It is an unfortunate fact that one tends to judge a school by the number of passes its pupils have gained in public examinations. Newspapers such as the “Jewish Chronicle” will often have big articles giving a comparison of the public examination results of the various Jewish Schools and how they compare with the national average. Sadly, all this seems to take preference over the issue of the sort of pupils coming out of our Jewish schools. Do they observe Shabbat? Do they keep kashrut? Do they daven? All these things take second or third or even fourth place to their public examination results!
Scripture Knowledge is another opportunity to add to the number of one’s public examination results. So there is pressure from school governors, from headmasters, from parents to take this examination.
[We call the Tenach in English, the Bible. Christians however call the Tenach the Old Testament, since they also have a New Testament. The Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem had a problem in cataloguing books on these subjects. Should they use the term Bible for Tenach, or, alternatively, as Christians used it? We must remember that this library is also used by many Christian scholars. The method the Library uses is to call the Tenach the Bible, and the New Testament by the term New Testament. In this chapter, I will follow the nomenclature used by the Jewish National Library.]
When I was in school at Carmel College in the 1950s, we took the O-level Scripture Knowledge examination. There were three syllabuses, two from the Bible and one from the New Testament. A pupil had to choose one from the Bible plus the New Testament syllabus. There was, however, a proviso that pupils whose parents objected to their taking a paper in New Testament, could instead take both Bible syllabuses. Carmel College succeeding in arranging that instead of taking one of the set Bible syllabuses, their pupils sat a special paper whose syllabus was the Hebrew text of the first 20 chapters of Bereshit. Both the regular papers and the special Hebrew text paper were set and marked by Christians, which probably included Christian clergy. The papers, even the Hebrew text one, did not have a traditional Jewish approach to Tenach, but one could not really class them as objectionable, since in those days the type of questions set in the English Scripture Knowledge paper was “What did A say to B, what did B answer and what followed from this conversation?” One did not have to give a critical analysis of a Biblical passage - just learning a passage “parrot wise,” even without understanding it, was probably sufficient to pass the examination. In the Hebrew text paper, one just had to point a passage with the correct vowels and dageshim, translate some verses and explain the meaning of certain words.
This was still basically the situation when I joined the King David at the end of 1971. One of the alternatives was a paper which required only knowledge of the text of selected historical passages of the Tenach without requiring any theological interpretations. For a teenage pupil who was not really interested in Jewish Studies, and would only study Jewish Studies because he gained an extra O-level, there was a gain in his taking such an examination. He would learn a number of chapters of Tenach.
When I became Director of Jewish Studies, during the 1971-72 academic year, the better pupils of the 5th year were in the course of preparing for the summer examination of the Joint Matriculation Board, and being taught by Rabbi Dr. Solomon himself. The syllabus consisted of passages from the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua. Judges, Samuel and Kings. Rabbi Solomon had prepared a sheet for the pupils on which he wrote:
If you know the text well you will almost certainly pass, though to do well you must know something of the historical background, and possess an intelligent understanding of the passages.” He also on this sheet advised the pupils: “Go to Shul early and regularly, so that you can follow the Reading of the Law and the Haftarah. This will enable you to cover half the syllabus whilst other people are chatting or day-dreaming.
I should mention that when I joined the school, the pupils were using a non-Jewish translation of the Bible. I was against this, since these non-Jewish translations are often made in accordance with Christian doctrine to show that the coming of Jesus is foretold in what they call the Old Testament. As the late Chief Rabbi, Dr. J. Hertz has shown in his commentary on the Chumash, these so called proofs cannot stand up to scrutiny. At first the Headmaster said that this non-Jewish translation was in more modern English than the translation of “The Jewish Publication Society of America.” I pointed out to him that there were passages objectionable to the Jews in the non-Jewish translation and that therefore I wanted a Jewish one. He then suggested that I prepare a list of all these objectionable passages, which we would then distribute to the pupils. I am sure that he had not thought out this suggestion of his to the end. To go through an entire Bible carefully, as one would have to do, and pick out all these passages, could take a whole team working full time over many months. Even if this could be done and such a list were to be prepared, would a pupil reading a chapter be likely to refer to this list to see if I had listed the translation of a verse as objectionable? So we bought sufficient Jewish translations of the Bible, which we then used in our lessons.
