Bi-Religious Eucation, or: How to Teach No Faith At All

Prof. Alan Brill has a post up on his blog about a Bi-religious afterschool program, teaching both Judaism and Christianity, presumably to the children of interfaith families. It is a project of the Trinity day school, a Christian school, at least half of whose students reportedly have at least one Jewish parent. The program self-describes itself with, among others, the following statement:

In 2010, a two-year class for teenagers was launched in the Westchester and Orange/Rockland chapters that caters to children from 12 to 14 years old. It helps them grapple with identity questions specific to that age, regarding who they are and who they want to become. The program educators, however, stress that no decision needs to be made, that identity is something that builds over time and that it can change at any time.

While the program may be very convenient for interfaith parents, who cannot make up their mind regarding faith, it is my contention that such a program cannot instill faith, any faith,
except for the warm and fuzzy pat-yourself-on-the-back, spineless, theologically disconnected faith. Men and women throughout generations have found strength to do acts that were larger than life precisely because faith was taken seriously. Different people of different faiths may harbor very different opinions about each other, and that is part of the challenge of orthodoxies in a multicultural world. However, teaching faith ambivalently is teaching it anthropologically, from the outside, and is not really faith at all, just a form of ethnic consumerism.

I found R’ Mordechai Scher’s comment particularly insightful:

It seems to me that the project you’ve portrayed here just blurs the distinctions. That, I believe, violates the integrity of each religious culture. The parents, of course, were not thinking that way when they got married and started families. Maybe, by hook or crook, the children will get some more clarity because of these meetings? But only if the distinctions are preserved and presented. From what you’re saying, that isn’t what happens.

and:

Mrs. Miller’s comment and blog posts are interesting – but I think she avoids the notion that these a *religious* cultures we’re talking about. What people *believe* is at the core of these cultures; not just the outlines and narratives. … That isn’t practicing or teaching the religion anymore. No matter which religion it is. Beliefs and what they bring about are the core issues of any religious discussion.

Perhaps that is a kind of phase some interfaith parents and children need to go through in order to mature and accept faith, but caveat emptor, they, too should know that such a program does not teach faith at all. In fact, I find it particulrly eggregious that such a program may ipso facto cut faiths down to size, and make it harder for them to be taken seriously. In that sense, it may actually cause serious damage to mutual respect between secular society and the respective faith communities.

I can illustrate this with a little contemporary anecdote from across the world. I know someone in Germany who is trying to keep her children in the Jewish religion education track, while her divorcing husband is trying all he can to remove them from that track and put them in a Christian track (despite the fact the family was never afiliated as Christians and the kids were never baptized). When discussing the case with a government social worker, the latter asked why she can’t simply send her kids to Christian religion education, after all, aren’t they all the same? Well, Mrs. social worker, no, they aren’t, not at all.

R’ Yosef Albo, the author of the Mediaeval Sefer ha-Iqarim, attempted, in the aftermath of the Maimonidean Controversies, to create a unified framework that would define Jewish faith without ignoring the theological diversities of opinion in certain matters, and thus, without writing any major traditional Jewish authorities out of the fold. (This may not have been the main aim of his work, but it was an important principle.) In the process, however, R’ Yosef Albo realized that the lowest common denominator would at best define monotheism, but not Judaism, and hence would not be a useful definition. Which is OK, since in mathematics, we look not for the lowest, but highest common denominator. Hence, he sought out such principles that would distinguish Judaism from other monotheistic faiths.

Such distinctions are important, for without them, we have a very limited form of belief, an excessively vague attitude toward Scripture and worship, and ultimately, and claim that reduces one or several faiths to such principles which do not distinguish the faiths from one another, does not respect them at all, but rather dismisses the whole seriousness of faith.

Countless Jews, who, throughout the ages, chose martyrdom over forced apostasy, would agree, what sets faiths apart from each otjer, even monotheistic faiths, is meaningful.

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