As a student in the national school system, I studied Judaism both in elementary school and in high school. First, I studied the Bible. We were taught the Torah and the words of the prophets, the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and also the Book of Chronicles. The Bible was not taught by Orthodox ("religious") teachers, but rather, by liberated teachers who loved the Bible very deeply as the Jewish people's most important cultural and literary work.
In our trips to Jerusalem and other places across the country we would take the Bible with us, because how could one travel in Israel in genera, and l in Jerusalem in particular, without this book? How, for example, can one tour the Gilboa without being familiar with the Books of Samuel, which describe King Saul's last battle there and David's eulogy over the death of the king and his son, Jonathan?
We also learned Talmudic literature. This subject was taught by a religious teacher who was also a reserves officer – he was well familiar with the Israeli experience and had quite a reputation for his sense of humor. We liked his sophisticated discussions on the Talmud, and even though we didn't quite grasp the latent meaning of the words, we nonetheless loved the text because of him and his openness.
Meanwhile, in our literature classes we became familiar with Shalom Aleichem and Shai Agnon, as well as with the songs of Yehuda Amichai. We also learned the poetry of Rabbi Yehuda Halevy and Dahlia Ravikovitch. We could not grasp those texts unless we were familiar with the Bible and with Jewish culture. In short, we learned, were familiar with, and loved Jewish culture on all its shades, forms, and origins. We did not acquire faith, but rather, knowledge.
Justly outragedHowever, something very bad happened to Jewish culture studies at Israeli schools. An Orthodox Jew became education and culture minister, and his view Judaism was first and foremost as a matter of faith and religion, rather than culture. For him, as is the case with many other Orthodox, one cannot separate faith and adherence to the Mitzvahs from familiarity with Biblical or Talmudic texts. And so, within less than a decade, this perception of instilling faith instead of culture has taken over. What we got is preaching instead of education and attempts to make people newly religious instead of familiarizing them with a rich world of proverbs, fables, stories, morality, and even humor.
The free people, such as myself and many other Israelis, were justly outraged in the face of these silly attempts to instill faith and a religious-Orthodox way of life through Jewish culture studies. And so, we distanced from each other. We have raised a whole generation of ignoramuses here who have no clue about basic Jewish terms. Their language is meager, their dialect is vague, and their cultural education is embarrassing.
The Education Ministry must go back to the glory days and maintain the many forms of Jewish culture studies in Israel. Israelis are allowed not to believe, but they should be familiar with what they choose not to believe in. It's possible, and in my view even desirable, not to lay tefillin if you are not a believer, but it would be very worthwhile to know what tefillin are and why they were created.