Ourchildrenshouldknow about Christianity, too
IN AUTUMN a number of Jewish schools will begin teaching Islam as part of the new curriculum for GCSE religious studies. It was a move they were forced to make in order to comply with the government’s requirement that from 2016 at least a quarter of the GCSE course should be allocated to a second religion. Although Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis originally opposed the change — arguing that in a busy GCSE schedule Jewish schools needed the time within religious studies to devote to Judaism — he has bowed to the inevitable and last month recommended that the second religion taught by schools under his authority should be Islam.
As explained by Joshua Rowe, the chairman of one school, King David High in Manchester, pupils are more likely to pick up the basic principles of Christianity from the surrounding society, but will not know about Islam unless they study it.
What the official institutions have not said is that Islam is theologically closer to Judaism and there are parallels between sharia law and halachah. Christianity, however, can be more difficult for Jews because of doctrines such as the Trinity, the three-in-one conceptualisation of God, and the divinity of Jesus — a difficulty reflected in the reluctance of many traditional Jews to set foot in a church.
Nevertheless, it could be argued that Jewish children should learn something about both of the other Abrahamic faiths in school. The belief that you can acquire knowledge of Christianity by osmosis, simply absorbing bits and pieces of information from the outside world, is also questionable now. As the Woolf Commission on religion in Britain recently emphasised, nearly half of people in the UK no longer identify as religious at all.
Even nominal Christians may know little of the national faith. A Reform rabbi recalled once going into a general school to talk about Pesach and asked about the Last Supper. The children thought it was the final meal you got to eat before nuclear Armageddon.
While Jewish-Christian relations may be coloured by an often traumatic history, post-War there has been a significant change for the better. The new mood was illustrated just a few weeks ago when a group of modern Orthodox rabbis issued a declaration which contained one of the most positive evaluations of Christianity to have come out of Judaism.
The Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity envisaged it as a “partner” with Judaism which shared a common mission to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty”. Citing such authoritative figures as Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi, they said that Christi- anity should be considered as divinely willed and a “gift to the nations”.
They also quoted the influential 18th-century rabbi Jacob Emden, who stated that Jesus brought “double goodness” to the world in strengthening the Torah and removing idols. “Christians,” he wrote, “are congregations that work for the sake of heaven, who are destined to endure, whose intent is for the sake of heaven and whose reward will not be denied”.
Signatories included former Chief Rabbi of France, Shmuel Sirat, Chief Rabbi of Efrat Shlomo Riskin and probably the leading Orthodox rabbinic interfaith activist of today, Rabbi David Rosen of Israel. So far only two British-based rabbis, Zvi Solomons of Berkshire and David Rose of Edinburgh, have endorsed it.
Such documents deserve wider recognition within the Jewish world, especially since the attitude towards Christianity of many Jews is shaped by remembrance of past persecution. And what better place to start than Jewish schools?
Even if Christianity is not taught itself in Jewish schools, children ought to learn something about JewishChristian relations. The same could be said for JewishMuslim relations. There is surely an educational imperative to promote interfaith understanding where possible.
If the GCSE years may be thought premature for it, Keeping faith with the nation: St Paul’s Cathedral, London there is no reason why sixthform Jewish studies should not include a short course on relations between Judaism and the two other Abrahamic faiths.
Such a course would look at the roots of conflict between the faiths and the religious flashpoints which can lead to violence. But it would also introduce the thinkers who have found precedents within their own tradition for taking a positive view of the other faiths.
It is not enough for Jewish children to be taught the broad rabbinic maxim, that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come, and simply leave it at that. They need more detailed knowledge if they are to build better Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim relations in future.
We tend to take a rosy view of Jewish messianism, of lions lying down with lambs and children playing with adders. But visions of the end of days also include a bloodier eschatology in which the enemies of Jews receive a terrible comeuppance. As Rabbi Michael Harris reminds us in his new book Faith Without Fear, some rabbinical predictions of the messianic age are distinctly triumphalist, where gentiles are subservient to Jews and, in some, have no future at all. Given the suffering of Jews down the ages, the desire for divine retribution is understandable.
But there are darker currents within our tradition and we ought to inoculate our children against them.
‘Christians are congregations that work for the sake of heaven’