Even though the dollar bill declares "In God We Trust", the United States prides itself on having eradicated institutionalised intolerance. It is for this reason that prayers and religious instruction are banned in American state schools.
However, when I grew up in Denver, Colorado, my parents insisted I had a Jewish education. From the age of six to 16 I went to Sunday school every week and attended worship services. I learned about the life and times of biblical characters, the history of the Jews, and the nature of American Jewry. I also studied elementary Hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah. It was all part of being socialised into the Jewish fold.
Many years later I became a lecturer in Jewish studies at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Unlike American undergraduates, most of my students had studied the world's faiths in school. They had received the kind of general knowledge of religion I had been denied. And, because some of these students had studied Judaism at A-level, I expected them to have a solid and balanced picture of the Jewish faith.
But, to my surprise and disappointment, all too often they held inaccurate and idiosyncratic impressions of Jewish belief and practice. They had failed to grasp the essentials of Jewish life and thought, and had described Judaism largely from what they had read in books.
I realised that what is lacking in the teaching of religious studies in schools is any substantial input by adherents of the world's faiths.
In the past, religious education was equated with Christian knowledge, and RE teachers were invariably committed Christians who saw their role much as my synagogue teachers had understood theirs: to raise a new generation of believers.
But mission is the task of the church; it is not a sound objective for classroom study. What is required, instead, is an openness to the spiritual insights found in all religious traditions and engagement in critical reflection. This can be done only in the context of free inquiry, led by those trained in the dissemination of information about not just one, but all the world's major faiths.
At the University of Wales at Lampeter, we believe students need to hear the voices of those committed to the religions they teach, as well as of scholars who stand outside their field of expertise. By listening to teachers who are actual believers of the faiths they study, they discover that no religious heritage is monolithic, and that living traditions constantly change. And from the scholars who stand outside the traditions they gain a critical awareness of the history, sociology and theology of the various world's faith.
Hans Kung, one of the great theologians of our time, said there can only be peace if there is religious understanding. If that understanding is to be found, religions must be taught in schools by the devout, as well as the academic.
* Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter.
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