24.10.2019 commentary by Dr. Avner Inbar

Religious Indoctrination’s Great Failure

Read the full article on HaAretz here

After just the three first pages in my son’s new textbook “Moledet, Hevra Ve’ezrahut” (Homeland, Society and Citizenship), he is introduced to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. The esteemed rabbi is featured, as are many other subjects in the book, inside an oval-shaped frame, for enrichment purposes.

There are three such frames in the book’s first chapter, one devoted to Kook, the second to the patriarch Abraham (the first immigrant to the Land of Israel!) and the third to Rabbi Akiva. Not all of the frames are devoted to content from the world of religious Judaism, but the large number of references to rabbis, Talmudic legends and quotes from the Bible devoted to family life, the care of animals and traveling around Israel reflect the trickle of Jewish tradition into every field of study in the state secular school system.

In recent years, the Hebrew word “hadata,” (which roughly translates as increased religious influence) has taken root in public discourse in Israel, to describe this phenomenon, and although it’s understandable why secular parents would feel that their children are being subject to an religious assault, “hadata” is not the proper term to describe the rabbinical invasion into the classroom.

That’s because Rabbi Kook, the religious scholar and first Ashkenazi chief rabbi under the British Mandate, doesn’t appear in the textbook on the homeland to make our children observant or to have them more closely identify with religious ideas. If that had been the goal, the phenomenon would be a lot less disturbing.

No child is going to become religiously observant as a result of this textbook, and exposure to religious ideas, as with any idea, can be a wonderful thing when it is presented with the appropriate seriousness. But the truth is that the role of Rabbi Kook (and a range of Talmudic stories and quotes from Jewish sages) in classroom instruction in Israel’s state secular schools is not to bring students closer to religion as a source of authority, but to create a cultural link through which rabbis and Talmudic stories are glorified and serve as a source of inspiration

Secular students are not expected to accept Rabbi Kook’s moral authority or his views on Jewish religious law, but rather to get used to his presence in their lives. The goal is to make the religious Zionist worldview and values the backdrop from which young secular Israelis can develop their national identity and cultural taste and loosen their ties to the world of values of their families, and particularly to make them forget the general and national sources of inspiration on which our own culture is based. The effort is instead to expose them to another culture that, wonder of wonders, serves the exceptional political theology of religious Zionism

The deep educational failing of “hadata” stems from the fact that my son’s world, which is the cultural world in which I too and my father and grandfather were educated, is the world of the new Hebrew culture. Rabbi Kook is not a source of inspiration in that world and his thought cannot serve for us as a productive cultural foundation on which to build.

That’s because his teachings are based on a faith and commitment that my grandfather, my father and I completely reject, as I hope my son will in turn. Contrary to the disrespectful arguments sometimes voiced against parents who object to “hadata,” I’m not at all concerned that if my son learns about Rabbi Kook he will identify with his ideas. I am actually convinced that the more he studies Kook’s writings in depth, the more it would only reinforce my son’s sense of belonging to the free Hebrew culture that I would aspire to immerse him in.

For precisely that reason, one of the fundamental principles of the re-education approach that was developed in recent years is actually to prevent our children from studying “Judaism.” The nice young women from religious organizations who are assigned to teach my son’s class on a weekly basis as part of their year of national service, in addition to those who write curricula for the Education Ministry, wouldn’t think of teaching secular students what Rabbi Kook really thought about them, about their parents and about the exciting Hebrew culture that they received as a legacy from Jews who had cast off religious observance – and whose names don’t appear in my son’s textbook on homeland or his lessons on heritage.

That is exactly why they are careful to feed our children watered-down kitsch, such as the quote from Rabbi Kook at the beginning of the textbook: “Every man needs to know and understand that deep inside of him a candle burns, and his own candle is unlike that of his friend and there is no man who has no candle.”

I allow myself to call a quote from Rabbi Kook kitsch not out of disregard for his ideas but because Rabbi Kook didn’t say this. Apparently the quote has been attributed to Kook via religious Zionist folklore. Yet the enthusiastic educators in “Judaism” are careful to conceal the things that Kook actually did say from their secular flock lest the students, heaven forbid, actually read them:

“Just as one cannot make wine without yeast, it is impossible to have a world without evil people, and just as the yeast fortifies the wine and preserves it, so does the crude will of evil people create the existence and stature of the bounty of life as a whole, of all the mediocre and the righteous. When the yeast dissipates and the wine stands without its yeast, it is liable to spoil and turn sour.”

Here’s some homework. Guess who Rabbi Kook is referring to as the evil people in the quote. I don’t wish to provide a simplistic interpretation here of Rabbi Kook’s attitude toward secular Judaism. But that is precisely the discussion that Jewish education advocates don’t want to have.

Really teaching “Israeli-Jewish culture” as the curriculum that the Education Ministry is imposing on state secular schools is called, requires dealing first of all with the tensions between secular Judaism, which was extricated from the constraints of the religion, and rabbinic Judaism.

In the face of the artificial outcry over secular students’ ignorance of the prayer book, there should be a genuine outcry over the inability of secular students to understand the change in values that the writer Micha Berdichevsky advocated, giving preference to the Jews over Judaism and presenting his generation with the choice of being the last Jews or the first Hebrews. What meaning could Berdichevsky’s ideas have in the Jewish context taught in state secular school today, where it has been a long time since Berdichevsky earned a mention? Today’s secular students are taught the Jewish religion only as a cultural asset and not (also) as a burden that the early Zionists had the courage to relieve them of.

They want to teach our children “a little Judaism”? Fine. Sit them down in front of the Gemara, the second part of the Talmud, and let them understand why their spiritual ancestors, the creators of the Jewish Enlightenment movement, turned their backs on traditional religious study and created a new, free, secular and modern Hebrew culture.

That’s the context and the proper means by which to return to Hebrew culture’s religious sources. When Judaism is presented to students at secular schools in this way, I am sure that no parent will complain about “hadata.”

Avner Inbar is a co-founder and senior fellow at the Molad Center of the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.

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