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SIDIC Periodical XV - 1982/3
Francis and Hassidism (Pages 31 - 34)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Toward a Catholic High School Curriculum for Teaching about Jews and Judaism
Eugene J. Fisher


This article will attempt to establish a teaching strategy and to outline major areas that should be covered in a secondary level religious education study of Judaism. This curriculum will vary significantly from the kind of approach normally offered in Catholic religion series.


I) Old Attitudes. The first thing the teacher needs to do in developing educational goals is to discover what understandings and attitudes his or her students already possess toward the topic to be studied. In 1975 the present writer completed an analysis of some sixteen current Roman Catholic religion series on both the elementary and secondary levels (see PACE 7, "Teaching A'; and Faith Without Prejudice, N.Y.: Paulist, 1977, chap. 7).

The findings were startling in several ways. Though significant progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council, it was immediately apparent that many negative areas still remain. These cluster especially in the treatment of New Testament themes and events. The negatives, importantly, are found most frequently in elementary-level teaching materials.

The high school teacher, then, cannot presuppose neutral attitudes towards Jews and Judaism on the part of students. Rather, the teacher needs to build a strategy designed to confront negative attitudes and distortions of fact taught to students in earlier grades.

Both our society and our catechesis, as we know from numerous studies, are today permeated with various forms of anti-Semitism, both blatant and subtle. Of the two, the latter is, of course, the more dangerous variety. A recent Webster's, for example, defines the word "Jewry" as "a ghetto" and the term 'Pharisaical" as "hypocritical." The figure of Shylock demanding hispound of flesh still looms heavily over all of English literature. Thus, even our art and language betray an unconscious bias. This will not be rooted out easily. Like sexism and anti-black racism, anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes and even language patterns are deeply embedded in the very fabric of Western culture. Such vestiges of our pre-Auschwitz, polemical past must be brought to the surface with care and sensitivity if they are to be effectively combatted in the classroom. The mere elimination of obvious stereotypes is not enough.

The study of Judaism in a Christian context cannot be merely a dispensing of information about a topic. The student must become personally engaged in a confrontation with his or her own inner beliefs. Role-playing, group dynamics, situation gaming, all need to be utilized along with the more traditional means of study and research. The "objective" stance normally employed in comparative religion courses is simply not sufficient to the task at hand.

The teaching strategy for a curriculum on Jews and Judaism must therefore be an active one, aimed at assisting the student (and perhaps the teacher as well?) to grapple deeply and honestly with long assumed, but negative presumptions about Jews and Judaism. The curriculum outline will make clear what some of these problem areas are.

2) New Understandings. One of the most curious findings of my textbook study was the gap that exists in the treatment of Jews and Judaism from the close of the New Testament period to the present century. It is almost as if the Jews ceased to be an historical people in the first century and have been miraculously reborn as a typical American religious denomination (but still not an historical people) in the twentieth. In between, all is silence.

Yet in between are nineteen centuries of social and religious heritage. The literature of the Jewish people during this period, as reflected in the Talmud and later rabbinical writings, is richly varied. Like the Bible itself, post-biblical, medieval, and modern Jewish literature present us with the record of a people struggling with a very personal God, a people committed to living out in their daily lives the responsibilities and joys of the Sinai Covenant.

St. Paul reminds us that it is unto this living root that we as Christians are grafted in covenant with God through Christ. ''Remember that you do not support the root; it is the root that supports you- Worn. 11:18). Here Paul is writing, of course, after the Resurrection, so his words, set as they are in the present rather than the past tense, address us directly today. Based on such passages from Romans 9-11, the American bishops in a statement issued in November of 1975 urged us to accept "the continuing validity of Israel's call."

What all of this means for us as Christian teachers is that the study of Judaism is a radically different kind of study from that of any other world religion. The Talmud, as a record of the Jewish people's living out of the Sinai Covenant, is a document of more than mere historic interest. It concerns us directly. The study of Jewish - sources involves us immediately in catechesis itself.

