I’m going to practise what I preach: I’m always complaining
(only to myself, usually) about learned articles with unnecessarily
long words and esoteric references written for serving teachers;
because after a long teaching day, a meeting or two, a large helping
of marking, a few hundred turns at the Banda, a lesson preparation,
audio-visual aiding and the odd extra-curricular activity, I find
even the Beano a bit too intellectually demanding. So I’m going
to be simple and direct.
Judaism is There
Shap-ers probably need relatively little persuasion to teach
a World Faiths syllabus and it does seem that teachers in maintained
institutions at least are increasingly venturing into the dark
unknown; but I never cease to be amazed by the number of teachers
who exclude Judaism from such a programme. This is sometimes because
they feel they’ve covered it under Old Testament and, anxious
to be objective, fair and balanced, they don’t want to allocate
more time-table space to Jewish matters than they might deserve.
Or possibly they see World Faiths as a concession to immigrants
in the school or the wider society: by this yardstick, Jews wouldn’t
qualify for admission to the curriculum.
The OT-only approach tends to relegate Jewish beliefs and behaviour
to the dim and distant past (I once saw a secondary pupil’s drawing
of Rebecca (I think) entitled A Jewish Lady: to reconcile this
with such Jewish ladies as Golda Meir or Barbra Streisand would
require excruciating cognitive conflict!). Given that most R.E.
teachers are Christian (or, at any rate, post-Christian), it is
understandably very tempting to present Judaism as supplanted
by the more universal religion of Christianity. But Judaism is
universal in its ability to adapt to varied cultures and to accept,
but not solicit, converts . . . and then there is the sheer fact
of continuing Jewish survival. You see, it’s impossible to do
an objective, fair and balanced job on Judaism if you personally
hold to a ‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the
New revealed’ view.
Few of the Jews you or your kids are likely to bump into in your
local supermarket or kosher butcher are themselves immigrants.
The half a million British Jews as such go unnoticed, as it were,
because they’re usually established in housing and employment
and don’t seem to be in any crippling social need; but they’re
there just the same.
On the positive side, it seems to me that no person can be considered
educated unless they are aware of Jewish thought and culture as
a dynamic, living presence in today’s world: not just so that
they will understand better the Jewishness of Jesus, or the Judaeo
bit of Judaeo-Christian civilisation or the religious thrust of
Zionism; but so that they might steal for themselves some Jewish
strength. Like Everest, Zion asks to be climbed — because it’s
there . . .
You may want to devote a block of time to a course on Judaism
or involve Jewish things in a thematic scheme, or both. Whatever
happens, if you’re also teaching New Testament, which I dearly
hope you still are (I know one secondary R.E. teacher who manages
a five-year syllabus without mentioning Jesus once!), you’re almost
certain to run into the problem of anti-semitism. It is not a
theological problem for Jews although its social and political
consequences have been painful, but it does pose difficulties
for Christians. I personally prefer to use the block approach
mainly and initially elicit kids’ preconceived ideas about Jews:
references to big noses, miserliness and Nazis are pretty predictable
but they are inevitably accompanied by such responses as ‘Jews
killed Jesus’; even once, ‘Jews hated God’! And this is where
it’s all at! Judaism on its own is relatively straightforward;
NT on its own is relatively straightforward. Together — fireworks!
Perhaps I’m presuming too much, but I am presuming that you want
to present Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . in a positive and, if critical,
constructively, appreciatively critical, way. At the very least,
not say about them things are not true. I think we have to two-step
this: we have to sort out our own attitude to, say, the Pharisees
or the trials of Jesus or the parable of the vineyard, and then
decide how much of that we can feed to our pupils — and in what
way — depending on their stage of intellectual and spiritual development.
Most primary teachers would probably not feel they could open
up these sorts of issues to any good effect (but that still leaves
masses of NT that’s free of vexing historical and exegetical questions),
but I can see no reason why even lower secondary pupils should
not be introduced to some simple Biblical criticism as part of
their NT study. I can think of other grounds for it anyway. To
lay my cards on the table, the Christian teacher has a choice:
you can continue to teach Gospel truth because your faith requires
of you a fundamentalist approach. I would defend your right to
be yourself but you must know what price you are paying and what
it is costing others. Or you can take risks with NT historicity
and develop in yourself and your pupils some intelligent awareness
of the origins of Jewish- Christian relations and perhaps, perhaps
make some contribution to increased understanding, harmony and
The Medium is the Message
One of the saddest things to me abut phenomenological, broad-based
approaches is the incredible dullness of style. Teachers who would
never dream of using chalk-and-talk all the time in Biblical lessons
seem to see nothing wrong with reading from a text-book or dictating
notes in the area of World Faiths. This may well be because of
the time involved in preparing oneself mentally and materially
for new stuff and it does take a while to feel confident with
a new curriculum. But we are now bar/bat mitzvah and I would like
us to carry over more of the exciting, imaginative and emotionally
involving methods from new Biblical studies.
Just because we’re not doing a comparative course, it doesn’t
mean we have to teach all religions in the same way. Why must
we be slaves to the standard pattern (life of the founder — historical
development — geographical spread — main beliefs — worship and
ritual — customs, etc) when this may not be true to every religious
system we want to explore and may not allow its essential features,
which transcend this scheme, to shine through? Why not decide
which elements we want to include and arrange them with a fluency
they have in reality even if this defies our artificial logic?
Why not choose a central concept (like self for Buddhists . .
. home for Jews . . .) and organise around it?
