Prayer Is an Essential Part of Farming, Israeli Science Textbook Says

The biochemist behind the required first-grade textbook says the Education Ministry asked her to augment the science with Jewish religious content

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying in a wheat field in Israel.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Sarah?

Yes.

Dr. Sarah Kliachko?

Yes.

Hello, Nir Gontarz from Haaretz here.

I know your column very well. How is it that you’re calling me?

I’m calling you with a question.

Yes.

You wrote “Science Journey Alef,” the science textbook for the first grade [that was written in 2011, and which parents have been asked to buy this year].

Correct.

A page from the first-grade science book that shows a farmer plowing, planting seeds and praying.

In the chapter, “What a farmer does in the fall,” you say that what a farmer does is to pray, and then you provide the prayer for rain. I don’t understand the connection between a science book and this prayer. I myself live in a moshav [cooperative village], I breed animals and vegetables occasionally. I don’t pray. Maybe something scientific is out of whack in me.

No, no, you – Look, I don’t have the book in front of me. I’m not at home.

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No problem, I’ll read it to you: “What does the farmer do in the fall? Plows the field, sows seeds and at the end of Sukkot, prays for rain and asks, ‘Bestow dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth.’” That’s it? That’s what a farmer does? There’s no fertilizer, no sprinklers, no hothouses, no science? Plows, seeds and prays? This is science?

So, what I want to tell you here, this tendency, regrettably, has become stronger now. When we were asked to write these books, we were always asked to provide quotations from the Scriptures, from the Bible.

Who requested that religion be introduced into science books for the first grade?

It was a request of the Ministry of Education to introduce certain aspects. After all, this is the first grade, in second grade they start learning Torah, and the idea is for them to become familiar with customs. Interesting I was asked today about the book for the second grade, too.

What have you put into the second-grade book?

The same thing. There are references from the Torah. According to age.

Very interesting. Until now, as far as I understand, the Education Ministry denied that there was a directive to introduce such content into textbooks. But never mind that. You have put it into the heads of children that praying to God – and I don’t know who that is – is part of caring for agricultural crops. You didn’t say that this was the accepted way in biblical times. You assert that this is the modus operandi of Israeli farmers today. You assert that at Sukkot, all the farmers pray. How is that related to science?

It’s not related. Other than that the farmers are dependent on the mercy of Heaven for water – whether it rains or not. That’s what’s here. If you irrigate, you irrigate; if not...

What’s the mercy of Heaven? What mercy? I don’t get it. This is science? The majority irrigate, and those who don’t are dependent on the forces of nature.

You can see it as the forces of nature. In Jewish tradition it’s –

Did you write a book about Jewish tradition or a science book?

Look, I am a totally secular person. I don’t "flow" with all the craziness that’s going on with religious indoctrination, okay? Books are now being published for each [educational] stream. When we first published these books, they were also aimed at the state-religious [public]. The ultra-Orthodox stream also used these books, with all kinds of reservations. Today, when things have become more extreme, there’s no choice: Books will be developed for every stream. It’s clear that there is nothing scientific in it, other than the fact that water is needed for growth.

What’s your doctorate in?

Biochemistry. Completely scientific.

This is an amazing conversation. If you had told me that you’d written the prayer thing because of your belief, that would be fine. But you are a secular scientist who has acceded to a whim of the Education Ministry.

They said: Put in elements of tradition and Torah and the like. That’s something we were asked to integrate into the books.

What you wrote is fake science. Certain farmers, who are certainly religious, pray to that God, but to describe prayer sweepingly as part of the agenda of Israeli farmers is an invention. You have asserted it as a scientific fact that what’s done after Sukkot is to pray. You invented that.

There are people for whom that’s true and others for whom it isn’t.

You didn’t qualify it. You asserted it as a fact in a scientific textbook. You invented it.

It’s part of Jewish culture.

You wrote a science book!

You can say: Don’t mix science with –

I told you, I grow vegetables occasionally in the moshav. I do not pray to God. According to your science book, I am not behaving properly scientifically.

You don’t pray. Some people do. It’s not a scientific matter. Of course it’s not a scientific fact. If that’s what you mean, you’re perfectly right. I accept your comment. We are currently rewriting the book.

And you’ll omit all this and turn the book from folklore into science?

We will have to consider all the points you’ve raised. We’ll see how to do it more clearly. The curriculum has simply changed.

Just a minute. The Education Ministry, which previously asked you to introduce that content, is now asking you to remove it?

It’s not requesting its removal. On the contrary. It’s intensifying these things. We have to see how it will fit in, or say that this is a book for the secular public only. The previous one was for a mixed population.

To your credit, I will say that you’re not being evasive and you’re answering all my questions. But the bottom line is that you introduced a nonexistent agricultural fact into a science book. Add that to the resume.

Yes, okay.

Thanks.

Thank you.