Reinventing Religion: Jewish Religion Textbooks in Russian Gymnasia

Jun. 07, 2011

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 77, Issue 2 June, 2011, pages 141 – 156


This article examines 10 textbooks used in Jewish religion classes in Russian high schools in the final decades of the 19th century. The textbooks reveal an expectation of a low level of Hebrew background, an interest in promoting the practice of prayer, and two distinct approaches to teaching Judaism. While some of the books introduce students to their religion through Biblical or later Jewish history, others present the religion as a systematic set of beliefs and practices. Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly how the books were utilized in classrooms, they certainly provide a sense of the priorities of a group of educators, as well as of the relative freedom they had in defining Judaism for the next generation.


Among the author's conclusions:


"In terms of content, the level of prior knowledge assumed by the books is extremely low. None of the authors used Hebrew without translating every term. Even terms like Sabbath, Kashrut, and Shema are both transliterated and glossed. It is tempting to imagine the East European Jewish past as an unspoiled and unchanging tableau of tradition. In fact, what these textbooks demonstrate is that Russian Jewish society was complex and varied and included significant numbers of Jewish students whose ignorance of Judaism rivals that of contemporary Jewry.


As we have seen, two basic schools of thought emerged for how to encapsulate basic Jewish literacy. Some educators felt that a solid grounding in sacred Jewish history would provide Jewish youth with the necessary tools to carry on as Jews. Others favored a focus on religious concepts and the sacred calendar. While some teachers appear to have conducted daily prayer services, others approached prayer more theoretically. In all of these cases, the very freedom to define their own needs is noteworthy. Certainly these texts had to pass through not only the censor, but also the approval process of the Ministry of Education. But based on the variety, it would seem that a coherence of narrative was not what either the censor or the Ministry was looking for. In the case of Russian Orthodoxy, where a central church body controlled not only textbook creation but also a large array of parochial schools, textbooks had to meet concrete religious standards and expectations (Westbury, 1990, p. 7). Jewish educators, however, had a great deal of leeway in reinventing their religious tradition.


The educators who produced these textbooks certainly did not articulate their task as the reinvention of Jewish religion. Nonetheless, they clearly understood that their task was to provide the next generation of Jewish children with the skills and knowledge they needed to be Jews. They saw the world around them changing rapidly, and knew that for many of their students, two weekly hours of religious instruction alongside their secular studies might be the totality of their Jewish education. Within those perimeters they had to construct a curriculum that would engage and educate. This task, along with their early efforts, remains highly relevant."

Updated: Aug. 03, 2011