It’s perhaps a truism to say that we all learn from the how as
well as from the what. So teach Islam in a Muslim way. Teach Judaism
in a Jewish way. There’s no actual Hebrew word for religion. Use
songs, blessings, discussion, ritual actions, stories, food and
lots of humour because these are how Jews communicate. Be Jewish
about your Judaism course.
Jewish Survival Kit
Turning the classroom into a Jewish community for at least some
lessons (of course formal teaching has its value) can take several
forms: home on Shabat or Yom Tov; a yeshiva debating vociferously
in pairs or small groups some burning issue of the day; an immigrant
absorption centre in Israel; if you’re brave, a bet din considering
a candidate for conversion, adoption, divorce; a synagogue/kibbutz
activities committee; if no one feels they’re being got at, a
short service such as shachrit; or more open-endedly, an imaginary
huddle of Jews in, say, Somerset who want to meet for prayer,
study and society and are considering their priorities. The point
is that these things are not only informative, challenging and
useful fun but they are also things that Jews do.
We like to have a Friday evening meal together (even if our lesson
has to be on a Monday morning). We light candles, we make kiddush,
we eat hallah and other goodies, we sing zemirot, we sometimes
even talk about what the weekly Torah portion means to us. For
40 minutes we are as Jewish as is humanly possible. And we remember
it for always (‘I’d never thought of candles like that before’;
‘Ribena will never be the same again, Ms.!’). Because there are
no Jewish sacraments, this has the added advantage of not treading
on anyone’s doctrinal or ritual toes. It does need thoughtful
preparation and several items of Jewish junk: if you can’t beg,
borrow or improvise these, work on specialists among your colleagues.
Persuade the Home Economist to show the young how to bake hallot
(or other specialities) and to sew a cover for them; or the Metalwork
teacher to fashion a kiddush cup (or seder plate or whatever);
or the Music department to teach them melodies. The degree of
cooperation possible with another depart- ment will depend on
the extent to which these services rendered can employ specific
skills that they would want to train anyway. My school’s Art department
at the moment is busy demonstrating how to make mock stained glass
windows (out of coloured tissue paper or with felt tips on overhead
transparencies) which will employ menorahs, vines and the like,
suitable for a synagogue.
You can buy ready-made Jewish kits but the ones I’ve seen have
been expensive to buy and cheap to look at. Home-made ones seem
more authentic and dignified. One of our most loved articles is
a well-prayed-in tallit that had been left in a London synagogue
before living memory and which they were happy to turn over to
us for demonstration purposes. It’s a privilege to handle because
it’s obviously been through such a lot.
By all means make a model of a synagogue but try to go to a service
in one, geography permitting. I find it’s better if the monsters
can go without me, if they’re not too shy: they certainly benefit
more without me around. The first time I took some third years
to a Reform shul, I learned my lesson well. So indoctrinated was
I with my own fear of indoctrination, it obviously didn’t occur
to me that they might actually want to get anything out of it.
After the service, they attacked me with righteous indignation:
‘It was brill, Ms., but you never told us we wouldn’t be able
to sing . . .‘ The songs were in Hebrew and they could only la
la. So now they take along transliterations and join in off-key.
If you can, celebrate one of the annual festivals, whichever
happens at your course’s season. If there’s enough time and energy,
an individual group project on an aspect that particularly interests
them is well worth the anguish it’ll cause you.
Suffering Servant of R.E.
There are experiences of another kind: I don’t want you to think
for one moment that this is all rewards and no punishments. As
if it didn’t hurt enough to do R.E. at all, doing Judaism Jewishly
is a sure recipe for suffering. Not everything can be enacted
joyously and there are tricky, sophisticated questions that deserve
straight answers: What’s wrong with pork? Do Jews believe in heaven?
Why all the fuss abut a scroll? What’s that prayer all about?
What are those funny head-boxes for? Why did Hitler hate them?
Do all Jews want to live in Israel? By trial and error, my monsters
and I have found a few ways of sorting some of these out. Books
don’t always help so we’ve sometimes looked within ourselves for
There’s nothing wrong with pork until we examine our own food
taboos and see that kashrut is a formula which can be applied
in any gastronomic situation (I often start by describing the
fried cat and honeyed ants I’d had for breakfast with a cup of
daisy tea, and waiting for the sounds of ‘Ugh!’) If you read the
Kaddish and say it’s a special prayer — What’s the occasion? —
I bet they don’t guess death because there are no references to
it and it seems so full of praise: quite a helpful starting-point
for a discussion on the Jewish attitude to death and the afterlife.
Writing love stories and poems about the eternal triangle of God-Torah-Israel
gives considerable insight into the role of the scroll. The Ten
Sayings (slightly different from the Christian version of the
Ten Commandments) or the Shema or indeed any Jewish prayer are
interesting to break into bits: if everyone draws their understanding
of one bit and if these are mounted together, you get a sharing
of minds that is truly a collective discovery. I myself have never
managed to channel prejudice role play successfully, but there
is a great deal of literature about the persecution of Jews —
as well as Zionism — much of which is suitable for children and
teenagers. Prevail upon your school librarian and English department.
When in despair, don’t! Rabbis can be wonderful but they do tend
to hang out in synagogues and if there isn’t one within shouting
distance (nor a University Jewish Society) and no Jew in your
school to wheel in at appropriate moments, and you don’t want
to write or phone for help (to the Board of Deputies, the Jewish
Education Bureau, the Jewish National Fund . . .); well, then,
go ahead — despair! But really, it isn’t very Jewish!
You are not able to complete the task. Neither are you free
to refrain from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
And if not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)