Gideon Sa’ar
Yochi Brandes interviewing Gideon Sa’ar. Photo by Moti Milrod
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When Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar assumed his post, he declared that improving Jewish studies would be one of his priorities - and indeed, this turned out not to be one of those empty promises that many politicians make. During this past year, pupils started studying a new Judaism curriculum called The Culture of Israel.

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As the school year draws to a close, one can begin to evaluate the success of the program, which has generated both enthusiastic support and strong opposition.

The study of Bible as a school subject has been an abject failure, and you are promoting a new curriculum in Jewish studies. Have you given up on the Bible?

Everything depends on the teachers. My daughter this year has a great teacher who is able to turn a Bible lesson into a real experience. For example, she asked the students to analyze the judges [in the Book of Judges] using contemporary criteria and to explain which of them would be worthy judges in our times.

Then your daughter's teacher is circumventing the Bible curriculum. Even the most amazing teachers have a hard time making Bible interesting because of curricula that uproot all its significance, leaving us with dividing it into sections, chiastic parallels and Deuteronomic arrangements.

The Bible curriculum indeed puts an exaggerated emphasis on textual analysis and academic research. This is a mistake, and I'm trying to correct it. This year, I introduced a new curriculum that puts the stories at the center, and starts every lesson with reading from the Bible.

That was a good move, but far from enough. You've got to dump those boring workbooks and fire whoever is responsible for them. To save Bible as a subject, you need a revolution, not cosmetic repairs.

I'm against revolutions. To make changes in such a bureaucratic system like the Education Ministry I have to be cooperative, not fight or fire people. My ability to choose people is limited; I have to make the changes that are important to me with the people I've got. But when it comes to new appointments, I try to pick the best people.

Your new Jewish studies curriculum is drawing a lot of fire. It's true that most of the criticism is coming from people for whom the words "Judaism" and "Zionism" cause a gag reflex, but there are topical objections as well. Are you satisfied with this program?

For years now, Israeli society has been distancing itself from Jewish culture. Many Israelis learned only Bible, and never became familiar with the rich and important Jewish works that were created during thousands of years of Jewish culture: the commentaries of the Sages, Jewish thought, medieval poetry, prayers, Hasidism. There's a black hole there of ignorance and alienation.

In recent years, more and more Israelis are seeking to study Jewish culture in all its varieties. The Culture of Israel curriculum tries to meet that need and provide children with the knowledge that was withheld from their parents.

Knowledge is important, but far from enough. Judaism is our identity, in all its complexity. We have a culture of disputes, of varying views, of conflicts, of tensions, and primarily of seeking significance. If our children will recite the Shema prayer without debating its significance, and without examining whether and how it is relevant to their lives, the Culture of Israel curriculum is liable to turn into Bible II - that is, a boring and despised subject.

For this I am relying on the professionals who wrote the syllabus. I chose them and I'm letting them use their judgment. I can't get into all the details and intervene in all the curricula.

This curriculum imposes a list of concepts that must be studied every year, rather than allowing teachers and principals to innovate on their own. Are you in favor of centralizing the educational system?

I'm in favor of limited flexibility. We should encourage schools that can and want to prepare their own Jewish studies curricula to do so, but many schools can't do it themselves, nor do they want to. Here and there we've also discovered initiatives that totally deviate from any reasonable framework.

Do you believe that a school that wants to teach about Christianity in the framework of Jewish studies is deviating from a reasonable framework?

Absolutely. It's a matter of priorities. Let's teach our children our own works and only afterward let's think about maybe teaching them Christianity.

Judaism has influenced other cultures and religions, but was also influenced by them. You can't understand many things about Judaism without some knowledge of Christianity.

I don't care if they study Aristotle to understand Maimonides, but not the New Testament.

I can't conclude without touching on core curriculum. I grew up and was educated in Haredi society, and when I left it I managed to integrate rather easily into the wider world and get an academic education. But if I'd been born a boy, I may not have succeeded in filling in the educational gaps, because the Haredi community gives a general education only to girls. At the start of your term you fought to institute a core curriculum in Haredi schools, is this no longer important to you?

It is important to me, and I have had some success, but it's only partial. The Shas educational network has broadened its core curriculum; its pupils even take the Meitzav national achievement tests. I have also successfully advanced the development of colleges for Haredi men, but the state of general education among Haredi boys and teens is far from satisfactory. At first I got into confrontations with Haredi rabbis and politicians, and I even cut financial support to their schools. But I learned that it's better to come to quiet understandings with them, far from media scrutiny, and not try to impose educational issues on them by force.

And because you don't want to fight, you're prepared to abandon Haredi boys to a life of ignorance?

I hope and believe that by the end of my term the situation in this area will improve as well.