04 Jul How do we teach pupils to be religiously literate about Judaism?
Charlotte Vardy writes for #BlogSyncRE…
Two weeks ago I finished writing Bible Matters, the third in our series of books for SCM Press, then last week I went to the Porta Fidei conference in Carlisle. The keynote lecture was given by Dr Adrian Pabst of the University of Kent and, while listening, some thoughts started to gel in my mind which relate to the title of this #BlogSyncRE.
In terms of Judaism, school RE textbooks typically summarize the story of the Israelites, explain the features of synagogue-worship and practice in the home and swiftly move on to highly-illustrated pages on Anti-Semitism, Anne Frank and the Shoah… in my experience they do little to explain why people would stick to their religion on pain of death, or why others would kill them for doing so! It can be very difficult for young people to understand either why what comes across as a rich and humane religion has been victim to millenia of persecution or what is really at stake in being Jewish and why it really matters, why Rabbis bothered to chalk the Seder on boards at Auschwitz and why buttons really have to remain on the ground there. Although upsetting, it is easy to see how two English public-schoolboys might have ended up in a Polish police cell; after years of standard RE they probably knew the name of everything but the value of nothing to do with Judaism.
As I see it, Religious literacy is not just memorizing a list of facts (whether endorsed by the DfE or otherwise) and the sort of shallow tolerance that might or might not engender. Success for RE is not just training children not to arrange compulsory events for Jewish colleagues on a Friday evening or helping them to work out not to put smoky bacon Pringles in a supermarket Ramadan promotion. Real Religious Literacy is much more to do with appreciating the significance of religion, developing a proper respect, becoming open to religion as a rich source of wisdom – not just a quaint relic or as Hume might have put it, a characteristic of “ignorant and barbarous people” which developed Westerners should become familiar with in case of Gap Years or Middle Eastern conflicts! In this sense I have long wondered whether the RE textbook approach does rather more harm than good in seeming to reduce religions to diets and dress-codes without any real context.
The textbooks suggest that the cause of persecution has something to do with Jewish laws: laws about religious inheritance through the mother, about diet, about resting on Shabbat which make it difficult for Jewish people to assimilate. Yet this ignores the fact that other religions have similar laws; Muslims practice Halal and circumcision and must pray five times every day, not just on the Sabbath. Other religions try to publicize their beliefs, criticize others and aim to convert, whereas Jews rarely do. Anti-Semitism predates the dubious racial theories trotted out by the Nazis and these can hardly explain widespread Anti-Jewish sentiments in majority Semitic areas of the Middle East anyway. Anti-Semitism affects atheists as much as Christians and Muslims, so there is no complete explanation in the relationship between Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed and Jewish people. The cause of persecution must be much deeper and go beyond the phenomena of Judaism.
While listening to Adrian Pabst’s lecture it occurred to me that in order to understand Judaism – or in some sense other religions – people need to understand much more of the philosophical context from which its phenomena arise than RE courses usually deal with.
Following unconsciously in the footsteps of Dilthey, Husserl and Smart, as RE Teachers we can just teach religions phenomenologically, showing photographs or artifacts and providing children with the vocabulary to describe Judaism in terms of Mezuzah, Kippah, Bar Mitvah and Shofar, Matzoh, Cantor, Mishnah and Shabbat… or we can try to go beyond that and provide them with a new perspective on culture and reality itself. Religions are indeed language-games, expressions of particular forms of life, but they are also approaches to living in the Truth. It must be right that RE lessons which aim to improve religious literacy explore BOTH the phenomena of religion AND the context out of which those phenomena arise.
The Enlightenment still casts a shadow over the way we think in the Western world.
- Many people still assume a liberal, Enlightenment model of truth and knowledge; things are absolutely true and can be known if and only if they correspond with an external, universal state of affairs which can usually be empirically verified in one way or another.
- Some people are influenced by a post-Enlightenment model of truth and knowledge; there is no such thing as Truth or objective knowledge, the meaning of claims depend on the extent to which they cohere with other claims and is always relative to culture and subject to change.
Either way man is the measure of all things.
Both the Enlightenment world-view and the post-Enlightenment world-view are rooted in Greek Philosophy – truly as AN Whitehead quipped, all Western Philosophy is footnotes to Plato and Aristotle – and both world-views have significant weaknesses.
- The Enlightenment world-view tends towards epistemological naivete and shallow materialism, ignoring many and various assumptions, influences and limitations that colour so-called objective claims and equating what is true with what is easy to measure.
- The post-Enlightenment world-view tends towards nihilism. Culture is an elusive concept; what is said to be relative to culture soon becomes relative to the individual and soon becomes arbitrary and meaningless. Without universal truth or certain knowledge we are in water-world and the way forward is obscured.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to recognize these weaknesses, let alone start to remedy them, without being aware of one’s own perspective and the existence of alternative ways of looking at reality, outside the Greek / Western tradition.
Last Summer, as part of my research for Bible Matters, I picked up “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” by Jewish scholar Yoram Hazony. Hazony makes a convincing case for Hebrew Scripture and Judaism offering just the sort of alternative world-view which could facilitate deep and critical philosophical reflection within and on the Western tradition. As he explains, Truth in the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism is what endures; G-d is LORD of all faithfulness, a veritable god of Truth, el emet. By contrast with either Western world-view, the Jewish world-view sees truth and knowledge as absolute and universal BUT in no way separate from human beings, either as individuals or communities.
