Elementary school students in Jerusalem.
Elementary school students in Jerusalem. Photo by Daniel Bar-On / Jini
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A new Bible studies curriculum in the state's religious school system has stirred up a storm of controversy, leading to some of the enrichment materials being shelved by the Education Ministry even before the school year begins.

The controversy began even before the new curriculum was presented, with the appointment of a new supervisor of Bible studies. For the first time ever, the job was given to a woman.

The head of the council that oversees the religious school system, Rabbi Avi Gisser said Monday, "I can't rule out completely a connection between the storm and the fact that a woman [was appointed to the position]. To certain people this was also disturbing."

It is not only the new supervisor's agenda that some find objectionable. Some critics have already taken issue with Miri Schlissel's background. "She is a person who is identified with making Bible study accessible to all. She belongs to the Gush yeshiva - a school of study that is more open, that opened the gates of Gemara and Bible to academia, that deals with biblical criticism," a female teacher in the state religious system said.

Schlissel was a teacher at Pelech High School in Jerusalem, an Orthodox institution known for its feminist leanings. She also directed a teaching program for women at Midreshet Migdal Oz, an Orthodox institution of higher Torah learning for women in Gush Etzion. She has a master's degree in Bible from the Hebrew University, where she is also writing her Ph.D.

However, the controversy hit new heights after Schlissel presented a new Bible curriculum, the first one in 20 years. The curriculum came in the midst of a "serious crisis in Bible studies in the state religious school system," according to one official in the Education Ministry. "People were clearly calling for change. The program was outmoded and the feeling was that it was not able to promote the goal of love of Torah," the official said.

According to Gisser, the previous program focused on analysis of the Torah portion that was "literal, almost philological," and did not deal with prophetic values or "describe or sketch broad moves that involve uplift, imagination and creativity."

The new program, however, according to a letter Schlissel wrote to teachers, is intended to bring students "to an encounter with the word of God," by helping them identify with the material.

Enrichment articles have been added to the curriculum, including modern ones and those written by people with various worldviews on Bible study and biblical criticism.

Gisser says that the plan is "strictly kosher" and has the blessing of the rabbis who have been involved with designing the state religious school system for many years. He said the previous curriculum "bored the students and led to alienation toward the subject in religious institutions, where the Bible is their crown."

However, Gisser acknowledged that there are groups in the religious world "who want conservatism and stagnation, who want to preserve what always was instead of renewing and creating."

Gisser said the new curriculum dealt with questions of principle, "both moral and legal, all in the spirit of the ancient sages. Many of the stories of the ancient sages criticize our greatest figures, beginning with the patriarchs. But some people want to censure everything that has a question. That makes people unbelievers, not believers, in our holy Torah."

One group opposing the curriculum, which calls itself "The rabbis of the line" includes Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the rabbi of the settlement of Beit El, as well as the rabbis of the Har Hamor yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Zvi Tau.

According to one teacher, "this has become an ugly political war." She said that a group calling itself "The movement for the study of Torah according to the ancient sages," reviewed the enrichment materials "with a magnifying glass and marked certain sentences as 'heretical.'" Among the items that raised the ire of the opponents is a comparison between the story of the Annunciation to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus and the announcement by the angel to Samson's mother that she would give birth.

Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, a former Sephardi chief rabbi, wrote in a letter to teachers: "I saw only part of the material and I did not continue reading so as not to read things that are forbidden, because there are things that disparage the Torah and our holy patriarchs."

Following the protest of these rabbis, and despite the backing of the heads of the state religious school system, the enrichment materials were removed from the Education Ministry's study website.

Schlissel now says she was mistaken for trying to include the enrichment material in the new Bible studies curriculum. "It is a basic assumption that it is human to err," she wrote.