The Failure Behind the Success

Bible is generally considered one of the most boring subjects taught. Yet some teachers get their students to love it. What is their secret? This week, Israeli students took the bagrut (matriculation) exam in Bible. Judging by the statistics of the last few years, about 85 percent will pass it successfully. Everyone agrees that this is an impressive achievement. If grades on the bagrut are the criterion, then the Bible program is a success.

But by any other criterion, Bible teaching is a resounding failure. Bible is considered one of the most boring subjects, and the university Bible departments are largely empty of students (barring a few exceptions such as Hebrew University's Revivim project, which grants its students both prestige and enticing scholarships).

Admittedly, the masses are not knocking at the doors of other departments in the humanities, either, but the situation in Bible departments is particularly bad. In the past, Bible was one of the glories of Israeli academia. As things look today, however, in a generation or two, Israel will not have any Bible researchers left.

It is not easy for me to point an accusing finger at the education system. I myself am a Bible teacher. For many years, I have taught in various high schools, so I know from first-hand experience how tiring it is to stand for hours on end in front of dozens of lively boys and girls; how difficult it is to excite them; how exhausting a teacher's work is, because it never ends - there is always another pile of exams to check and another lesson to prepare; and how degrading the paycheck one receives at the end of the month is. Nevertheless, I do not agree that the failure to teach Bible is preordained. All of us occasionally run into exceptional teachers who manage to turn their pupils into enthusiastic Bible fans and prove it could all be done differently.

The Rabin exception

I met two such teachers on Sunday at the Rabin high school in Kfar Sava. They are named Eliav and Regev, and their pupils love the Bible.

I asked them what the secret was and they modestly responded that the success was not just their own: The school places a special emphasis on Bible and even won a prize for this. In a typical high school, few pupils choose to study Bible beyond the required minimum, but at Rabin, more than 20 students opted to do the maximum this year and are taking the five-unit bagrut in Bible.

When I heard that, I exploded with jealousy. My daughter Anat, who is in tenth grade in the nearby Katznelson high school, has been blessed with an excellent Bible teacher and very much wanted to extend her Bible studies, but the school was not up to the task. You do not have to be a great expert on the Israeli school system to understand that Katznelson, which is an excellent high school with good, dedicated teachers, reflects the norm, while Rabin is the exception.

I left the teachers' room at Rabin and went to talk to a small, select group of pupils to try, with their help, to discover the secret of successful Bible teaching. I asked them what their attitude toward this subject had been in the past relative to other subjects and how they see it today. Almost all of them said that in elementary school and junior high, most Bible classes were very boring. But over the past two years, since they have fallen into Eliav's and Regev's hands, the Bible has become the subject they love most. Some of them even declared the unbelievable - that they are going to study Bible in university.

We all know that everything begins and ends with the teachers. Teachers who love the Bible and love to teach will succeed in exciting their pupils and getting them to love the subject. But this simple and logical conclusion does not satisfy me. If it all depends on the teachers, why do our students find the Bible more boring that most other subjects? After all, the quality of other teachers differs little from that of the Bible teachers.

I asked the students to explain to me what, exactly, had made them feel that Bible lessons were so boring. At first, they tended to attribute the problem to the difficulties of Biblical Hebrew, but later, they acknowledged that they were bored even when the subject matter was easy and the words were simple and clear.

It then emerged that in the past, their Bible lessons were limited to providing one single explanation, the simplest one possible, for each word and verse. Now, however, the literal explanation is just a point of departure for discussion, for a multiplicity of ideas and readings.

One student said admiringly, "Eliav is not afraid." Not afraid of what? I wondered. And the students answered almost in unison: Of anything. In his lessons, it is permissible to say whatever we want about the Bible, about the Jewish people, even about God. In the past, our teachers always justified what was written in the Bible, and when we dared to criticize or say something was illogical, they immediately hurried to find excuses. Now, however, they encourage us to express our opinions openly and turn every topic into a fascinating discussion.

