Noah Feldman writes a short piece in today’s NY Times Sunday Magazine on the same theme I wrote about yesterday here: can public schools be devoted to teaching about a particular religious tradition without espousing it. He begins the essay with a similar premise to the one I argued yesterday–that religious and secular are not necessarily polar opposites:
The source of the [Supreme Court’s] confusion [over defining what religious expressions are permissible in secular society] is the mistaken notion that the categories “religious” and “secular” are strictly binary, like an on-off switch. It’s true that some things are inherently religious, like a prayer or a church or a Torah scroll. (It would be impossible to make heads or tails of them without reference to their religious nature.) But it’s also true that many things that are not inherently religious are not inevitably secular either: they can be infused with religious meaning through the intention of a believer. A gymnasium or a warehouse has a perfectly secular use but also can be consecrated by worshipers who invoke God’s name there for purposes of worship. Examples of what you might call “dual use,” such things can be at once secular to one person and religious to another.
The most convincing interpretation of our constitutional tradition is that the government may not engage in or pay for conduct that is inherently religious but may accommodate religion when the steps taken to do so are not inherently religious in themselves. The phenomenon of dual use suggests a helpful way of restating this requirement: the state may expend resources to accommodate activities that are religious in the eyes of the believers as long as those activities can still be performed by the general public that interprets them as secular.
This is precisely what I argued yesterday in saying that while Arabic or Hebrew are languages used to express religious ideas they are much more than that. As long as you understood this distinction in preparing your curriculum you should be able to navigate this delicate waterway gingerly but well.
But it turns out Feldman comes down on the other side of the fence from me:
The public schools at the center of the other recent controversies, however, seem to represent accommodation of the single-use [religious] variety. Khalil Gibran, administered by the New York City Department of Education, is a watered-down, American version of the British and Canadian models of state-run religious schools catering to Muslims. The school’s name, borrowed from a noted Christian-born Lebanese-American writer of universalist sympathies, appears calculated to signal that the school is not narrowly Muslim. Yet Islam will presumably be taught — it would be educationally indefensible to teach Arab civilization without including it — and enrollment seems likely to include Muslim students in disproportionate numbers. It is difficult to imagine the city sponsoring such an institution without the impetus to maintain warm relations with its Muslim community in the wake of 9/11.
As my reader Amir points out in his comment from today, neither Khalil Gibran nor Ben Gamla prevent non-Arabs or non-Jews from enrolling. In fact, contrary to what Feldman presumes at least in the case of the Arab school, both have students who are not adherents of Islam or Judaism. While it appears that Ben Gamla is heavily (but not fully) Jewish-enrolled, the same may not be the case at Khalil Gibran as a school intern pointed out in Jewish Week:
Still, some questioned whether the school, which had been hoping for an enrollment of about 60, with about half Arabic speakers, could meets its goal. As of Tuesday, said Naamah Paley, who was in charge of enrollment, there were 50, and few were Arabic speakers. Most are African-American.
Feldman expands on his discussion of whether teaching about religion is ipso facto a religious act:
The Ben Gamla Charter School, for its part, claims it will teach Hebrew without inculcating religion. But the school, headed by an Orthodox rabbi, appears to be a version of the nondenominational Jewish community schools that have proliferated recently across the United States. The name Ben Gamla is taken from an Israelite high priest, said by the Talmud to have provided for Jewish schools throughout Judea.
Teaching religious ideas as an academic subject can, of course, be a prime example of dual use, since such ideas may be studied critically without embracing them. But if a school employs religion as the organizing principle for a curriculum inextricably intertwined with a single religious faith, dual use is unlikely to emerge. Studying religious doctrine as a set of ideas to be believed is inherently a religious act — in fact, Judaism traditionally considers the study of God’s word the very essence of religious devotion.
Although it cannot be known for certain before they have begun instruction, Khalil Gibran and Ben Gamla seem poised to teach religion as a set of beliefs to be embraced rather than as a set of ideas susceptible to secular, critical examination. What, after all, is the point of a Jewish cultural school if not to bring the students to appreciation and acceptance of Jewish values? And what are those values if not the outgrowth of Judaism’s millenniums of religious faith and practice?
I disagree with Feldman’s notion that because the school curriculum will teach about Islam that this necessitates that it promotes Islam. It certainly is possible this this could happen. And if Ben Gamla is a thinly disguised Solomon Schechter Day School (and it very well may be), I would agree that this should not be the realm of a public school.
But I maintain that there should be a way to teach about religion in public school without advocating it. Isn’t what the entire academic field of religious studies is all about? Do I have to be Sufi to teach Sufism in a high school or college? I certainly must have an interest in Sufism, but I must have an academic interest and not a believer’s interest.
And as a spiritual, but largely secular Jew, I object to Feldman’s narrow definition of what constitutes Jewish culture and identity (“What, after all, is the point of a Jewish cultural school if not to bring the students to appreciation and acceptance of Jewish values? And what are those values if not the outgrowth of Judaism’s millenniums of religious faith and practice?”). Jewish culture is far larger than merely Jewish faith and practice; or at least it should be. Certainly Jewish faith and practice is part of Jewish culture. But so are vast swaths of Jewish tradition that do not involve faith or theology. Feldman himself points to secular Zionism as but one example, but there are many more including the entire realm of secular Jewish identity represented by groups like the Workmen’s Circle, Jewish Bund; and cultural expressions like klezmer music, Jewish art, literature, etc. While our religion is part of us, we are more than just a religion.