asks is: What shall I teach my children? From an Orthodox point of view, I want to take them to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Or if they’re Catholic, or whatever that means in the Catholic practice. Everyone in his or her tradition.

And there are very black and white things there. It’s not like we’re going to stay home and just discuss G-d, or discuss the mystery itself. There are traditions and rituals, and my children will clearly be impressed and affected by these rituals, because I’m also nurturing them with that. (I’m speaking as that parent.) What should I do?

Dubner: You’re right: I’m not the person to answer this question because I’m not a parent yet, but what I would say is, “Teach that truth with all your heart and soul, as my parents and your parents did, but also acknowledge, when necessary, that there are other people in the world who think very differently, and they too were created by G-d and they might be pretty good people too.”

And the reason I say that is this. In the home in which I grew up, my older sister believed that if she were to walk into a Protestant church, forget about a synagogue, forget about a mosque, but a Protestant church, the walls would crumble and the ceiling would cave in on her head and she would be killed.

Look, there was a period where I resented, or wasn’t happy about what my parents had done, that is, converting from Judaism. But you know what? I also came to realize that that was their lives. I wasn’t even born yet. Would I have even been born had they not converted? I don’t know. Not many Jewish families in the 50s and 60s had eight children, and since I’m the last, I have to ask myself that question.

Jacobson: Well, if they were devout Jews…

Dubner: If they were devout, maybe, but I don’t think they were the kind who would have had eight children as Jews. As Catholics yes. But I sometimes wish that my mother or father had sat us down and said, “Here’s the story. We were both Jewish. We both grew up in Jewish families. At a certain point in our lives I felt (let’s pretend I’m my mother) a need, a thirst, a great desire to understand the world in a way that Judaism wasn’t providing for me, or I didn’t know anything about Judaism and I had a mentor, and I began to study Catholicism. And when I studied Catholicism, it struck me as my truth, as the truth for me, and I decided that I was going to look for a man to marry who felt the same way, and that I would raise my children within that tradition.

Now you might say that that’s not that different from the story that ended up in the book that I wrote. You’re right. It’s not that different except for one thing. Because that conversation never took place, all the other people in the world, all the other thinking in the world, all the other traditions, all the other languages, were discounted. In other words, that Jewish family of mine that I’d never met, that I didn’t know about—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—they were wiped off the face of the earth to me. It was as thorough an excommunication as the excommunication of my father’s father, an Orthodox Jew, who sat shiva for my father when my father converted.

Now, one could, and many people would argue, that that’s the way that G-d would want it; that G-d would want an Orthodox Jewish father to sit shiva for his son, and G-d would want a newly devout Catholic mother not to tell her children about any other family, about any other past. But on the other hand, if that Catholic G-d and that Jewish G-d are one and the same, as more of us are now starting to acknowledge and think, including the Pope himself, then that same G-d can’t want those two things. He can’t want my grandfather to have done what he did and my mother to have done what she did. They’re diametrically opposed.

Jacobson: So let’s say your parents had done what you described, and then would have added (I’m continuing to speak as a hypothetical parent): however, now that we’ve embraced this, we believe this to be the absolute truth, and we reject other religions. Though they may be good people, and we should always respect everyone, but this is the truth. You know, we’re touching upon the issue of them really believing that this is the truth, and therefore other truths are not as true or are completely not true.

So that line that I just added, would that be off limits? Should that not be said?

Dubner: No, I think that should be said. I think the minute you open up the conversation as you just did, you start to treat your child as a human being first of all… you know, it’s a child’s natural curiosity, or anybody’s natural curiosity, that if you see ten boxes on a table and you say, “You can open up any of the boxes except the one on the end,” the first one that we all want to look at is the one on the end of course.

So when you grow up in an environment where you’re told that this is the way it is, that nothing else exists outside of this, or anything that exists outside of this is wrong, is lesser somehow, well, of course, your mind is curious about that. That’s the way we work as humans—not as religious people, not as Catholics, not as Jews, but as humans.

So look, I’m not saying by a long shot that parents need to hold back on the way that they teach their children their religion. I think the opposite. What I do think is that we need to realize that we’re living in a world where a lot of traditions and religions exist and need to co-exist. And I like to believe in a G-d that sanctions more than one faith, because if not, then no matter what faith you belong to, the rest of the world is wrong, which means that you’re excluding the majority of the world from this kingdom that you’ve so haughtily declared “G-d’s kingdom.”

And that doesn’t feel remotely right to me.

Jacobson: So essentially, what you’re really saying, if I may sum it up, is that in your view, one type of truth that rejects other truths is a problem, and the problem is this: if someone really believes that, and there are people who believe that, and they believe it to the extent that they’ll say, “I wanted to protect you from other things. I didn’t want you to make the mistakes I made. I found that truth and now I’m teaching it to you (to the children, that is),” what you’re really saying now is that you don’t believe that there should be an education of that nature because you don’t think that there necessarily is one truth.

