How should we teach Judaism to our children?

December 16, 2015 17:13

Almost 65 million people live in Britain. How do you get them all to live happily together as one great society working from the common benefit? That is a problem for government. Jews have a different problem: how do you make sure you are safe and secure, and can feel confident in your identity?

The recently published Report of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life came up with a number of recommendations to help us live, as a cohesive society, with our differences.

One of the most sensible and practical recommendations calls for teaching, in faith schools as well as others , about the variety of religions to be encountered in our society. This is supported with measures to encourage the acceptance of a minimum of pupils of other cultures or religions in faith schools, to ensure that the young actually confront and learn to accept difference. My own experience many years ago when head of Jewish education at the King David School in Liverpool demonstrated that this was possible.

The commission rightly drew attention to the risk that faith schools can be socially divisive and lead to greater tension - witness the consequences of segregated education in Northern Ireland - but at the same time recognised the benefits of the current system while calling for modifications to bring it in line with current social realities. How well are we preparing our children for the realities of the society in which they must find their place when they leave school?

How do we teach Judaism to our children? Orthodox denominations (have we yet learned to accept each other?) have problems adapting to the ideals of liberal democracy and to the scientific questioning of traditional religious dogma and history. Models for a more open Orthodoxy are readily available but are they understood or accepted by those who teach Judaism in our schools? Or do Orthodox teachers continue to promote a naïve, "ArtScroll" fundamentalism?

The law, the report reminds us, "cannot change people's hearts and minds. It can, however, restrain the heartless and can encourage the mindless to have due regard for matters they might otherwise neglect". The Human Rights Act 1998 introduces a positive right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion or belief equally with discrimination on grounds of age, disability, gender, race and sexual orientation.

Should the law go still further and insist on compliance with human-rights legislation by religious courts, Batei Din as well as Sharia and others? The London Beth Din already acts within the framework of law as a Court of Arbitration in civil disputes; on the other hand, it could not, as a Beth Din, agree to end gender discrimination in such matters as divorce law. The United Synagogue has in the past discriminated between male and female members, as I know from personal experience. When, in 2000, as a non-member, I married a member of the United Synagogue, I could not register as her spouse; I was obliged to become the primary member, and she the spouse (I was unofficially informed that "the computer system could not handle it otherwise"). More seriously, discrimination against women holding synagogue office persisted until very recently.

This report should be warmly welcomed by all sections of the Jewish community; we all stand to benefit from acceptance of difference, and from the outlawing of discrimination.

At the same time, we are challenged. We expect others to be more understanding and accepting of us; are we ready to take on board, especially in our school system, the measures that would lead our children to understanding and acceptance of others, and to a sense of identity with British society as a whole?

The JC Podcast: Education special

December 16, 2015 17:13

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