An article by Father Raymond F. Collins on 'The Fourth Commandment—For Children or Adults?" in recent issue of The Living Light (Vol. 14:2, Summer 1977, 219-233) illustrates how an understanting of rabbinic biblical interpretation can influence our catechesis. Father Collins begins his study of the catechetical meaning of "honor your father and mother" with a discussion of the rabbinic tradition. Through this investigation he concludes that the commandment enjoins an adult obligation to serve and care for one's parents and that it was only by inference that the idea of a child's obedience became attached to it. This insight becomes both a background for understanding New Testament usage and a point from which to critique traditional catechetical treatment of the commandment. In other words, the post-biblical Jewish sources, taken seriously, provide a corrective for and a deepening of our catechesis. When the student encounters the Jewish religion, it is an encounter with a living and challenging source of his or her own faith. Ideally, then, rabbinic insight and Jewish history should be interwoven developmentally throughout the whole course of studies, as a significant corollary of the essential catechesis.

Most high school textbook series, however, include the treatment of Judaism in units dealing with comparative religion or world religion. The suggested curriculum is thus structured along these lines. Though an interim strategy, it can be of great benefit as a general introduction to a richly varied religion.

While presenting Judaism in a fair and usually positive manner, current series tend to concentrate on biblical Judaism and modern Judaism, sliding briefly (if at all) over the centuries of development in between. The student goes from the Hebrew bible to modern times, where the three major Jewish groups (Orthodox, Reform, Conservative) and the Jewish feasts are listed.

The suggested curriculum, on the other hand, places equal emphasis on all periods of Jewish history and tradition. The rationale for such an expanded treatment comes not just from a sense of fairness or a desire to tell the whole story, though these are valid reasons. Rather, the real motivation for the catechist flows from the nature of catechesis itself. The Jewish experience, as an encounter of a living covenant community with God, is not only directly pertinent to our understanding of the historical context of Jesus' teaching in the New Testament. It is equally pertinent to our own self-understanding as a covenant community today. How the Jews have worked out their destiny as "People of God" is an important aspect of what we as Christians need to know if we are to fulfill our own mission as "People of God." The 1975 Vatican Guidelines put it this way: 'It is when pondering her own mystery that (the Church) encounters the mystery of Israel."

The teaching strategy that flows from this insight, I would maintain, must of necessity be a properly catechetical strategy, for the Jewish experience has much to do with the proper development of a mature Christian faith.


1) The Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah)

a) Valid in its own right as an integral revelation for the Jewish people that is not exhausted in Christological reference.
b) The continuity of the Hebrew views of God and morality with those of the New Testament, e.g., the Law of Love (Dem. 6:5, Lev. 19:18).
c) Rabbinic teaching (Oral Torah)
As a sound application of biblical teaching to changing circumstances in Jewish history (the Babylonian Exile, the Destruction of the Temple in the year 70 of the Common Era, etc.)

2) Judaism in New Testament Times
a) Richness and diversity of religious movements in the period.
b) Pharisees as religious reformers, fighting the legalism and hypocrisy of the Sadducees, representing the poor and middle classes against the wealthy aristocracy of Herod and those who collaborated with Roman imperialism.
c) Jesus' teaching as essentially Jewish and basically Pharisaic in tone and content (e.g., Luke 11:37, 13:31; John 9:13; Acts 5, 23).

3) The First Schism
a) Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles as observant Jews.
b) Background of the split between Synagogue and the early Church: a family quarrel.
c) St. Paul and the mission to the Gentiles. Romans 9-11 and a living relationship between the Covenants.
d) The Roman role in Jesus' death, and the reasons why the New Testament authors sought to minimize it and depict Jewish leaders as being chiefly to blame for it.
e) Background for the attacks on the Pharisees in Matthew, and John's theological use of the term, "the Jews."

4) Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism
a) The rise of the Synagogue as the prophetic vision realized through[ the Pharisees.
b) The school of Jamnia and Rabbi Johann hen Zakkai.
c) Talmud: Mishnah, Gemara, and Responsa.
d) Medieval Commentators: Sandia Goan (10th C.), Rashi (11th C.), the Sulchan Aruch, etc.
e) Jewish Philosophy: Ibn Gahirol, Maimonides, Judah Ha-Levi.
f) Jewish life: Babylonian Jewry, the Golden Age in Spain, the Ghetto, the Crusades, expulsion and forced conversion.
g) Jewish liturgy: the festivals and the Sabbath.