Dubner: Well my response to that is that if the tradition or the truth is so strong, why be afraid to have your child understand it as one of several that has been chosen or one of several that has been established within your family?

In other words, if you grow up thinking that coconut milk is the only beverage in the world…

Jacobson: Yes, but Stephen, you’re saying that as a case for many truths. If someone really believes that his or her truth is the absolute truth, remember, they don’t really feel that another approach is legitimate.

Dubner: Right, but what you said a moment ago, which I think rings true, is that “there are other people in the world who believe differently. They may be good people. There are probably good people among them, but this is what we believe and this is why, and I’d like to encourage within you a love for this tradition. And here’s how I’m going to do it. By including you in it. By nurturing it within you, and so on.” That’s a big difference from saying, “This is all there is. Let’s do it now.”

Jacobson: Okay. Let me ask you this question, even though I may be putting you on the spot. Is it possible, and as I said, I read your correspondence with David Klinghoffer and am hearing you now, that your disclaimers about truths, that there are many truths, could be the result of a certain insecurity of seeing what your parents did? That the fact that they were so absolutely sure, would really not allow you to ever embrace an absolute truth, because you don’t want to make that same mistake again?

Dubner: I don’t know if it’s so much worrying about making a mistake. But I do think you’re absolutely right in terms of having a kind of innate wariness of a certain brand or level of devotion. Having experienced within my family, both in my generation and the generation before, where my father’s father declared him dead and sat shiva for him, (I was going to say it gives me an uneasy feeling but that’s not really defined enough), it does make me want to approach things differently. I’m giving you a negative as opposed to the positive construction of that, but I can’t quite come up with a positive which is probably what the search is all about in the first place, searching for a positive way to express that wariness.

Jacobson: Because for me that’s the biggest question. Like when you say that you are more comfortable with questions, that you’d prefer questions over answers or that you’re more attracted to questions than answers, my first question when I hear that is maybe that’s a defense that protects you from being as wrong as your parents were.

Dubner: Wait, who’s saying “wrong”? When you say, “being as wrong as my parents were,” or you speaking in my mind or in your mind?

Jacobson: Your mind. In other words, to make that type of…

Dubner: But I don’t think my parents were wrong.

Jacobson: Well, they were wrong for you.

Dubner: To say they were wrong for me is kind of right, but what they did was for themselves, and obviously to some degree for their children. I don’t think it’s for me to say that what they did was wrong, you know?

Jacobson: Let’s put it this way. Their absolutism was something that you cannot accept for yourself.

Dubner: Right.

Jacobson: And therefore, one could argue that within Judaism you may never accept it as well because you don’t agree with that approach.

Dubner: One could argue that, but that’s a little bit too much of a black and white argument for me. Here’s why. Part of the reason that Judaism was attractive to me is that there’s room within Judaism for more questioning and more pluralism than there is within Catholicism, or at least Catholicism as I knew it. In other words, I could read Jewish writers and thinkers writing about Judaism and on Jewish expression of anything from cultural values to political values who claim not to believe in G-d at all. And my first reaction was, “How could you be a Jew and not believe in G-d?”

One of the many wrinkles of Judaism is that it has a tradition, unlike the church… the Talmud itself is one long argument, and there is a winner, but the proof of the winning argument is not always as satisfying as the proof of the losing argument, and in a kind of post-modern way, what it does is encourage everyone who ever takes a look at that at all to feel that they, somehow, are part of that same argument or discussion.

What that says to me on a personal level is that each of us are responsible for and invited to have a conversation with G-d about what our relationship with G-d is meant to be. That is very different from the tradition in which I grew up.

Jacobson: But that does not allow room for someone who doesn’t believe in G-d, because then they’re out of that entire context, because then they don’t believe in Judaism either.

Dubner: Say that again?

Jacobson: There’s an option when you go with that type of approach: what about the person who says, “Well, I don’t believe in G-d and I don’t accept Judaism altogether.” You may say we allow for a diversity of traditions, but is there room for someone to not believe in G-d and still remain Jewish? That’s also a form of absolutism. Do you see what I’m saying?

Dubner: Not quite. There are plenty of people who would argue that they have no belief whatsoever in G-d and yet they are as Jewish as the most Orthodox Jew in the world. It’s not the easiest argument in the world to construct but it’s certainly constructible. I can’t make the argument because I don’t feel that way.

Jacobson: You’re right. I wouldn’t phrase it that your parents were wrong, I respect that, but let’s put it this way. You may never want to be as right as they were in their own minds.

