The educational philosopher Thomas F. Green writes that "the necessary elements of a moral education will be understood only in a setting where adults are able to say to youth with confidence, with clarity and for a very long time, `This is who we are and this is why we do these things.' Any awkward hesitation or apology in presentation will spell disaster for attempts at moral education."
As any salesman will verify, it is harder--but not impossible--to peddle a product that you do not really think works. As the gap between the pitch and the level of conviction widens, getting the message across becomes almost entirely a question of rhetorical skill or perhaps sheer audacity. Though the word "child" may infer naivete, their acute and intuitive grasp of the teacher as charlatan actually makes the "sale" of religious education to children a very difficult proposition if one does not truly believe what one is proposing that they should follow.
In the realm of Judaism, it is a cliche that such internal contradictions bedevil mostly the non-observant teacher, who must either avoid the halakhic heart of the Torah or selectively bypass it and become privy to the charge of inconsistency or worse. Though this dilemma is undeniably commonplace, I do not believe that a certain lack of faith or in Green's words, a "hesitation" in conveying Judaism is limited to the secular parts of the Jewish community. For even in traditional or observant communities, the most striking disparity (read: hypocrisy) continues to exist between personal conduct and pious rebukes to children.
An example that springs to mind for me occurred on a recent Shabbat service in a large, local Orthodox synagogue. A father was seated in the row behind his son, who in turn was sitting next to his friends. The father's prayer routine was an all too typical and yet idiosyncratic mixture of occasional focus on the prayerbook, mysteriously interrupted by sudden and persistent bursts of dialogue with his friend seated a few seats away. This back an forth between siddur (God) and friend (distraction from God) went on forever. At some point his son casually began speaking to his friends, which brought an almost instantaneous reminder from his father to "concentrate on davening and don't talk."
I wish this story were apocryphal. And it raises for me some questions that I cannot answer: does this well meaning and sincere father, who prays three times a day to his God, believe that such a God is less concerned with his talking during prayer than that of his son? And what is his son to make of God? Is God real or just a bit of a game that religious people play at, not so unlike the potential knights and dragons of the son's fervent imagination? And finally, and perhaps most urgently from the child's perspective: are the adults in my world to be trusted in what they say to me? Or is the real truth to be found in their actions with their grownup peers, in which they reveal again and again, with brutally startling clarity, an uneasy ambivalence regarding the very same things upon which they tell me my world should be founded?