5) Reformation to 20th Century
a) The Inquisition and the Auto da Fe.
b) Martin Luther and Protestantism.
c) The Enlightenment: Spinoza, Mendelssohn, etc.
d) Hasidism and Jewish Mysticism.
e) Philosophy and Literature: Heinrich Heine, Martin Huber, Franz Rosenzweig, etc.
f) Eastern Europe—the Shtetl culture.

6) Judaism in an Age of Pluralism
a) Emancipation and Assimilation.
b) Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.
c) The American Jewish Community: religious andsecular organizations, immigration, contributions to American history, Jewish richness and diversity.

7) The Nazi Holocaust
a) The role of theological anti-Judaism and the silence of the Churches.
b) Hitler and neo-pagan nationalism.
c) The death camps and the destruction of East European Judaism.
d) Christian and Jewish resistance: "The Righteous among the Nations," Franz Jagerstatter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
e) Holocaust Literature: Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl.

8) Zionism and the Modem State of Israel
a) Early Zionism: Theodore Herzi and Ahad Haam.
b) The British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration.
c) The meaning of the rebirth of Israel for the American Jewish community.
d) Modern anti-Semitism: Western and Mid-Eastern; anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism.


1) Catalogs

Many Jewish agencies produce and distribute written and audio-visual materials designed specifically for use with high school age students. Rather than attempting to reproduce their lists here, I will give the addresses of three of them and urge the interested teacher to write in for their brochures and catalogs. These list and describe what is available and at what price.
a) The American Jewish Committee (AJC), 165 East 56th St., N. Y., N. Y. 10022.
b) Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL), 823 United Nations Plaza, N.Y., N.Y. 10017 (many films as well as filmstrips. Ask for both publications and A/V catalogs).
c) Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UA NC), Department of Audio-Visual Aids, Interreligious Affairs, 838 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10021.

2) A Basic Teaching Resource Shelf
Certain books are 'musts" for quick reference and teacher background. The following will lead the teacher to further sources as necessary.
ADL Teachers' Guide to Jews and Their Religion "Image of the Jews" (New York: KTAV, 1970)
Claire Hutchet Bishop, Catholics Look at Jews (New York: Paulist, 1975)
Eugene Fisher, Faith Without Prejudice (New York: Paulist, 1977)
Edward H. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews (New York: Macmillan, 1965)
Eva Fleishner, ed., "A Select Annotated Bibliography on the Holocaust,' Horizons, Vol. 4, Spring, 1977
John Pawlikowski, OSM, Catechism and Prejudice (New York: Paulist, 1973); Sinai and Calvary (Ben-zinger, 1976)
Frederich Schweitzer, The History of the Jews Since the First Century (New York: Macmillan, 1971)
Elie Wiese], Night (New York: Avon, 1969)
A handy source book of current Church teaching on Judaism can be found in H. Groner (ed.), Jewish-Christian Relations: An Unabridged Collection of Christian
Documents (London: Stimulus, 1977, distributed by the ADL).

3) Select Films
Night and Fog, 31 min., color (available at most public libraries)
Jewish Legends and Tales, 60 mM., b & w (ADL) Genocide, 52 min., color, part of the BBC "World at War" series (ADL)
The Passion According to Matthew, 30 min., b & w (McGraw-Hal) Scenes of death camps set to Bach's "Passion"
The Little Falls Incident, 7 min., color. Recent anti-Semitic incident in a New Jersey high school (ADL)

4) Sound Filmstrips
"The Jew Prays: This is Judaism," a 2-part, color filmstrip (UAHC)
"Christians and Jews: A Troubled Brotherhood,"
2-part, color filmstrip (Argus Communications) "Jews in America," 2-part filmstrip, color (ADL) Reprinted from PACE 10 with kind permission,
copyright 1979, St. Mary's Press, Winona, MN 55987

Eugene J. Fisher is Executive Secretary, National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations


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