"And what about the curriculum?" I asked. After all, there is material they must cover. They laughed and recalled how frightened they were at the beginning of the year, when they walked out of class with empty notebooks and looked jealously at the detailed summaries that friends in other classes had received. They were sure they would fail the bagrut, because they were studying with teachers who presented various views instead of making do with one simple explanation, and who discussed almost every subject instead of dictating the material. But now, having completed the bagrut, they proudly described how they prepared for it with almost no outside help; they just opened the Bible and read it for pleasure - whereas their friends could not manage without summaries and reference books.

What they didn't say

I asked my students at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, who study Bible as an elective, why they chose this course even though they remembered Bible as a boring subject. I received various answers, but most of the students cited the fact that they are older, which enables them to understand the Bible in a deeper, more complex way and not just put up with the simplistic, superficial explanations they received in school. But no student mentioned the Bible's importance in our life. No student said the Bible was the source of our identity and culture. No student said he wanted to study the Bible because it is a work that relates to our lives, here and now.

When I expressed surprise over what they did not say, there was silence. Why are you surprised, they finally asked. In all the years we studied it, they always gave us the message that the Bible is not connected to our lives, that is far from our world and does not belong to our culture. They taught us that the Bible belongs to religious people, not to us; that it is theirs, not ours.

I must admit that what I heard strengthened my conviction that the main problem with Bible studies in the secular schools is the curriculum. On paper, the program has fine, lofty goals, but fear of expressing personal ideas or of handling the text in a nonacademic fashion castrates the ability to teach and learn. The teacher is not expected to excitedly tell the story of Jacob and Rachel, wipe a tear when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers or criticize God's attitude toward Moses. The bagrut forces teachers to devote their time to chiastic parallelism, to who said what to whom, to comparing versions and dividing each chapter into topics. It denies them the opportunity to grapple with the different interpretations and voices that are the most interesting and thought-provoking part of Bible study.

Anyone who disagrees with me is invited to read this week's two-unit test. Most readers would find it difficult to answer even the easy questions, because boredom would overcome them. Time and again, one must jot down a fixed number of themes mentioned in the photocopied excerpt, and every so often, for the sake of variety, repeated roots or keywords as well. Sometimes the interpretations of important Bible scholars, such as Yair Zokovitch and Rimon Kasher, are mentioned, but they are not contrasted in a provocative manner with other interpretations. The challenging style of learning - the one that our sages of blessed memory defined so colorfully in the saying "there are 70 faces to the Torah" - does not exist in the Bible matriculation tests. No question reveals the Bible's many voices to the students, nor does any expose them to the possibility of reading it in different ways, deliberating between contradictory approaches or expressing personal opinions.

I assume the test was prepared in this manner out of consideration for the examiners, because it is difficult to check a test that requires a thoughtful reading and complex explanations. And perhaps the dry bagrut also reflects the deep confusion that the secular education system feels toward the Bible. What can you do with this work? It is important, but so much of it does not belong to our world. We have to treat it with great reverence, but between us, how can you believe everything that is written there? And so, instead of grappling courageously and seeking creative solutions that would turn the Bible into an extant, significant factor in our children's lives, we make do with comparing versions and analyzing the roots of words.

Most Bible teachers want their pupils to succeed and put a lot of effort into their work. Therefore, precisely because they are devoted and responsible teachers, they carefully read the matriculation tests, year after year, and learn from them how they must teach. Sometimes courageous teachers dare to bypass the test and lead their students into a learning experience that will not be rewarded on their matriculation certificate, but most teachers are afraid to do that, and one can understand them. They know their success is measured by the percentage of students who pass the bagrut - and indeed, most of the pupils who took the test this week will pass it. But behind this success hides one of the education system's most stinging failures. And because of it, we are losing our most important cultural asset.

Yochi Brandes, born in Haifa in 1959, comes from a Hasidic background and earned an MA from the Shechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and derives much of her inspiration from the Bible and rabbinic literature. Brandes' first novel, "Gmar Tov," was published in 1997. Her sixth and latest novel, "Melachim Gimel" ("Kings III"), was published in 2008 and will appear in English in about six months.