For Jews Torah is not just custom and nor is it arbitrary revelation, its witness to Truth is borne out by its endurance from generation to generation and its immense influence – even on cultures and religions that try to disown it and destroy all evidence of it. The moral teaching of the Scriptures is not, as Christians are trained to think, limited to the direct instruction in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The dominant Jewish tradition is not that of blinkered, dogmatic obedience to legalistic minutiae. The people of Israel are well named after Jacob, who wrestled with God! As Hazony observes, the History of Israel is a huge exercise in moral philosophy. Through many centuries Jewish people have discussed, compared, contrasted and applied the examples of Biblical characters and have learned about virtue and vice from their examples. In Hebrew Scripture no single character is held up as a paragon of virtue; everybody, every situation and every action is complicated, flawed and contains far more than 50 shades of grey (take that how you will). In a sense Judaism pioneered Virtue Ethics; Jewish scholars realized the necessity of balancing a long-term character-focus with shorter term laws and the opportunity to explore and debate them in open court many centuries ago.
Hazony also explores the development of the Enlightenment world-view, how it came to dominate Christianity (and has all-but destroyed it), how it assimilated and perpetuated vicious Anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs and how it continues to dominate the Western world today, either in its pure form or in the shape of post-Enlightenment reactions to it. As the Radically Orthodox James Smith noted back in 2004 “The news of modernity’s death has been greatly exaggerated. The Enlightenment project lives on in the notion of “the secular”…“
Biblical Criticism resulted from the application of the Enlightenment model of truth to Religion; the Truth of religion must correspond with an actual state of affairs which can be verified i.e. particular events in space and time and “authentic” records of them. More recently, post-modern developments in Biblical Interpretation and phenomenological Religious Studies resulted from the application of the post-Enlightenment model of truth to Religion. In essence – and to be brutal – for the Postmodern Critic an interpretation is true if people like, cite and will buy it and false if it ends up remaindered. For the phenomenologist the truth of religion can only be understood in terms of our worldly experience of it, which in practice will differ over time and between people and is unlikely to contain many truth claims at all.
It is quite obvious, when you think about it, that the truth of religion does not only depend on events that may or may not have happened in a particular place at a particular time or the extent to which Scripture records those events accurately. Surely history is much more than reportage, any collection of data or archive. The value of History lies in something other than the number of dates it contains and whether they can be cross-referenced against independent sources.
It is equally obvious, when you think about it, that the truth of religion cannot easily be reduced to what is popular, to culture or external phenomena. When believers confess “I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…” They do not refer to a psychological projection or etiological device – comforting or not – and do not believe that God only exists “for them”… either God REALLY exists, either I AM and there is ground under our being, or in the words of St Paul they “are of all people most to be pitied“. Although religions exhibit Smart’s seven dimensions and have ritual, mythic, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal and material elements, to confuse any or all of these with religion itself is to commit the sort of classic category mistake tourists make when looking for the university in Oxford!
On one hand evaluating the Hebrew Scriptures only in terms of their accuracy as records of events in space and time entirely misses the point that they contain History, which makes sense of what has happened by telling a story, a story which helps us to understand the present and the future with reference to the past. To subject Judaism – or any religion – to a philosophical evaluation which makes unstated epistemological assumptions and fails to explore different criteria for truth, meaning and knowledge is unfair and the results of any such evaluation invalid.
On the other hand, ignoring the fact the Hebrew Scriptures make the most universal of truth claims misses the point that they are far more than myth or culturally-important literature, they are a repository of ancient Philosophy to rival the Classical libraries so prized by Enlightenment thinkers. To study Judaism only in terms of its phenomena and not to consider it as a philosophy misrepresents the religion and positively fosters misunderstanding of the people.
It seems to me that a major reason why Judaism is controversial and has been persecuted so viciously is because it stands outside and against the dominant Western world-views and offers a perspective which, were people able to access it, would enable them to see and understand the weaknesses of both Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking. Perhaps, with the benefit of perspective people would start asking awkward questions about ideas and systems predicated on these world-views, maybe even Secular Liberalism, free-market Capitalism and the other sacred cows that the powerful will worship, which Adrian Pabst critiqued so well in his lecture last weekend? As somebody remarked last weekend at Porta Fidei, most politicians are happy with Faith Schools so long as nobody actually believes what they teach… perhaps similarly, most secular heirs of the enlightenment are happy with RE so long as nobody becomes sufficiently Religiously Literate to start questioning the secular paradigm out of which its dominant methodology springs.
The ways in which mainstream Religious Studies has approached the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Study of Religions as a whole, particularly Judaism, has undermined Scripture and any faith rooted in them. As I see it phenomenological RE – as much as any course in Enlightenment Biblical Criticism – ends up by destroying its object and serves more as an inoculation against religion than a means of promoting real Religious Literacy. What, then, is the alternative you might ask…
Taking my life in my hands…
I think that embracing a phenomenological approach to RE will fail to increase religious literacy and may actually increase levels of intolerance in the long term – but traditional courses in Biblical Studies end up in the same place. I think that the only way forward, if we are serious about promoting Real Religious Literacy (in relation to Judaism or any other Religion), is to stop focusing on the differences between religions, on trying to brief students we assume to be secularists about the idiosyncratic vocabularies and practices of the faithful, and start focusing on the difference between religious and non-religious world-views and on offering young people the otherwise non-existent opportunity to become aware of the epistemological framework within which they think and learn and an alternative perspective with and from which to examine its influence and limitations.
Phew! I said it.
PS: Bible Matters has been the hardest, but also the most interesting, of the three books to write and ended up making sense of both God Matters and Ethics Matters. While the new specifications might make studying the Bible seem like an optional extra in RS, in practice – although many people really try to – you can’t teach the Philosophy of Religion or Religious Ethics at all well without engaging with Religion on a deep and meaningful level… and by that you probably realise that I mean rather beyond diets and dress-codes.