Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of Following Ezra, a memoir about learning from his autistic son. He will be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
I was a guest on a radio talk show last week when the interviewer offered a question that caught me off guard. In the midst of a discussion about raising my son Ezra, who has autism, she asked: “With a person who is so comfortable with things that are very concrete and predictable, how do you explain a concept like God?”
As it happens, God comes up in conversation quite a bit in our household. My wife is a rabbi who teaches Jewish texts at a Jewish community high school. We attend synagogue every Shabbat, and our family life revolves around the Jewish calendar.
Ezra, who indeed craves the predictable, has always been attracted to the more concrete aspects of Judaism: the calendar, the holiday cycles, the weekly rituals. At an early age, he memorized the ten plagues, and began acting them out — dramatically, and in order — at our seder. He has always been attracted to Bible stories pitting good against evil: Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. Goliath, Mordecai vs. Haman.
Understanding God was different. During prayer services at his Jewish summer camp, the kids in the special needs program sing a song called “Thank You, God,” taking turns expressing what they’re grateful for. But beyond that simple understanding, I simply didn’t know what he grasped.
In the radio interview, I recounted the time when Ezra, then 12, had been in a particularly surly mood, fixated on talking repetitively about his craving for potato chips. Partly to shake him out of it, I spontaneously began speaking in the voice of God (or the kind of booming voice Charlton Heston heard in The Ten Commandments). To my surprise, Ezra — who generally avoids extended conversations — went along, and engaged in a lengthy and revealing dialogue with God. (Miraculously, he also stopped talking about junk food.)
More recently, Ezra, now 15, has approached the subject of divinity with more resistance. On a Saturday stroll not long ago, he asked my wife and me about why we observe Shabbat. When we reminded him of the idea that God created the world in six days, he interrupted.
“I don’t think God did that,” he said. “I think it was more natural.”
I’d never heard him say anything like that.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “Did somebody tell you that?”
“No,” he insisted. “I just think the world was was more from nature, not from God.”
As the interviewer noted, children like Ezra can struggle with abstract concepts, but my son seems to be doing fine. The Hebrew word “Yisrael” — Israel — literally translated means “struggles with God.”
Not only was Ezra sounding like a typical, questioning teenager, he was doing so in the best tradition of the Jewish people — struggling and wrestling with God. As in so many cases, whenever I think I need to teach my son, he turns the tables and teaches me.