Bible Study in Secular Israeli Schools

Today, an op-ed on Bible instruction in secular schools on ynet (in Hebrew) sparked quite a discussion in the “talkback section”. Long story short, the author, one Chaim Eckstein, argues that Bible study in secular high schools should be dropped as a matriculation requirement. There are two reasons for this:

The first is that secular students are apparently supposed to become fully conversant in Academic Biblical Scholarship, including source criticism and theories, academic debates of all sorts as well as Near Eastern Literature. This is a lot to have to take in even at college level, so it comes as no surprise that many secular students do poorly in this field. The second reason is that the Bible is simply not relevant to secular Jews and it does not inform their (generally Israeli-civic) worldview. Thus, it is a waste of time and manpower best spent elsewhere.

Now, I happen to agree that Bible as it is presently taught in secular schools is usually a big turn-off and counter-productive to the original Zionist vision of the Bible being the New Jewish (religion-neutral) Canon. I also agree that interest in Bible among secular Jews has gone down tremendously over the past few generations (there is a debate as to why, a matter for another post).

A major reason Bible study is such a failure in secular schools is because it is taught like an academic course in a university, and not a pedagogic lesson in a high school. Academic study is dry and boring to the majority of humans, high school students included (indeed, this is why I think academics should not be in charge of curriculum formation in Israel; at most they should serve as advisers/fact-context checkers). It is not interested in teaching values, inspiring or encouraging emotional investment. Academic study is (or at least should be) only interested in facts and ever-exacting interpretation to better understand past events.

However, for Bible to be “relevant” for secular Jews and for it to resonate, it needs to be taught as something more than just another piece of near-eastern literature and history. Secular Jews need to spend more time learning Bible, not spending all their time learning about the Bible.

I’m not saying, of course, that they not be made aware of the academic theories and debates. There is no reason on earth not to let them know about scholarly discussions about the facts, provenance and context of the Bible. Nevertheless, these matters should not take center stage, but rather serve as the background for actual Bible study.

Let them engage the stories and rules on their own terms – grapple with them, debate them,  become engrossed in them. Secular Bible study should be all about “what does all this mean to me”, “what can I learn from Ecclisiastes/Job/the Patriarchal Narratives &c”, not just when P was written or whether Moses actually existed.

Cold, detached academic study without emotional and intellectual engagement is a very poor way to encourage the growth of a healthy Jewish identity. Secular Jews have plenty of the former; they would do well to start cultivating the latter alongside it.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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