Jewish education needs no chains

The way our children are imbibing Orthodox Judaism is constricted, misguided and boring

By Stephen Games, September 7, 2010

In 1994, when asking the single most important question of his period as Chief Rabbi - "Will we have Jewish grandchildren?"- Jonathan Sacks suggested that Jewish education provided the best hope of ensuring continuity. Was he right?

In our family, we spent the first part of this year deciding which primary school to send our daughter to. We ended up opting for the local state school, because we objected to Jewish schools draining mainstream education of a Jewish presence.

We also felt uneasy with the way many Jewish schools now present Judaism with a charedi tinge, a quality that, however warm and embracing, has not brought continuity to mainstream Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy but novelty, and which we don't want to become its dominant flavour.

Admittedly, at her state nursery school, our daughter had to run the gauntlet of being cast as an angel in the Christmas nativity play, prompting us to talk to the headteacher about not wanting an apparently multi-cultural institution to imprint any kind of religious message on our child before we'd had the chance to imprint our own.

But we also didn't want her to be imprinted by Jewish institutions. We are members of the United Synagogue but we object when United Synagogue bodies promote messages that go beyond their remit: that it is wrong for women to wear trousers, as one school told us when offering her a place, or that evolution sits uncomfortably within limmudei kodesh, or that fanatical Jewish missionary work is acceptable.

A friend tells us that her secondary school children came back changed forever after a weekend school trip to Gateshead. We don't want indoctrination at school. We want education to arm children in the arguments against religious fanaticism, not for it.

Some parents turn a blind eye to the gap between themselves and the religious culture in which they have immersed their children. "We just don't take the religious stuff seriously," they tell us, even though the religious stuff colours at least 30 percent of their children's school day. If parents can't support what a school is teaching, that doesn't sound like a triumph for Jewish continuity.

We don't find what is taught in synagogue any more promising. Our daughter, now four, already finds shul boring and is as scornful of happy-clappy children's services as we are. We don't want her to associate Judaism with condescending songs ("If you say Shema at night, everything will be all right") or exposed to fairy-tales trotted out as midrashic wisdom. Nor, apparently, does she.

As a result, the best thing about going to shul is the walk there and back. We talk about everything from the meaning behind Jewish practice (this week, the significance of the coming festivals) to the basics of good behaviour, alongside other essential topics, like whether or not tigers like ice cream.

The trouble is that, after putting into context what she is going to experience in synagogue, we are let down by what she actually experiences. It can leave a parent high and dry.

As for saying Shema at night, we always do so, but she's now asking what the words mean and what God is. I have only just started trying to answer. I've told her that these are difficult questions and that no one really knows about God. More helpfully, I've started to tell her what God certainly isn't, and she's very amused by the idea of idolatry and of cats and horses once being worshipped.

In short, I have found myself falling back on the basics of truth, candour and clarity. I just wish Jewish teaching would do the same, rather than lapsing into sophistry and sentimentality. I would then feel that Orthodoxy had reached back into its past and reconnected with something that made continuity worthwhile. Our daughter would not then face a choice between rejecting it for its inadequacies or tolerating it with indifference.

I want her to see a more modest Orthodoxy, for example, and one that doesn't claim to have an answer for everything. I want Orthodoxy to exercise the principle of Occam's razor, and keep things simple. I want it to engage in original thought and not be content with repetition.

In the absence of that, Jewish education may bring continuity, as the Chief Rabbi hopes, but will that continuity be worth the candle?

Stephen Games is the author of 'Pevsner: the Early Life, Germany and Art' (Continuum)

Last updated: 10:11am, September 8 2010