After the summer of 1972, the Examination Board made changes in the Scripture Knowledge syllabus. In accordance with the general educational trend of moving away from the type of syllabus, which just required parrot like knowledge of the text, the only syllabus which had been acceptable to us was then abolished. The only syllabus which then remained, which did not directly utilise set passages from the New Testament, required a critical and Christological approach to the Bible. The questions were no longer of the simple format of “What did A say to B….?” This might have remained part of the question but the remainder of such a question was often of the type involving a critical analysis of the text.
Educationally this change is a great improvement, since it prevents a pupil from just churning out information, but instead requires thought and assessment by the pupil. In the case of a subject involving secular texts, such as the study of Shakespeare in English Literature, such a change would present no particular problem for the Jewish pupil. However, in the case of an examination using Biblical texts, great problems will arise, since a non-Jewish examining body is sure to demand an analysis and assessment of the text which is certain to be according to Christian and critical thought.
It is fully understandable that in a Christian country, such as Britain, the public examinations in Scripture Knowledge should be directed towards promoting Christian thought and values, and it is equally understandable that such examinations would be objectionable to Jewish candidates. Why should a Jewish pupil not be able to take an examination in Scripture Knowledge in accordance with Jewish thought and values?
When, in 1972, I saw that the syllabus we had taken until then was to be abolished after that year, I made a careful study of the set books on the only other syllabus remaining on Bible and also of the past papers which had been set on it. I saw that even the list of set books was objectionable to us. They had split the book of Isaiah into two - the first Isaiah and the second Isaiah - in accordance with the “science” called “Higher Criticism” of Wellhausen and his followers. This “science” was called by the late Rabbi Dr. Kopul Rosen “higher hooey.” Passages had also been chosen which the Christians used to “prove” that the Bible foretells the coming of Jesus. Furthermore, a study of questions set in past years revealed several in which the wording of the question itself was objectionable to us.
It was too late to do anything for 1973, so for that year I entered just a token number of pupils for this syllabus. Needless to say, we did not teach them a Christian or critical approach to the Bible.
I realised that it was crucial to find a solution. Dropping Scripture Knowledge as an O-level was not a viable option since the Governors would never agree. The pupils would then gain one less O-level and for the Governors and the Headmaster this would be catastrophic! We therefore wrote to the Secretary of the Board and explained the problem He wrote back suggesting that we write our own syllabus and submit it to the Board together with a sample examination paper.
I should explain here that there are various modes of examinations:
Mode 1: These are the normal syllabuses which are written by the Board and for which they set the examination and mark the papers.
Mode 2: The syllabus is drawn up by an individual school but the question papers are set and marked in the normal way by the Board’s examiners.
Mode 3: The syllabus is drawn up by an individual school and the papers are set and marked by the school. Only the moderation is done by the Board.
In the notes issued by the Board on the preparation of Modes 2 and 3 syllabuses it is stated that such a syllabus will be expected to constitute an approach to the subject not normally found in the existing Mode 1 syllabus. This was ideal for our objectives.
In choosing the set books, I tried to take something from almost every one of the books in the Tenach. I included the entire books of Jonah, Ruth and Esther, which have a particular place in the cycle of our year.
I shall give a few examples of questions or parts of questions from the sample paper which I was required to submit. One of my objectives was linking up what is written in the Tenach with our Jewish practice to this very day and showing that the Tenach is not just a history book of what happened thousands of years ago but a way of life today:
• And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. To what is this verse referring and what other commandments in the Torah are referred to as “signs”? Explain the meaning of the words “between thine eyes.”
• Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, Saith your G-d. From which Prophet is this message taken and for what are the people being comforted? When is this message of comfort read in the Synagogue service?
• (a) Describe briefly:
(i) What instructions the Torah gives regarding the gathering of Manna on the Sabbath.
(ii) Jeremiah warning the people not to carry on the Sabbath.
(iii) How Nehemiah enforced Sabbath observance.
(b) Discuss the significance and importance of the strict cessation of work on the Sabbath.
• Relate the story of Naboth and his vineyard. How does this incident illustrate the difference in character between Ahab and Jezebel? From this and other Biblical sources, what can we learn about repentance?
