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.

HazonyLast 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. 

  • Avatar
    Alan Brine
    Posted at 11:04h, 06 July

    Interesting ideas but the notion that RE should somehow operate as the counter-cultural voice within the curriculum seems unrealistic. Schools operate within the secular liberal enlightenment framework you discuss. Hard to see how one subject could step outside that. Where would we find the teachers capable of delivering this? I think I remain convinced that RE has to remain part of the secular curriculum which underpins our education system.

    • Avatar
      Candle Conferences
      Posted at 11:23h, 06 July

      Unrealistic maybe, but I believe that education is about more than reinforcing prevailing cultural norms… and even about more than advancing the views of a powerful secularist minority.

      Education that is worthy of the name must aim to liberate people by enabling them to recognize the framework within which they think, learn and live, so that they have the freedom to accept or challenge it, to value or work to improve it. That is why all decent systems of education, religious and otherwise, have philosophy at their core.

      As we have just seen in Greece, the combination of real education and democracy is a dangerous one! It seems that the powerful will always seek to replace education with training in order to control the outcomes of elections, but if they succeed and democracy is exercised by those without any real critical facility and thus without meaningful freedom, it will surely collapse.

      I accept that as a country we are not in a position to deliver the training we currently give the name of education well, let alone improve upon it, but unless people think big and embrace ideals we will never be in such a position?

  • Avatar
    Alan Brine
    Posted at 12:52h, 06 July

    I think you are confusing a secularist minority, whoever they are, with the prevailing public secular world view which now permeates all of our lives and education. Being secular is what we are. God is no longer a legitimate explanatory concept within our curriculum.

    • Avatar
      Candle Conferences
      Posted at 13:42h, 06 July

      So, let me get this straight Alan… you worked as Ofsted’s national adviser for RE until August 2014. You were County Inspector for RE in Hampshire, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at what is now the University of Winchester. You wrote RE: Realizing the Potential and the recent report on RE in Church schools: Making a difference? …yet you don’t think God is a legitimate explanatory concept within our curriculum? We are not talking about teaching creationism in science classes here, we are talking about RE lessons representing theism – or deism for that matter – as a credible alternative to atheism.

      Is the purpose of RE in the curriculum really to expose all forms of religious belief to reductionist, sociological analyses while leaving the secular world-view untouched and examined, in effect discrediting all religions and religious people… and banging the drum for atheism, whether in the form of humanism or shallow materialism? Most people discuss the existence of two different models of RE – confessional religious instruction within faith schools and non-confessional religious education in other schools. What I had long suspected but had no strong evidence for was a third model, that of confessional secularist religious instruction.

      So far as I am aware there are few schools of explicitly secular foundation and the law has made no provision for RE, originally conceived as an opportunity for children to learn both about and from Christianity and later extended to cover other religions with local relevance, to be used for the purposes of secular evangelism. The Prime Minister has repeatedly affirmed that this is still a Christian country; the head of state is also the Head of the established church. One of the much-touted British Values is that we respect peoples’ freedom of religion, freedom of belief and thought. Given these factors, can it really our policy for state schools to be positively anti-religious in the absence of denominational control? Would the government support this? When was the vote or national debate on this? Where is the evidence that it accords with what most people want?

      It may well be that many people have bought into a secular world-view to some extent, but that does not mean that education should not seek to challenge that and present alternatives as real alternatives not as illegitimate explanatory frameworks, so that people are in a position to understand the majority of people around the world who have faith and so that they are in a position to make their choice for secularism a positive and considered one, if such a choice they make…. I am the last person to defend religious instruction in schools – heck I was nearly expelled from school for refusing to say the creed when I was 15 – but I can’t accept that we should just replace a religious paradigm with a secular one and should not keep pushing for kids to have the opportunity to recognize and question either and both.

  • Avatar
    Alan Brine
    Posted at 14:46h, 06 July

    My previous blog. Wondering if this is relevant. RE certainly investigates the notion of the divine and claims made about the divine but I find it hard to see how it can challenge the mindset that underlies the rest of the curriculum. And we have to remember that many teachers of RE will not be nones. What would they do with your model?

  • Avatar
    Candle Conferences
    Posted at 10:21h, 07 July

    Interesting blog and I agree both that appreciating the diversity within religions is key and that RE teachers need a good deal of help and support if they are to approach this effectively.

    I think we have a real disagreement about RE’s role in challenging the mindset that underlies the rest of the curriculum. I suppose that I think that is the raison d’etre of RE, to put the rest of the curriculum in some sort of context, allow young people to reflect on the process of their learning, the assumptions it is based on and how it relates to the whole of their lives.

    I can’t accept that RE exists as a branch of PSHCE, designed to do a similarly political job in briefing students about ancient and primitive beliefs and practices so that they don’t succumb to them and are better placed to talk others out of them… As I see it, RE has the effect of increasing students’ religious knowledge and does enable them to distinguish culture from belief and evaluate arguments – but it is not designed to discredit or undermine faith and promotes a deeper understanding of truth and knowledge claims across the curriculum and more meaningful tolerance of considered faith positions of different characters.

    I am not sure that I understand the comment about many RE teachers not being nones. In my experience, the division is not between RE teachers who have a religious faith and those who do not, but between RE teachers who see themselves engaged in a journey and those who think they have arrived at a destination and will not countenance moving.

    For those who are engaged on a journey, having company, talking on the way, sharing and comparing different ideas and perspectives is a joy. A bit like the Canterbury Tales – the journey is the better and richer for being shared by all sorts and the journey is as important as the destination; because although nobody would have set off without anywhere to go and although the destination gives a direction to discussions, travelling to the destination without the experience of sharing the journey would largely miss the point.

    For those who have arrived at a destination, dealing with anybody who is in a different place is a case of join me and share my perspective or go away. This is much less compatible with multi-faith RE, whether the destination is religious conviction or atheistic conviction.

    I do think we need to be careful about Bultmann. As his own students recognized during the 40s and 50s, his approach is unhelpful when it comes to teaching Christianity or using its message to critique modern society and call for change… that is why many of them engaged in the second quest despite Bultman’s vociferous opposition to the idea of applying reason to find any element of Truth. While his influence was huge during the 60s and 70s, many people misunderstood his work and failed to appreciate that he was in essence an extreme fideist who reveled in cutting away at the propositions many people base faith on so as to make faith somehow purer… and avowedly anti-intellectual. Although this is masked by his later work, which seemed to welcome re-framing Christianity to suit the needs of the 20th and 21st Century and drawing on other traditions to do so, to me Bultmann seems very much a Christian who has arrived at his destination and his variety of Christianity one that could very easily foster fundamentalism? While he advocated re-developing myths and rituals, he did not suggest that the object of either changes in any way – and his openness to re-developing religion sprang from his low estimation of its importance to faith. Faith remains uncompromising and either exists or does not exist independent of arguments, pragmatism or anything else. While I agree that RE must reflect a range of theological opinion, it is surely right that we focus on thinkers whose work is in some way compatible with genuine pluralism?