Friday, February 6, 2015

Semantics? Meaning, Religion in Curriculum and Coexistence

Dr. Kevin Donnelly
“People would argue furiously, although they essentially agreed with each other” a former politician told me this week, reflecting the way that words can obscure meaning. I was thinking about this dynamic this week on my way to a meeting with, Dr. Kevin Donnelly, a critic of the Australian Curriculum along with stakeholders and academics concerned with the place of religion in curriculum. It was significant that we had all these people in the same room because on the surface it would appear that they are very far apart on the issues we were discussing. Yet, it is not clear to what extent the differences are substantial or semantic.

Dr. Donnelly’s review of the curriculum included a recommendation that many took as being about “the contribution of Western civilisation [and] our Judeo-Christian heritage” (1). This understanding was based on reading the text of a recommendation in the review which begins with a call for more “emphasis on morals, values and spirituality”, as being defined by the second part of the sentence in which the only example of this that is mentioned is that of “Judeo-Christian heritage” (2).   Donnelly has argued that he was calling for teaching about all religions.
I think the recommendation is actually advocating for three things.
 A. Students should be instructed into morality and good values.
B.  Students should learn about spirituality in its various forms.
C. The balance in the Australian Curriculum between recognition of non- Anglo/non- Christian traditions on the one hand and “Our Judeo-Christian heritage… and British” influences on the other hand, should be tipped to favour the later rather than the former.

While there is a lot to debate here, there is also some common ground.
My optimism is based in part of the idea that words are far less important than the meaning they seek to convey. This idea is one way of dealing with a series of discrepancies in the two versions of the Ten Commandments given in the Torah (3). One version prohibits “coveting” while the other forbids desire of your fellow’s house etc.  One text commands us to remember the Sabbath while the other demands we keep it. According to prominent Jewish commentator, Abraham Ibn Ezra, this is unimportant because “the words are the body, while the meaning is the soul” (4). 

The debate about the importance of words plays out in the way another verse is interpreted. The Torah states: “and Moses went up to God, and God called him from the mountain” (5). Ibn Ezra liberally interprets this verse by reversing the sequence, suggesting that God first called Moses and only then did Moses ascend. Surely, he would not have gone up without permission! (6) What this approach gains in rational explanation it loses in nuance and potential meaning. An alternative view suggests that the sequence relates to the principle that "in holiness, there is no advance except for the one who prepares himself and is aroused..." (7) Like Moses, we are invited to take the initiative and begin to climb the spiritual mountain. If we prepare, God will respond by calling us "with endearment and greatness".

What a contrast! Of course words matter! An insightful message about spiritual growth can be inferred from the precise words. The same approaches are taken to the singular form of the word ויחן “rested” (which in Hebrew is always either be singular or plural) to tell us that "Israel camped opposite the mountain (8)". Ibn Ezra dismisses the nuance (9) while others see a hint in it, that the people overcame their differences and became “like one man with other heart” united in anticipation of receiving the Torah, (10) and “loving peace thus deserving the Torah which is all [about] peace” (11).

There are times when the words carry the meaning well, and in other times they distract from the meaning. The varying relationships between words and meaning gives me some hope that young people in Australia might one day still have the opportunity to learn about each other's inner life and be one step closer to understanding. Once we take a step ‘on the mountain’ we might be helped to go further, to truly connect with each other “as one man, with one heart” in peace and respect.

 (1) Final Report, Australian Curriculum Review,, recommendation 15 of the review of the Australian Curriculum: “ACARA revise the Australian Curriculum to place more emphasis on morals, values and spirituality as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration, and to better recognise the contribution of Western civilisation, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of economic development and industry and the democratic underpinning of the British system of government to Australia’s development”.
(2) The construct of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage has been critiqued from various perspectives. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, has reportedly expressed concern to Rabbi Avraham Shemtov about Islam being excluded from a conception of a Judeo-Christian discourse. I have not been able to verify that this is correct but I agree with the principle that there is a lot that is common to these three faiths that is not reflected in the term “Judeo-Christian”.  On the other hand I can see some merit in Christians graciously acknowledging Jewish influences on their faith. 
(3) Exodus vs. Deuteronomy…
(4) Ibn Ezra on Exodus 20:1
(5) Exodus 19:3
(6) Ibn Ezra to Exodus 20:1, the question of permission is also raised by Chizkuni, however he resolves this matter in two ways. One interpretation is similar to that of Ibn Ezra. Namely, that Moses went up in response to God’s call. In his second interpretation is that Moses went up of his own accord to ask God how he wanted to be worshiped (Chizkuni, on Exodus 19:3). 
(7) Ohr Hachayim
(8) Exodus 19:2 ויחן שם ישראל
(9) Ibn Ezra suggests, I think implausibly, that Israel refers to the elders who had a prominent place near the mountain and since there were few of them they are referred to in the singular form
(10) Rashi following the approach of Mechilta
(11) Old Midrash Tanchuma, Yisro 9, cited in Torah Shlaima

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