Less God but Plenty of Self-reflection: Teaching the Bible in Israel’s Schools Today

Since the ‘60s the Bible’s standing has diminished in Israel amid a general decline in the humanities and reading skills. Teachers tell Haaretz how they make the subject real

A Bible lesson at Kibbutz Ein Harod, 1967.
GPO

Niv Zonis, a Bible teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, is used to the question he gets at the start of the school year. “I’m always asked if I believe in God,” he says. “Sometimes I say that we’ll talk about it later, sometimes I say up front that I don’t.”

And he’s also used to the responses. “They say, ‘What? How can a teacher who doesn’t believe in the Bible teach it?”

Ido Barbibay, a Bible teacher at a Holon high school, faces similar questions every year. “During the first classes, students always ask how a secular person can teach the Bible,” he says. “They find it hard to understand when I tell them I’m an atheist.”

Meytal Blumenthal Gordon, a Bible teacher at the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, tries to postpone a discussion on her personal beliefs to later in the school year. She’s religious, but her clothes – pants and only a partial head covering – don’t reveal this to her students.

“I want them to get to know me as a person without judging me as a religious person,” she says.

The debate over the way the Bible should be taught occupies not only teachers and students, it has been a big issue in Israel in general for years. Along with debates over the secular or religious character of Bible studies, a key topic is which parts should be taught.

“You have to realize that this is a subject with political connotations,” says Rachel Walfish, who trains Bible teachers at the Kerem Institute in Jerusalem. “We can’t ignore this fact. One role of a Bible teacher is to know how to address this.”

Niv Zonis, a Bible teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, October 2019.
Moti Milrod

The Bible curriculum has changed often, but one trend has persisted – limiting the number of chapters studied. “Before the state was established there was an ambition to teach as many chapters as possible,” says Tamar Lammfromm of the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem, who has researched the teaching of Bible in Israeli schools.

“But after the state was established, every curriculum contained fewer chapters, in tandem with the reduction of the number of hours devoted to the subject in state schools,” she says.

The first Bible curriculum came out in 1954, accompanied by great expectations. The Education Ministry said it would instill in the kids “love and respect for this book and the desire to constantly study it, along with a drive to draw inspiration from it.”

But by 1957, the new curriculum was less busy. Chapters from Prophets and ones including poetry were pushed aside, based on the argument that they’re hard to understand. They were replaced by sections featuring stories. Those were the days when the Bible occupied an honorable place in Israeli culture.

Archaeology was perceived as a science that supported the veracity of Bible stories. The Bible quiz for Jewish youth on Independence Day was hugely popular, and many Bible-inspired songs were composed. But since the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Bible’s standing has diminished in Israel amid ideological changes and a general decline in the humanities, along with the growing gap between the language used by young people and the language of the Bible. During this period, the Education Ministry adopted a more academic approach to the study of various subjects, including the Bible.

“In the 1971 curriculum, Bible studies included academic terms, along with a requirement for familiarity with documents from the ancient [Middle] Eastern world that shed light on events described in the Bible,” Lammfromm says.

The number of chapters studied was cut again amid the claim that the material should be studied in greater depth. Some people criticized this new approach, arguing that it spoiled the experience of teaching and reading the Bible. Others argued that not enough respect was being paid to more traditional commentators.

Meytal Blumenthal Gordon, a Bible teacher at the Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, October 2019.
Rami Shllush

Forget Gilgamesh

Last year, a new curriculum of Bible studies was published. For the first time there is no requirement that high school matriculation exams include the stories of the kings, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return from Babylon. The emphasis has shifted to the stories of the patriarchs in the Book of Genesis. “The discourse is less historical, with a stress on ‘what does this mean to me? Why is this story significant for me?’” Walfish says.

The matriculation material no longer includes a comparison between the Bible and ancient Middle East myths such as “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” “How can one study the Flood in a critical way without learning that there are parallel flood stories from the same period?” Walfish asks, though she agrees there is some logic to the new approach.

“In the end you got a situation in which students knew about Enuma Elish from the Babylonian creation story and not who Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were. The simplest and most basic narrative has been adopted by the ministry, the one that’s the most relevant and meaningful to students.”

Focusing more on stories is also partly a result of students’ growing difficulty in understanding the language of the Bible. “Students have a hard time reading anyway, and the language of the Bible is off-putting to them,” Barbibay says. Matriculation exams now focus on understanding the text, not on rote learning, but a number of teachers admit that you can pass this exam without an in-depth grappling with the biblical text.

“You can study for the matriculation exam without reading a single word in the Bible,” another teacher adds. Another relates how many students have gotten used to reading chapter summaries in Wikipedia, with some schools making the texts easier by presenting them in contemporary language.

“For me, the whole essence of studying the Bible is grappling with the text,” Barbivay says. “I want the student to say that if there’s a word he’s not sure of, he’ll struggle with it so he can interpret it.”

Ido Barbibay, a Bible teacher at a Holon high school, October 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The political and ideological aspects of Bible studies have engaged educators from the start of Hebrew education in this country. In 1910, a founder of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, Ben-Zion Mossinson, called for the Bible to be placed at the center of the curriculum, departing from traditional methods that linked Bible verses to later writings, the Mishna and the Talmud.

