Israel's Education Ministry Bans Religion Workbooks to Focus Learning on Biblical Text

Some scholars say workbooks 'flatten the biblical text' and banning them will teach students how to analyze and understand biblical stories on a deeper level

ILLUSTRATIVE: A class on the bible in Tel Aviv, 2013.
ניר קידר

The Education Ministry has decided to ban workbooks and textbooks from Bible classes in state secular schools, requiring students to learn strictly from the original biblical text.

Workbooks and textbooks are mainly used in elementary schools, but sometimes also in middle school and even high schools.

Critics of these books, including some members of the ministry’s advisory committee on Bible studies, believe they deprive the material of depth, serve as a crutch for teachers and create a barrier between students and the biblical text. But the books’ proponents fear that teachers won’t know how to deal with the complex biblical text without these aids.

Dr. Shirly Natan-Yulzary, a lecturer in Bible at both the Beit Berl College and the Gordon College of Education in Haifa, welcomed the ministry’s decision, saying the books “flatten Bible classes.” Instead of creating a high-quality lesson focused on one or two issues in the text, she explained, many teachers have their students spend the entire class answering workbook questions.

Moreover, she said, teachers have become “prisoners of these workbooks, because the parents get angry if the workbooks they paid for aren’t used.”

The books will remain in libraries, so teachers can still consult them if necessary, she noted. “But this move will force them to understand how to really teach Bible.”

The change will be implemented gradually over the course of next year. Starting in September 2019, younger students will study the biblical text only from a special large-print edition, while grades four and up will use a regular Bible.

All the educators Haaretz spoke with agreed that students should be exposed to the biblical text from a young age, especially since today, many reach high school without the tools to read and analyze it.

But many also questioned whether teachers would be capable of teaching this complex text without workbooks. The problem looms especially large for elementary school teachers, who usually haven’t been trained to teach Bible and often haven’t ever studied it themselves, they said.

The ministry responded that it will start offering training sessions for teachers after the Pesach holiday, and will also build a website with suggested lesson plans, videos and other teaching aids. It added that the new plan was still being finalized.

Dr. Ronit Shiran, a middle-school Bible teacher from Emek Hefer, said the plan will stand or fall on the quality of training the ministry offers, noting that an unprepared teacher “can ruin a subject.”

Another issue is that the absence of workbooks means the content of Bible classes is liable to vary widely from school to school. But Natan-Yulzary views this as a plus.

“You can teach the same chapter of the Bible 10 times and each time it will be different,” she said. “Children in Modi’in and Dimona will know the basics and the story’s main plot lines, but one class will teach the creation story as climaxing in Shabbat, while in another, the teacher will focus on the creation under man, and this will be his supreme value.”