Opinion

Culture, Not Religious Indoctrination

Jewish identity is composed of literary, scientific and philosophical works, and it's shared by both secular and religious Jews — a cultural resource that’s worth drawing from

Gil Eliyahu

The teaching of Judaism in the state secular schools has been the subject of screeching headlines, but the reader is only getting a partial picture. The uproar is about a choice among three different approaches to teaching this subject.

The first calls for teaching in the spirit of Orthodoxy, interpretations that deviate slightly from this spirit. Such teaching is in the hands of outside NGOs identified with the Orthodox community. The second approach, that of the group the Secular Forum, holds that Jewish studies shouldn’t have a higher status than general knowledge in the state secular system.

The third, well-established approach is based on the Education Ministry policy that sees Judaism’s glory in the multiplicity of voices and interpretative tradition of “The Torah Has 70 Faces” — pluralistic study that lets every group express its uniqueness and identity.

The third approach was the one recommended by the Shenhar Committee already in the 1990s. The committee thereby helped establish the concept of pluralism in teaching Jewish sources in a multicultural society. This concept was bolstered when then-Education Minister Shay Piron formed a committee headed by Prof. Ron Margolin, along with thinkers and education experts not members of the Orthodox system. It was another effort to strengthen the foundations of Jewish studies in the state secular system.

The Secular’s Forum initiative against the Jewish-Israeli culture curriculum aims to keep students in the secular schools away from many of the Jewish sources. The forum and those who favor the Orthodox approach reflect both poles of Israeli extremism: either Jewish education based on views close to Orthodoxy, or an education without any exposure to Judaism’s sources and symbols.

The goal of any learning is to stoke students’ curiosity and develop their critical thinking. Therefore, the forum’s claim that the students are exposed to a huge number of religious customs foreign to a secular student is a rejection of an educational principle. Teaching content that relates to Jewish tradition is a far cry from a process of religious indoctrination.

The forum’s recommendation is tantamount to ignoring our roots. Isn’t the Hebrew language and culture rooted in the language of the Bible? Doesn’t a thorough familiarity with the Jewish sources enrich the language and bring us closer to our roots? Could it be said that leftist Shulamit Aloni, who was very knowledgeable of Jewish sources, was a victim of religious indoctrination?

Looking up to the sky in hopes the crop will succeed isn’t only an Orthodox custom. Farmers have always prayed to the heavens for rain. Can we say of author Meir Shalev, who is also extremely knowledgeable of Jewish sources, that he has undergone religious indoctrination because he has written in his new book, “Even I, whose relationship with God is not as good as Honi’s, sometimes pray for rain”?

Jewish identity doesn’t require a belief in God, because it's a shared historical memory. This memory is composed of literary, scientific and philosophical works, and it's shared by both secular and religious Jews — a cultural resource that’s worth drawing from. The religious community doesn’t have a monopoly on the interpretation of this culture. The fear of religious coercion is understandable and justified. Religious coercion should be prevented and the spirit of Orthodoxy should be kept away from the life of secular schools.

The parents who send their children to these schools should support their exposure to Jewish culture and its symbols, while rejecting education characterized by religious indoctrination. They should demand to exercise their right, enshrined in the State Education Law, to help choose the study material.

The Education Ministry must promote the recommendations of the Shenhar and Margolin committees, and stand as a fortified wall against the erosion of pluralistic Jewish education, while insisting that Judaism be taught by educators from the central stream of state secular education, rather than by proponents of Orthodoxy to whom the subject is outsourced in the state schools.

Woe to us if the fear of religious coercion leads to relinquishing the cultural treasures of Jewish wisdom. We must not nurture a generation that is unfamiliar with its Jewish roots.

Naama Tsabar Ben Yehoshua is a professor emerita at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, and head of the Jewish culture program at Achva Academic College.