The Missing God in Israeli Education: Conversations About God Among Faculty and Students
by Tova Avihai-Kremer and Michal Bergman
As educators, we believe that there is no subject that should not be discussed. God’s existence and character—or his absence—are issues that occupy children whether they are religious or secular. In Israeli education, both religious and secular, talk about God is unacceptable. Religious education takes God for granted, while secular education, based on a consciously secular humanistic worldview, has lacked any traditional perception of God’s existence in the world. As far as we know, there is almost no facilitated discussion about God in staff rooms in Israel, either in the regular school systems or in joint education schools (with a mix of secular and religious students). Discussion of God is thus potentially a new experience for Israeli teachers.
Religious education operates on the assumption that God is so important and so immanent that there is no need to talk about Him. For some, the conversation between man and God is personal and intimate, and this intimacy could be disrupted by talking openly about God. This intimate relationship is not just a private affair; it is what binds them to performance of God’s commandments. God is beyond reach—simultaneously near and far, beyond the capacity of language to contain. At the same time, He is so sublime and beyond reach that any talk of Him could disrupt the intimacy between man and his God. This approach reflects the Talmudic saying, Seek not things that are too hard for thee, and search not things that are hidden from thee. The things that have been permitted thee, think thereupon; thou hast no business with the things that are secret” (Chagigah 13a).
In Israel’s system of secular education, based on early Zionist secular Hebrew culture, there was no room for God. The secular-revolutionary spirit that drove the establishment of the State of Israel created an educational system in which God had no relevance in the present, and thus there was no need to relate to Him in any special way. God was, at most, a figure in Bible studies and an echo of times long past.
Why Speak of God?
Why do we recommend beginning a process of talking about God? More precisely, why deal with an issue so complex on emotional, faith and social levels, in a system that so delicately bring together staff who hold such different perceptions of God?
They are foundational questions that most people ask themselves. Questions of truth, justice and the absence of justice, reward and punishment, ethics—these are questions of how the world and man operate. Often they are questions about God and His involvement in the world.
From discussions we have held with educators in joint education schools, we found, not surprisingly, that indeed the question of God’s existence and mode of operation in the world occupies the children both religious and secular, just as it occupied us when we were pupils. Young children also ask about God: who created God? They ask questions about justice: how did God order Abraham to sacrifice his son? Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? etc.
In other words, children are thinking about God—His image, His leadership of the world, the possibility of His existence as well as the possibility that He does not exist. Whether we like it or not, questions of God are present in children’s worlds and occupy them. God is part of our culture—both the ancient culture and the modern and renewing one. God is the hero, and sometimes the anti-hero, in the Jewish world. He is a central part of the text in a world of diverse identities that can include faith without the commandments.
There is room to recognize different approaches to faith, and different facets of the concept “God.” This is so, because God Himself has multiple identities. God is He who created the world, who forbade man to eat from the tree of knowledge, who exiled from the garden of Eden, who regretted what He had done and almost destroyed humanity, who freed the children of Israel from the Egyptians, who punished them and showed them the way while providing for their needs in the desert. God tests Job and is the One who promises Abraham that he would make his descendants as numerous as the sands on the seashore.
It is God who chose King David and gave His people the Ten Commandments and the Torah. God sees in Moses His servant the most humble of men, and has a unique relationship with him throughout much of the Torah. God is the object of Jewish prayers and He to whom Jews turn in defiance, in love, in rage, in demand for justice, in hope and in despair—from Abraham, through generations of Jews, till the last of modern Hebrew poets and contemporary thinkers. Thus, God is not only part of the text; He is a central character in nearly every Jewish text, religious or secular. His spirit hovers over traditional texts, while the absence of his spirit hovers over some modern texts.
When we speak about God, to what God are we referring: a compassionate and gracious God, or God as the “Man of War”? The God who forgives iniquity, or who visits transgressions to the third generation? Conversation about God brings to the fore that God has different identities, and that we, teachers and students alike, are talking about a multifaceted God. Talking about God enables us to understand our own perception of God—when we say “God,” about which “face” of God are we talking?
Whether we talk about God or we continue to avoid the subject, the children and youth that grow up in our schools will continue to ask questions about God—His nature, His practice, His existence or absence.
Talking About God with a Secular-Religious Staff
Joint education strives to create an open discourse; it encourages the asking of questions that have personal relevance from the lives of children and to the lives of children. For all of the above reasons, it is appropriate that joint education schools should consider introducing conversations among staff members about their perceptions of God.
