Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
The bible debate
Are bible classes at school necessary in today's world?
Amir Hetsroni Shmuel Abuav 

Amir Hetsroni

The recommendation to open the school day by reading passages from the bible was praised, as expected, by religious circles, and is even supported by the education minister, who as we know is not religious.


The proposal even received the green light from the Reform movement, which usually shows unusual sensitivity to the issue of religious coercion. The recommendation's basic assumption is that there's wall-to-wall agreement regarding the importance of bible studies, and the argument is only whether to teach it using the traditional approach or a critical one.


One voice has not been heard in the debate, and that is the rational voice that honestly looks at the book of books and says: It includes many boring sections that I wouldn't bother to take a second glance at, and I wouldn't want my children to bother reading them even once – not for ideological reasons, but because it's a waste of time.


For example, look at Book of Leviticus: A collection of laws that expired a long time ago, in addition to many details regarding the customs of sacrifice. The importance of the text is clear to those who are interested in ancient law or research the history of religious ritual in the Near East, but does this boring book really constitute a crucial part of general education in the 21st century?


Another example is provided by the books of Kings: Endless battles of ruling dynasties that are cutting each other's throats along with a long list of kings that killed and were killed thousands of years ago. It's highly doubtful whether a French child knows the names of the Bourbon kings, who ended up at the guillotine despite the achievements they brought to France. Therefore, I wonder why our children need to memorize the names of the house of David kings who died in the 6th century BC, despite the achievements they brought to the Jewish people.


I'm not arguing that the bible doesn't include sections that should be taught at schools. But we can openly argue that maybe we should not be expanding bible studies, but rather, cut back on them in order to make room for contemporary subjects such as computers, English, communications, and politics, which will assist in dealing with modern life. The bible's place, along with other historical books, should be in the framework of history and literature classes.


The fact the bible is a bestseller should not grant it a special status in the curriculum, unless we intend to grant such status to the likes of John Grisham. Even if God created the world in six days, this doesn't obligate our children to study about it for 12 years.


Dr. Amir Hetsroni teaches communication at Cornell University and at the Jezreel Valley College


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Shmuel Abuav
The following story is a minor one in our history, yet it captures our entire essence – the essence of the Jews who have the bible as the root of their identity as Israeli-Zionists.


Sometime at the end of the 19th century, a young pediatrician sat at his clinic in Paris and received patients. His name was Max Nordau. He hadn't been interested in Judaism for a long time and concentrated on his future as a respected doctor involved in the local culture.


An eight-year-old child, gaunt and pale, entered his room following a three-week illness. "What did you miss at school during your illness?" the doctor asked. The child's eyes lit up while he told Nordau about Rachel mourning her sons and refusing to be comforted, and God telling her that her actions will be reworded and that her children shall come again to their won border.


"I missed out on all this," the child said with disappointment. Nordau was deeply touched. He turned his face to the window, lest the child see his tears. "Aren't you ashamed?" he told himself. "You're educated, an intellectual with a doctoral degree, and you barely know anything about the history of your people. And here is a sick child before you, weak, an immigrant, a refugee, and he's talking about Jacob and Josef and Jeremiah and Rachel as if it all just happened yesterday…"


In the weekend edition of the newspaper, the flustered Nordau saw an ad: Those who care about the destiny of the Jewish people, and who are hurt by anti-Semitism and seek a solution, please contact the undersigned to come up with a solution. Dr. Theodore Herzl. Nordau replied immediately.


The rest of the story is well known. Nordau's life was diverted from its path, and from a French dignitary he became a philosopher, doctor and author, and among the leaders of the Zionist movement.


A short while later, while he was delivering a speech in German in the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Nordau repeated time and again three words in Hebrew, which he learned from the child in his clinic: "Ve'shavu banim le'gvulam" (the children shall return to their border.) "The bible is the basis of Zionism," Nordau told the delegates at the Congress." "I owe all my Jewishness and Zionism to it."


Nordau's spirit did not die down. About 50 years later, David Ben Gurion held up the bible before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946 and declared that this book was the proof, the document of ownership for the Land of Israel. And why did he do it actually? What is it about the bible that cannot be found in any other book?


Well, I also believe that the bible is a constitutive element in the shaping of the Jewish and Israeli spirit, in addition to it being a wonderful book of morality unlike any other. It is our history, our heritage, our culture, our common denominator. We are proud that this book is us, and we are it.


Yet, despite this, the bible's status within Israeli society is declining, students are also losing interest, and their bible grades aren't high. The general public, through indifference that turns into ignorance, is starting to lose its possession of this invaluable asset. It is becoming the property of the religious community only, which continues to invest it and teach it at all ages and in all frameworks.


We aim to change this trend. All of us, religious and secular, in Israel and in Diaspora communities, are the rightful inheritors of the longtime bible tradition, which safeguarded us more than we safeguarded it. It's our duty to pass on this eternal torch to the students.


To that end we established the Bible Council. Its objective is to assist us in bringing back the bible to its rightful place in our private and public life. Thanks to the bible we are able to enjoy a life of freedom in our country and to debate this issue on the Internet, in Hebrew, our mother tongue that without he bible would not have been revived. Is this a small matter?


Shmuel Abuav is the Education Ministry's director general


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