Dubner: Either I may not want to be or I may not be able to be. Right that is.

Jacobson: My question is, is there anything that is psychological or fear-driven by that because, should you be so convinced that, for instance, Orthodox Judaism is absolute Truth, how do you know that you may be doing what they did but just now you have another form or shape of it?

Dubner: Right.

Jacobson: Look, I’m not your child, but if your child ever asked you, he might say, “Maybe you never wanted to embrace something because you had that lingering doubt or the lingering fear of creating such an environment.” In other words, it’s not so much about the search for truth; it’s just the search for what you know is not good.

Dubner: Well, to me it’s a more nuanced argument than that, although you’re right, I’m not looking for an absolute truth. None of me, not my brain, my heart, my soul, none of me works that way. What I was and am searching for is a way to exist in the world where I feel that I can lead a productive and meaningful life…

Jacobson: And turbulent life.

Dubner: Turbulent life. And have within that life a relationship with G-d that perhaps dictates or is perhaps the underlayer of that life. That, to me, is the route that I feel is right for me. I would prefer to look at it as a route on a plane as opposed to a level of Orthodoxy, because I think that once you get into saying, “This person is less observant, that person is less orthodox, or more orthodox, or more devout, etc., etc, than the other,” you’re doing something that you’re not meant to do.

I think that you and I both agree that the minute you start to judge the way another person practices his or her faith, not only are you invading that person’s private, intimate, religious space, to be modern about it, but you’re doing G-d’s work. It’s not for us to judge, it’s for G-d to judge.

Jacobson: I understand. But the fact is, I know that this is still ahead of you—but these things happen faster than you think—becoming a parent, and sending your children to some type of Jewish education, at whatever level, to teach them Jewish traditions, and that definitely has a shape and form. There’s a point where you can’t just be philosophical about it, but you have to decide, “Am I going to keep the Sabbath or am I not?” “Am I going to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur and on Xmas go to a church?” I don’t think you’re going to teach your children that, based on what you told me and what I hear from you, so even though you’re avoiding the big question, like what is absolute truth, the fact is, there is a path, and the question really is that if there is absolute truth, and your resisting it is for other reasons than for just the search for truth, you may be, in a sense, doing a disservice to your own children. You may not be giving them that absolute confidence and creating an ambiguity as a result of, let’s call it, your own wounds.

And I don’t say it only to you, I say it to any one of us who struggles with this. Any thoughts on that?

Dubner: I realize that you’re saying what you’re saying now because of your belief, which is a wonderful thing and a wonderful place to be, but you know, I guess what I feel is that everyone needs to plumb their own depths, and find the place where they’re most comfortable and the place that’s most meaningful to them. And yes, where I agree with you most strongly is that those signals are most evident when there’s something physical: when it’s going to shul on Friday night…

Jacobson: Any mitzvah.

Dubner: Right, it’s not about the way we think about G-d, it’s about what we do to have that kind of connection and that kind of relationship. And you’re right, that’s something that you have to build for yourself.

The difference for me is that I’m building it from scratch and not building it from childhood tradition, so instead of doing things that I know are done because that’s the way they’ve always been done and expressing them as such, the rule of thumb that I and my wife have developed is that we do things as we fully understand them and as they fully make sense to us, which means that slowly but surely we’re embracing more of the tradition. But there’s a big difference, which is that I want to understand the tradition or the element of it before I embrace it, and that leads to a certain need for premeditation. It’s a certain going against the grain of the way I was brought up in which you do first, ask questions later, or more appropriately, don’t ask questions later.

Jacobson: So you’ve been listening to Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. My guest is Stephen Dubner, author of Turbulent Souls, which is available in all bookstores, and on It’s really been very interesting and I wish I could go on with you for quite a while. I definitely welcome you to come on again.

I want to say that this show has been made possible by, underwritten by, a grant from James and Anne Altucher, in honor of James’ birthday, so we thank them for that.

Anyone wanting to make a contribution to help make the show possible should call us at 1-800-363-2646.

On a final note, I’d like to ask you if you could sum up maybe in 30 seconds any particular lesson from your own journey to tell our listeners.

Dubner: In thirty seconds or less…! Find some smart people and ask them a lot of questions. When I say that I’m more attracted to questions than answers, I don’t mean I don’t want answers, it means that I just look hard for them. But asking yourself the questions is like the dog chasing its own tail.

Find smart people like you Simon, like we all know, but you need to have some teachers in this world if for nothing else than to tell you the books you need to read and so on.

Jacobson: Well, thank you Stephen, and I really welcome and invite you to come on the show again because we have yet to cover many good subjects. Thank you.

Dubner: Thank you, Simon.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Meaningful Life Center