Rabbi Questions Feasibility of Teaching Religion in Public High Schools

A warning that it may be impossible to teach religion in public high schools with sufficient objectivity was issued here today by Rabbi Robert Gordis of New York, professor of Bible at the Jewish Technological Seminary of America. The educator voiced that caution in an interview previewing a new book, to be published here tomorrow by the University of Chicago Press, under the title “The Root and the Branch: Judaism and the Free Society.”

Conceding that the problem of what he called “religious illiteracy” is genuine, Rabbi Gordis declared, nevertheless, that there are many difficulties in attempting to teach religion to pupils in public high schools. He recommended further “concentrated study” of the problem and experimentation for development of a successful program in this field.

Religious-minded persons, stated Rabbi Gordis, find it “highly objectionable” to attempt to present religion objectively without efforts to obtain a student’s commitment to a specific faith. He listed the following points among the difficulties facing efforts to teach religion objectively:

Textbooks and study materials “leave much to be desired from the standpoint of objectivity and content and raise the serious question whether adequate material can be prepared to meet this need.”

This “new and delicate assignment,” for teachers, who would have to be specially trained, would aggravate the teacher shortage.

The introduction on courses in religion might lead to a religious test for teachers, “particularly in view of the mounting pressures by church groups for ‘positive’ religious values in the schools.

“It is highly doubtful whether most Catholics, Protestants, or Jews would be willing to have their tenets and rites presented to their children by those outside their respective traditions.”

The proposal that religious leaders in the community take over public school religious instruction leads to equal difficulties, Rabbi Gordis said.

He said priests, ministers and rabbis would not likely be “willing or able to give objective instruction on religion.” Furthermore, he said, the large number of sects and viewpoints in Protestantism and Judaism “would necessarily mean the elimination of most sects and the favored treatment of a few” in religious instruction.

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