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A Grain of Salt:
The Key to Teaching Faith

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The twist and turn of the thriller is crucial. A pure action film can get away with a plot that is elementary, but the thriller must do better. It must, and forgive the circularity, be thrilling. For some, I would imagine, Salt lives up to this standard. For me, however, it did not. As soon as the basic logistics of the mystery were laid out before me, I began, in my mind, to construct various alternative paths along which the movie could flow. Not even halfway through, I had a good sense of what was going to transpire. With that taken care of, I was left to focus on the more minor details of the film and found, in that, something truly fascinating and worthwhile.

I came face-to-face with one of the paradoxes of chinuch.

For, while others may have watched a film about Agent Salt and her attempts to singlehandedly save the day, I knew that story already and was much more interested in an entirely different one. So, I sat in a theater and watched a tale unfold of Soviet Russia and its quest to best the United States, a tale of children bred to serve this cause and brainwashed into such service. Brainwashed how? Through constant teaching and competition, through reinforced obedience and a striving for recognition, through love for one thing above all else. And so, Agent Salt became the wayward son in that tale – the child that turns her back on all she was raised to believe.

But, I could not help myself – I was swept away with the emotional tide of the film. And so, Agent Salt was not a traitor in my mind – she was a hero. I felt compelled to applaud her ability to rise above the lessons of her childhood, to determine for herself what is right and wrong, and to act against the tyrants and villains who orchestrated the entire plot and/or allowed themselves to remain manipulated puppets. Still, a nagging little voice in the back of my mind would not go away and so, when the film ended, I let it have its say. And do you know what it had the chutzpa to say to me? It called me an FFB.

FFB, for those who are not up on the more offensively strange terminology the Jewish world has adopted to encourage divisiveness, stands for “frum from birth.” It is used to describe those who are not BTs, i.e. Ba’ali Teshuva. So, yes, the voice was correct, in the most technical of ways – I was raised as an observant Jew, by parents who are observant Jews, in order, partially, that I might remain an observant Jew. Since I am, one could say that my parents get a gold star in chinuch. One could say that. Or one could say my parents should go work for Russia because they are top notch at the brainwashing. That’s what the voice was saying.

For what is chinuch but a call to brainwash? Faith is bred; before the child has the vocabulary to even question the meaning of life and Gd, he or she is taught the most basic prayers, simple blessings, holiday laws, and, underpinning it all, faith in Gd and Torah.

So – says the voice – before judging the mastermind too harshly and before admiring Salt too much – I must uncover the distinction between breeding children for Russia and breeding children for Gd. For I truly believe there is a distinction and that distinction is all that stands between an educational system that is abhorrent and an educational system that is commendable.

Of course, one could argue that the critical difference is the most obvious. It is the great chasm, itself, that lies between Russia and Gd – between blind nationalistic loyalty and devout religious faith. However, before venturing too assuredly down this path, I call to mind underground schools in the Middle East where children learn nothing but an extremist interpretation of the Koran and how to operate a ballistic missile. The chasm between Allah and Gd – not so vast, is it?

And that brings us to the great secular humanist cry: that religion – with its fundamentalism producing unquestioning and obedient followers – has been responsible for far too much bloodshed. I cannot disagree and, yet, if I am to stand as an example of a child who believes because she was taught nothing else and knows not how to disbelieve – well I think I deserve a moment to defend myself.

I cannot speak for any of my brethren – I do not know their experiences with chinuch. But, for myself, I will say: I do not believe only because I was raised to believe. I believe because I was raised to wonder and because I, as an individual thinker, have a great respect for a system that is not afraid of doubt, that does, in fact, embrace doubt.

In the film, Salt does not awaken from the spell of obedience because she is enlightened by Truth. She merely falls in love and her desires – her wish to have what she wants – are the chink in the dam. Children are susceptible to much suggestion but there is a risk to the procedure – if you halt development at the point of programming, then you freeze your soldiers in childhood. And children want what they want – to an irrational level. So, the brainwashing is successful as long as what they want more than anything else is the prize you have attached to obedience. But, woe unto you, if they crave something else more.

That is why chinuch is a transient law. When a child becomes an adult, it is no longer the obligation of the parent to continue monitoring the program – it becomes the responsibility of the adult to monitor his or her own status as proper servants of Gd. If chinuch were merely brainwashing then how could this transition take place? Brainwashing does not allow for adulthood or personal responsibility.

But how, then, does one ensure proper chinuch while still giving a child the tools to continue personal growth in adulthood? I think the solution is exactly what my parents gave me – doubt. If I am unsure of my faith then I will constantly strive to investigate it – to learn, to struggle, to develop my own personal relationship with Gd and His Law. To brainwash is to turn faith into an unconscious habit; to teach, to question, to wonder is to turn faith into a deliberate quest.

And so, yes, I am – and please note my slight cringe while I write this – an FFB. I was raised in the Law. But please do not mistake me for one of Salt’s unfortunate classmates. I do not remain in the Law because I was raised to. I remain in the Law because I choose to. Because I was raised to choose. And with that difference clear in my mind, I know that I am safe – I need never fear that a conflicting desire will weaken my faith or that psychological programming strengthens it.

And so, while I doubt this will catch on, I would prefer to think of myself as a WFB – wonderer from birth. And, it’s a good thing I am because if I wasn’t then that little voice in the back of my mind – that moxie-infused troublemaker that got all this started – that incessant germ of a thought that would not let me simply sit back and enjoy Angelina Jolie’s stunt-work – that voice would not exist.

For the true paradox of chinuch is in breeding that voice – the one that doubts the very teaching that creates it. Chinuch equips a child with many tools but none greater than this voice, this absolute wonder. Therein begins the dialogue, therein begins the journey, therein begins the quest. It is a quest with many a twist and turn – it is a thriller – but don’t ask me to spoil the ending – even I can’t figure it out.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

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