Such conversations convey openness, listening, and an ability to contain and accept a variety of beliefs, and they promote a fruitful dialogue between different Jewish worlds. They also enable the staff to develop an educational language that integrates a multiplicity of beliefs, and in which acceptance of this variety is a basic value. In this way, a language can be created that is daring but is also careful and delicate when discussing intimacy with God, or questions and objections, or His existence or His absence. As noted, developing a shared educational language when talking about God requires respect and gentleness, as is also required whenever we wish to talk with children about any issue that is close to their hearts.
The sages interpret Job’s words “No flatterer can come into His presence” (13:16) as follows: ”The prophets know that their God is real and is not to be flattered” (Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot 7:3 and Megillah 3:7). In other words, the sages see conversation with and about God as entailing a sincere search for the truth. We think that significant education is education that promotes a search for sincerity and truth, including about God.
That same demand for sincerity and for a search for truth leads to the asking of questions, some of which have no absolute answer: Does God exist, is there personal Providence, why do the righteous suffer, etc. All these questions should be raised, and we would want the adult world to relate to them, but without providing definitive answers that the children must accept. In order to do this, the adults must first talk among themselves about these issues. The very act of speaking aloud provides us with clarity as to our beliefs and the questions that occupy us. Listening to other opinions clarifies that there is indeed diversity in the teachers’ room and beyond it. Teachers of course know about this diversity without any discussion, but talking heightens our awareness of them.
Talking about God can take place only in a space in which the teacher feels that he/she can trust his colleagues, in a containing space with no fear and with an ability to share. We are aware that this is a complex and delicate issue. We therefore believe that the staff room has to reach a certain degree of maturity in order to engage in this conversation. The conversation can take place and be fruitful when staff members have already been through a great deal together, when they feel secure in the framework they have created and in the sense of community in the school and in the staff room.
A joint conversation about God should take into account that not all of the teachers are in the same place. There are new and veteran teachers, extroverts and introverts, teachers at different stages of developing their evolving identity, and others whose identity is more static. In order to make it possible to engage in open and sincere discussion of God, we believe there should be a process and not a one-time conversation: a process of dialogue, of peer learning, in which people are encouraged to raise their questions and their puzzlement about beliefs and about lack of belief.
And What About the Pupils?
Our intention here is not to put forth a structured lesson plan, but to suggest a process for teachers to develop the ability and comfort to lead conversations about God when pupils raise the issue. The conversation about God in the staff room raises questions about the implications of the subject for educational work with children.
In the context of joint education, the challenge is how to talk about God with children who come from homes in which belief is axiomatic, side-by-side with children from homes in which God does not exist. We suggest an emphasis on the legitimacy of diversity. There are pupils who believe in God, and there are others who do not; the multiplicity of beliefs and Jewish identities is legitimate. The believer, the atheist, the skeptic and the one who has questions about God can all share a commitment to Jewish existence. Significant Jewish existence and commitment to a Jewish way of life is possible and legitimate even without belief in God. This, in our view, is a key insight.
The issue of children’s ages also needs to be considered. In very young ages, there is a tendency for children to innocently accept what has been conveyed to them by their parents and family. That said, there are questions about the way God leads the world that develop as the child grows older. In adolescence, questions arise with full force. All these require consideration that goes beyond the limits of this article, but that are critical for decision-making by every school and teacher.
It should be remembered that the joint school is part of a community: educators, parents, families and pupils. Just as each of these stakeholders differ, so communities differ from one another. The variety among communities affects also the appropriate way to channel the conversation, and therefore we do not suggest that there is one legitimate or optimal process. The details will no doubt vary from place to place, in accordance with the unique communal identity, the age of the children, the internal relations of the educational staff, and the relations between the staff and other elements of the school community.
A word about the “how.” There is a well-known Talmudic saying, ”The merciful One wants the heart” (Sanhedrin, 106b). The teacher’s heart needs to be in a place that allows talk of doubt, of belief, of questioning, all this without being judgmental of pupils who express their relation to God. School must be a place that encourages heart-to-heart communication.
In her poem ‘‘O Great Omnipotent and Awesome One,’’ the Jerusalem poetess Rivka Miriam describes the movements and changes in one’s relationship with God. The words in the prayer book are the same words, but the person changes—with many identities of past and future, shifting emotions depending on whether they are close to or far from God, at times beseeching and at other times full of praise and gratitude. Just as God’s faces are many and different, so are our own—as a joint community and as changing individuals.
We need a conversation about these changing faces, about our beliefs and about the different identities struggling within us. A conversation about God provides an additional level upon which the shared and separate Jewish identity of the joint school can be built.
Michal Bergman is educational program content developer and supervisor at Tzav Pius, an organization that fosters dialogue and co-existence between religious and secular Jews in Israel. email@example.com
Tova Avihai-Kremer works for Tzav Pius as a moderator in the advancement of pluralistic schools in Israel, and previously served as principal of two Keshet schools, with a mixed religious-secular community.