After the Board received my syllabus and specimen paper, they invited me to a meeting. The Headmaster and Rabbi Solomon, who was then Chairman of the school’s Religious Advisory Committee, accompanied me to this meeting. On the night before, I sat down with the Headmaster to prepare for the meeting and we made a list of questions which the Board had set in previous years which were objectionable to us.
We went by car to Manchester. I don’t remember whose car it was - the Headmaster’s or Rabbi Solomon’s. It certainly wasn’t mine. I cannot drive! When we reached Manchester we got lost and when we finally found the place of the meeting, some of the participants were in the street looking for us. There were a number of people seated around tables arranged in a large square.
The question soon came up as to whether I was prepared to teach the pupils any Bible criticism and I made it quite clear that I was not so prepared. I could see they were not too pleased with this answer of mine. In their official minutes of the meeting they wrote, “The examiners could not be expected to accept for denominational or confessional reasons ignorance in the examination of various facts.”
During the course of one of my answers, I mentioned the Talmud to one questioner and began to explain what this book is. Rabbi Solomon interrupted me and said, “This gentleman knows what the Talmud is.” I immediately said to the questioner, “No offense meant,” and he replied, “No offence taken.”
In their Mode 1 syllabus they had included Jeremiah chapter 31. I had not included this chapter in my syllabus and they asked whether there was any reason why I had not included it. Rabbi Solomon opened the Bible in front of him to this place and told them that it is the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Afterwards when I looked it up myself, I understood why they had asked this question. It is one of the passages used by Christians to foretell the coming of Jesus.
In my specimen paper, I had on a few occasions after using a Hebrew expression (written in English characters) given an English translation afterwards in brackets. An example was “Korban Pesach.” They asked me whether I would do this in the actual examination paper and told me that they also used the word Korban but spelled with a “C” instead of a “K” and expected the candidates to know its meaning. I said I would ask their advice on this matter.
They also explained that they preferred Mode 2 examinations because of problems of moderation of Mode 3.
On our return journey, we discussed this meeting. The Headmaster felt pessimistic about their accepting this syllabus, but I felt optimistic.
I believe that it was after this meeting that the Board contacted me and asked me to send them a marking scheme for my specimen paper. The Deputy Head, who in the past had marked GCE papers, was able to show me some marking schemes he had used and he assisted me in preparing such a marking scheme.
The Board also asked that I write before the set passages a few lines on the objectives of my syllabus, on the same lines as they had done for their Mode 1 syllabus. I accordingly wrote:
“An outline study of the historical background and religious ideas of the Bible according to Rabbinic thought illustrated in the set passages. Particular attention should be given to the eternal nature of the Bible, the application of its Principles and Laws today, repentance, revelation, the Sabbath, prophecy, Kingship and the use of the Bible in Synagogue liturgy.”
Soon after, we received notification from the Board that they had accepted my syllabus as a Mode 2 examination. The first papers were set in 1974.
I understood, (but it seems I misunderstood!) that the examiner would be Jewish, such as someone from Jews’ College. I considered it very important that a person setting and marking a paper on Bible according to Rabbinic thought should have studied the subject in a traditional Jewish way. But this was not the case. The examiner was non-Jewish and had obviously studied the Bible in a intellectual way and not in a traditional Jewish way. Although no criticism could be made regarding the questions he set, I could see from his reports that there was room for some criticism on the way that he marked the pupils’ scripts. However I should stress that the positive side of having such a syllabus greatly outweighed any criticism in this examiner’s method of marking.
The King David High School is a bi-lateral school, and thus it had some pupils able to take only CSE examinations. Just as the GCE examinations of the Joint Matriculation Board were unsuitable for Jewish pupils, so were the CSE examinations of the North Western Secondary School Examination Board. Their passages from the Bible were similar to those of the O-level Board, but they were more open about their objectives. They wrote that the aim of their syllabus is “to bring children into an encounter with Jesus Christ.”
I therefore decided to write a CSE syllabus which I submitted it together with specimen questions which were based on their CSE format, to the North Western Board for their consideration.
