I am a secular Jew who has a profound respect for Jewish tradition and will be making aliyah shortly. I do not believe in an intervening god, nor do I consider the Torah an accurate historical record or an exemplary moral treatise (not necessarily an abominable one either). I do, however, recognize it as an immensely important cultural anchor that should be studied by anyone wishing to preserve Jewish “peoplehood.”
I’ve fallen in love with an Orthodox woman – dati leumi [religious Zionist], I’d call her. I’ve expressed to her that I have no problem – indeed, I’m quite happy – with upping my observance in the interest of preserving tradition (Shabbat, kashrut, etc). However, I cannot accept the idea of sending my children to a religious school where they learn that the Torah is accurate history and the infallible word of God as written by Moses. She seems open to the possibility of sending her children to a school that exposes them to the Torah while allowing them the freedom to draw their own conclusions about the text’s origin.
Does such a school exist? What has been your experience with this issue? I read your recent article on dealing with the fundamentalism in Israeli religious schools. Are there no progressive religious schools in Israel? Have you come across any couples at your synagogue who are not entirely on the same plane religiously?
You ask good questions. Delicately, with lots of humility, I suggest that your last question –
Have you come across any couples at your synagogue who are not entirely on the same plane religiously?
should really be your first.
I doubt any two people are precisely on the same plane religiously. The differences start mattering when you have kids. Forget schools – what will your wife teach your children about Torah, in what she says, assumes, and does? Will you be comfortable with that? Once you have children, will she want to set a model of going to services every Shabbat morning, and will she mind if you don’t go? Will she mind that you explain kashrut as a custom, not a commandment?
These aren’t rhetorical questions. Many couples work them out. But you’ll face those questions long before the kids start school.
As for schools: When I was picking an elementary school for my eldest, I visited several. Each time, I asked if the principal if her pupils learned about evolution. I thought it was a clever way to check how the school related to religion. I was young, naïve, and misguided.
My kids really learned about evolution from the books they read, and discussed over dinner what all that had to do with Genesis. And in religious terms, what mattered more about a school was what behavior was taught and shared.
For instance, you could send your children to one of the Tali schools in Israel, secular schools with extra Jewish studies. They’ll learn more Torah than at a standard secular school. The teachers will probably relate to the text as a Jewish cultural treasure. Meawhile, your children will be invited to secular classmates’ houses for Friday night birthday parties with movies and candles. Will your wife be OK with that?
Since observance is important to me, as is being at home with Mishnah and Talmud, we sent our children to religious schools. So their classmates also kept Shabbat. My kids tell me that at their elementary schools, no one ever said, “The Torah is truth, dictated by God.” No one said it, because it was obvious. To be honest, I was more concerned with rightwing political beliefs that were treated as obvious than I was about theology. But we discussed both at home. If you don’t indoctrinate your children, someone else will do it for you.
At junior high and high school, at the age when kids really worry about belief – worry beautifully and intensely – issues of truth and tradition are discussed at the liberal religious high schools where two of my kids have studied. But schools change, and shut and open. Not believing in prophecy – or at least not believing that I’m a prophet – I won’t predict what will be available on the educational market when your unborn eldest turns 13.
Besides, what will you do if the school with the interesting theological debates is chaotically run, or deals poorly with your son’s dyslexia, or if the girls in the class shun your daughter?
You’ll switch schools, and try to give guidance at home. Which is what you’ll need to do anyway. (Then your kids will think something else anyway. Accept it.) If you and the lovely lady are able to live with the guidance that each other gives, you’ll cope with the school issue.