“The Bible must present to pupils the fullness of our people’s life in our land, stirring in the hearts of little Hebrew children a fierce love for this life and a strong ambition to renew our people’s life here as it was in our past,” Mossinson wrote in an article.

“All teaching of the Bible should be geared to this goal,” he added. To this end, he believed, the role of the patriarchs and other leaders should be highlighted. The prophets should be presented not as God’s emissaries but as “national activists who dealt with national and social issues.”

Mossinson recommended comparing the prophets’ words to those of the Greek sages, incorporating into his curriculum elements of biblical criticism under which the Bible isn’t a holy book but one that should be analyzed like any other text.

Mossinson’s approach, however, drew plenty of criticism and opposition. “If we want to study biblical criticism, we can go to Göttingen and study with the help of Wellhausen, or with Zimmermann in Leipzig, or Delitzsch in Berlin, all renowned biblical scholars. In Jaffa one has to learn the real Bible according to the spirit of Judaism,” said the representative of the Mizrahi movement at a Zionist congress, Samuel Deiches. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook described the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium’s Bible curriculum as “uprooting the root of faith and extinguishing the spark of the holy fire in the heart of the students.”

During the British Mandate period from 1920 to 1948, the school system in the Jewish community was based on party lines. In the Labor movement’s school system “they taught the Bible without God; that is, not as a scared book,” Lammfromm says. “Since there wasn’t yet a state curriculum, teachers could do as they saw fit. The common thread in the various education systems was studying the Bible in its national aspects.”

After the state was established, new immigrants, many of them from North Africa, protested against the secular-socialist education their children were receiving in the transit camps. Religious-Zionist leaders were also against it.

“I cannot describe the situation in these camps as anything but a coercion of their conscience and an inquisition against the religion of Israel,” wrote David-Zvi Pinkas, a Knesset member representing the religious Mizrahi movement. “I cannot view it as anything but a cultural and religious murder of tribes of Israel.”

In 1950, a commission of inquiry that studied education in the transit camps noted many cases in which officials from the Education Ministry’s culture department did indeed work against religious values. The storm that the commission’s conclusions set off was among the catalysts for establishing the state school system that’s divided into secular and religious components.

Nowadays, the situation has reversed, at least as reflected in newspapers. The broader public’s concerns aren’t about harming religion but about the over-penetration of religious content into Bible and culture studies. The reason is partly the presence of many religious teachers in the secular school system, while in the religious system there are hardly any secular teachers, even less so in Jewish subjects.

Walfish, who in the past coordinated Bible studies in a secular high school in Jerusalem, agrees that this is a delicate topic. She says the most important thing isn’t the teachers’ beliefs but the training they’ve received. She says teachers who studied Bible at a university can still teach it critically, even if they see it as a sacred book. Walfish and other teachers who were interviewed for this article are graduates of Hebrew University’s Revivim program, which trains students in teaching Jewish-related subjects in the state school system.

Bible lessons in Tel Aviv, 1946.
Zoltan Kluger / GPO

The gap is narrowing

In mixed schools, where secular and religious students study together, special attention is given to how the Bible is taught. At the Keshet school in Jerusalem, students get to know both secular and religious teachers throughout their three years there. According to Itamar Nechama, a Bible teacher at the Keshet school in Mazkeret Batya, the objective is “to allow them to become acquainted with different approaches of learning.” Thus, when he recently taught the Creation stories to 10th-graders, a debate raged in class about divine creation versus science and how these two narratives can be reconciled.

Some students disagree that there’s a need to study the Bible. Zonis, the teacher in Tel Aviv,  says that this was his opinion when he was in high school. “I grew up in a secular home that  was against religious politics,” he says. “As a child I couldn’t distinguish between things. I connected the ‘anti’ approach to anything I perceived as Jewish. It sounds silly, but that was the prevailing view in Israel then.”

Bible classes at his school didn’t change his approach. “I have no idea what I learned there,” he says. “Other than the concept of a Jewish slave, I don’t remember what we learned.”

Zonis joined Hebrew University’s Revivim program aiming to become a history teacher, but a few Bible courses changed his mind.

“I felt that my eyes were being opened with each class, that I was being told about what was behind every story,” he says. He now teaches Bible, “a subject in which the teacher isn’t the one with all the knowledge. You read the verses together, and things are open to interpretation. You can think together and ask questions, bringing up different points.”

Blumenthal Gordon has encountered similar opposition among her students. “I had students who didn’t want to study the Bible, based on the argument that it was a religious text that wasn’t appropriate for them,” she says. “I told them: Great, your role is to be the critics of this class. Every time there’s something that bothers you in the text or that sounds illogical, your role is to say so.”

Regarding the contradictions between traditional analysis and biblical criticism, she says: “Even traditional-Jewish commentators sometimes note contradictions between various verses. The sages raise problems that appear in the text. Suddenly the gap between religious and secular interpretations diminishes, and that helps ease students’ objections, whether they’re religious or secular.”

Despite the difficulties in studying the Bible, all the teachers Haaretz spoke with were enthusiastic about the subject, saying it was important to them that their students loved the endeavor.

“You can make good material out of any text,” Zonis says. Blumenthal Gordon notes that many portions of the curriculum address intense human emotions such as love and envy, not to mention conspiracy and wars. “They watch ‘Game of Thrones,’” she says. “The Bible is no less interesting.”