As the CSE is of a lower standard than the O-level, the set passages were fewer. However every set passage which appeared on the CSE paper syllabus appeared on the O-level syllabus. This was done because I realised that there were a number of pupils whose ability bordered between O-level and CSE, and it would thus be easier to move pupils between the O-level and CSE classes.
Soon after this, the Deputy Head came to me full of excitement with a Report from the Chief Moderator of Religious Education of the CSE Board. This stated inter alia:
“These [the set Biblical passages] are well chosen… There is adequate scope here to achieve the aims of the syllabus and to provide a satisfactory basis for examination. … and a specimen of questions is presented with the syllabus. These show the evidence of an experienced examiner.”
The Deputy Head thought that this was a Report on the marking scheme that he had helped me with for the O-level paper. He especially liked the phrase “experienced examiner.” Maybe I was tactless when I said that this Report was for something quite different.
The Chief Moderator recommended the acceptance of my syllabus without amendment. As with the O-level, the first papers were set in 1974. Since the CSE was Mode 3, I had to set the papers. Before setting the first paper, I had the idea that it would be preferable if the format of the CSE paper were to more closely resemble the format of the O-level paper, and so I asked permission of the Board to make this change, which they readily granted.
I realised that pupils outside Liverpool could also benefit from these syllabuses and I informed Anglo-Jewry of this by a letter to the “Jewish Chronicle.” After explaining why I had written them and that they had been accepted by the examination Boards, I concluded my letter, “It is very possible that Jewish schools and chedarim may be interested in entering pupils for these examinations and copies of the syllabuses, together with approved specimen questions, may therefore be obtained from me.”
After my letter on the public examinations had been published in the “Jewish Chronicle,” I received a letter from a Jewish educationist from Gateshead, who was very critical of my endeavours and asked which Rabbinical authorities I had consulted. I replied, explaining the reasons for having to write such syllabuses. He immediately sent me a letter unreservedly apologising for his criticism. It was just before Yom Kippur and he sent his letter by Express mail, so I should receive it before Yom Kippur. Possibly because the school was closed on erev Yom Kippur, the letter only reached me after Yom Kippur, but all the same his intentions were admirable.
I sent a copy of the syllabuses and specimen questions to the then Chief Rabbi, Dr. Immanuel Jakobovits and he replied, “It is obvious that you have devoted a great deal of time, effort and thought to the new GCE and CSE syllabus. I do hope that Hebrew classes in particular will utilise the opportunity which you have opened up for them.”
Indeed during the subsequent years pupils from Manchester, Sheffield, Cardiff and Leeds entered for my O-level syllabus. There was even a request from London. Unfortunately, the Examination Boards have definite geographical boundaries and therefore pupils from London could not take this syllabus of mine.
The London teacher who had contacted me thought, that because my O-level syllabus was set by the “Joint Matriculation Board,” it was a “Joint” effort of all the Matriculation Boards in the country and therefore any school in the country could enter pupils for it.
Each year from 1974 to 1978, I composed the question paper for the CSE examination. It was then sent to the moderator for his approval. After that, the School Secretary typed and duplicated the paper, and for this work the Board paid the School one pound. I put it in a sealed envelope and it was then stored in the school safe. I insisted that the scrap copies, which one always has when one duplicates, also be kept in the safe until after the examination, in case someone should find one in a waste paper basket.
Here are some sample questions or parts of questions from my first paper of 1974:
• Write notes on the following:
- The Mitzvah of Tzitzit.
- The reason for walled and non-walled cities celebrating Purim on different days.
- The Cave of Machpelah.
- The instructions given by the Torah regarding lost property.
- The advice given to Rehoboam on becoming king.
• Outline the incidents leading up to David’s marriage with Bat-Sheva.
Briefly describe how the prophet Nathan rebuked David over this matter.
From these incidents what can you learn about the character of David?
• Give a brief account of the Book of Jonah. What are the main lessons to be
learnt from this Book?
Why do we read it on Yom Kippur?
I would try to be present in the examination hall when the papers were given out, in case the print on a paper was not clear. Obviously, I could answer no question a pupil might have on the examination.
After the examination was finished, I would mark the papers in accordance with the marking scheme I had prepared. Following that, the moderator would come to the school. For every year, (except the last one), that I was in Liverpool, it was the Chief Moderator himself who would come. (In my last year, he was indisposed.) I would give him the papers I had marked, He would then check my marking of random questions and he always was in agreement with it. He would then decide on what grades to give each pupil.
