Religious Literacy: Judaism

I followed along this month’s #REchatUK @NATREupdate chat, which was about Judaism, after the event, given that it was going on at 5am Aussie time. I have taught Judaism to some KS3 classes, but I have to confess it is probably one of my weakest areas of religious knowledge. I have never studied it at university level, and everything I know about it, I have taught myself (or been told by Jewish people I’ve encountered in my role as RE teacher). During the course of my PGCE, I did have to complete a GCSE paper on Judaism (and papers on the other 5 key religions, as anyone fortunate enough to have completed an RE PGCE in Durham will know), for which I did my homework and passed! Still, I feel less confident in talking about it than I do Christianity, Islam or Buddhism (and about the same as Sikhism, and more confident that Hinduism, if you’re interested in my complete subject knowledge!). Though I am not saying I don’t have any subject knowledge in the area!

Even though I don’t think I have great subject knowledge in the area, I do have ideas about what I think it would be important to teach, were I to be writing a curriculum on Judaism (which I will be doing at some point this year). There were three issues with teaching Judaism that I picked out of the chat: 1. teaching about ‘stuff’ rather than engaging with beliefs; 2. teaching about ‘Holocaust’; 3. teaching Judaism from a Christian perspective.

1. I was worried that some of the comments hinted at teaching a sort of Judaism curriculum that I’ve encountered in some of the schools I’ve worked in: teaching about the paraphernalia of religion, without engaging seriously with religious beliefs. So teaching about visible signs of being Jewish such as the Tallit, Mezuzah, Menorah, or teaching about the do/don’t attitudes to Shabbat, kosher laws, in other words, teaching surface level ‘stuff’ that some argue students can relate to best of all.  It’s not that these Jewish traits cannot be taught within a curriculum, but that they can be taught in a way that does not encourage deep thinking, or critical engagement, with the religion. One school in particular in which I taught Judaism, the curriculum dictated that I should teach five ‘ways to be Jewish’, which included birth, race, and religion (I fail to remember the other two). Instead of this, I taught about the Jewish beliefs of the mother line, rather than engage in a debate about whether Judaism is a race or choice. I’ve also taught lessons which comprised of a ‘Seder meal’ with students, but I think this has to be done with a lot of background learning of Passover, including engagement with scripture – the latter being at least one area of Judaism I do feel confident with!. This curriculum also had all of the ‘stuff’ I mentioned above in, and did little to promote higher-level thinking. I would, now, try to build my scheme of work with Bloom’s taxonomy in mind, and whilst I might include some of the ‘stuff’ later on by means of developing thought, I would begin with key Jewish beliefs about God. I would also allow students to engage with key Jewish scripture to develop their understanding of these beliefs. In this school, I arranged to take a group of RE ambassadors, if you will, on a synagogue visit: I’m convinced they learnt more about Judaism by being there and engaging with Jewish people who were keen to explain their beliefs, than I could ever have taught them in the classroom!

2. In another (Catholic) school in which I taught, the ‘Holocaust’ was the key learning students did about Judaism. This, in the end, was reduced in the curriculum to watching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and writing a postcard home as if you were a child in the camp. Great for developing empathy, but awful for developing religious literacy! I saw on the chat many people arguing that students need to know about this to understand Jewish people today, or in order for it never to happen again. I do think that it is important historical knowledge, but I’m not sure that it wouldn’t be better to teach this in history (at least in lower years until students have some background knowledge about Judaism). Of course, for many Jewish people, it is an important part of their history, and informs some of their thinking today. However, that doesn’t mean it should be the focal point of a curriculum on Judaism. If it is an unavoidable part of the curriculum, I would suggest more of a focus on the way in which it is remembered by Jewish communities and people today, and engagement with even calling it ‘holocaust’ (which I shiver at any time I hear an old version of the Bible that uses the word – and would be worth highlighting to students).

3. I saw a few concerns raised on the chat that Catholic schools may end up teaching a Catholic-tinted Judaism, in which it is a precursor to Christianity. Whilst it is important for students to understand the historical context, I do worry that some Catholic schemes push in this direction. The curriculum I am currently writing schemes for, the Archdiocese of Brisbane’s Religion Curriculum, condenses ‘World Religions’ into such a short period of time, that it is all too easy to do this. In fact, what concerns me most about this curriculum is that it does not encourage the teaching of Judaism in its own right, but in comparison with Christianity and Islam. For example, the Year 7 ‘World Religions’ unit reads:

Religious Knowledge and Deep Understanding

The monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) share common beginnings of faith which are found in the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets.


Analyse and explain the ways in which Christianity, Judaism and Islam are connected through the stories of the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, including Genesis 17:1-22 (Abraham and Sarah) and Exodus 13:17-14:30 (Moses).

Of course, it is important that students understand the correlation between religions as well as differences. However, I do think that Judaism should be given air-time in its own right, not just in comparison with Christianity. I won’t bore you with any further quotation from the curriculum of the ‘World Religions’ unit in later years, but I will add that any mention of Judaism is always alongside Christianity and Islam (and it only goes on to include other religions in year 11-12).

So there you have it: my three concerns with teaching Judaism have to do with teaching surface level or visible stuff rather than engaging critically with beliefs and belief systems of Judaism; teaching about the Shoah without any background religious literacy in Judaism; and not teaching Judaism in its own right, but always in reference to other religions (Christianity, and in the curriculum I’m using, Islam).

Personally, the most I’ve ever learnt about Judaism was when I visited Jerusalem. This was after I’d trained to teach, after I had, in theory, learnt about Judaism. Seeing religion on the ground, as it were, inspired me to question and learn more. I will never forget Shabbat at the Western Wall. There is a lot to say for learning outside of the classroom!

Shabbat JerusalemImages: D Lynch

This post is part of #BlogSyncRE, read other contributions at:


  1. I am inspired by your post. I teach adults (young and old) in a Biblical Studies program covering the entire Bible over 4 years. And since completing my master’s I have considered pursuing more studies, perhaps even a PhD. I keep thinking I want to study theology or Biblical Studies more deeply, but when I consider the topic I most want to write about and learn more about, I invariably return to wanting to write about the challenges and methods of teaching Christians about Jews. It was in my own experiences in my youth with Passover that prepared me for my conversion. The recognition of Passover in the Eucharist just about blew my mind some 25 years ago (wow, am I really that old?).

    I also coordinate a Passover meal for our Confirmation Class every year – it is daunting – but so worth it… (

    Thank you for your post, I look forward to more in the future!

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