When I was already planning my return to Israel, I asked this Chief Moderator for a letter of assessment of my work. He wrote inter alia:
… He [Rabbi Simons] devised the syllabus in Religious Education which was accepted as adequate in content and in conception for this examination, and each year subsequently he has prepared the examination written papers. In each case he has shown his ability to structure an effective examination syllabus and examination and to prepare appropriate papers for his candidates. In addition he has conducted the primary assessment himself and undertaken the administration of the internal arrangements for the examination.
I have been impressed by the degree of professional skill and competance that Rabbi Simons has shown. His work shows sensitivity to the requirements of his pupils and a capacity to deal efficiently with the complex arrangements for internal and external examining work….
Each year, I entered an increasing number of pupils into either the O-level or CSE examinations. My aim was that every Jewish pupil in the 5th year would obtain a pass in one of these examinations. In 1977, 87 percent of all the Jewish pupils in the 5th year obtained a pass. I stress here 87 per cent of all the Jewish pupils in the class, not 87 per cent of those who took the examination. (The 1978 results were published after I had returned to Israel and I never received a copy of them.)
But even with these excellent results, there were 13 per cent who didn’t gain a pass and amongst them were the sons of two of the Governors. This of course made the teaching of Scripture Knowledge no good! As Michael Rothbard said to me at the time, “It’s not how many failed; it’s who failed!” These two boys should have passed but obviously they didn’t work hard enough. I heard via the grape vine that complaints were aired that year at a meeting of the Merseyside Jewish Representative Council about the teaching of this subject, obviously because of these two failures. If this rumour was correct, I should have been asked to comment, but I wasn’t.
I myself considered these 1977 results to have been a particularly good achievement, in view of the fact that Jewish Studies were allocated fewer periods in the timetable than any other subject. In addition I did not wish to devote all the periods to preparation for this public examination. There were other subjects I wanted to be put into the 5th form curriculum such as Modern Jewish History. We also arranged talks and lectures for the class.
The Jewish Studies Staff Association made it abundantly clear that they could “not hold themselves responsible for inferior results which might arise from the smaller allocation of periods [in which to teach the pupils for these examinations].”
We would periodically receive a Report from the O-level examiner on the scripts he had marked. The Report on the 1975 examination made certain observations. He complained that the pupils did not distinguish between the plain sense of the Biblical text and the Midrashic interpretation (a comment which he had also made on the previous year), showed a lack of critical analysis of the text and did not discuss divergent interpretations.
The Headmaster sent this Report to the Jewish Studies sub-Committee and asked me to write my observations on the examiner’s criticisms, but he added that I should not repeat the comments which the Jewish Studies Staff Association had made. Personally, I felt that those reports were intended for study and discussion by professional teachers and not for committees of laymen, but I did not want to make an issue of this point.
I began by saying that this Report does not appertain to just the King David High School but to all the schools and centres who take this examination. By that time there were a number of provincial institutions in the North of England and Wales taking this examination. I pointed out that the examiner “is a non-Jew ... he may have some knowledge of Rabbinic commentaries but he has certainly not studied Tenach in a traditional Jewish manner. This is reflected in his report and presumably in his marking as well.”
One of the schools which had been using this syllabus was the Manchester Jewish Grammar School for Girls, under the Headmastership of Rabbi Moshe Young. He was dissatisfied with this examiner’s report and he wrote to the examiners pointing out that “the accepted method of Bible Study is to read into the text both Midrashic and classic Rabbinic commentaries.” My discussions at the time with other Jewish educationists confirmed the point made by Rabbi Young. All this, I also wrote in my observations. I understand that because of the examiner’s method of marking the scripts, Rabbi Young then stopped entering his pupils for this examination.
The Examiner’s report and Rabbi Young’s reply to it were discussed at a RAC meeting, where it was suggested that the Directors of Jewish Studies of the schools taking this syllabus should get together and ask for a meeting with the Examination Board. However such a meeting never materialised. Maybe this was because I was concerned that the Board might stop this syllabus completely which would be a greater loss.