Making the Bible Modern: Children's Bibles and Jewish Education in Twentieth-Century America

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Making the Bible Modern: Children's Bibles and Jewish Education in Twentieth-Century America, by Penny Schine Gold. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. 304 pp. $35.00.

It's déjà vu all over again; or, as Kohelet put it some years before Yogi Berra, ein kol chadash tachat hashemesh. That is the overwhelming feeling of frustration that emerges from reading this important book, and the frustration is not due to the book itself, but to the dilemmas and difficulties that it so thoroughly documents. Penny Schine Gold sets out to discover how children's Bible textbooks of the early twentieth century dealt with issues that Bible educators today also struggle with: how do you adapt a very complex adult book for an audience of children without removing its essence?

The first half of the book contains three chapters which set the scene for Gold's main analytical work. She begins with an introduction to the place of the Bible in Judaism and pre-modern Jewish life, looking at its role in the home, the heder, and the Talmud Torah. In chapter two, she paints in broad strokes the impact of the enlightenment on these communities and their leaders. Then, in chapter three. Gold's focus moves to America, where she surveys some of the key thinkers and ideals of American public education. In these opening chapters she shows how the Bible overtook the Talmud as the centerpiece of American Jewish educational life. The Talmud's particularistic bent no longer fitted in with the universalist and integrationist goals of the American Jewish community, and the Bible, which "had a special place in America generally, where it was considered the generating text of American freedom and democracy" (p. 93), became the "essence" of Judaism (p. 37) to modern American Jews.

The Bible thus became a means to an end; or, in fact, two ends: "building identification with Judaism and harmonizing Jews with their modern American context" (p. 97), and in chapters four and five, Gold gets to work on the real analytical meat of the book, in which she analyzes a wide range of children's Bible books and teaching aids to see how they sought to accomplish those two goals. It is in these sections where the déjà vu sets in: Gold's writers wondered whether and how to deal with "higher criticism" for young children; they grappled with texts which created a "moral dissonance" for the modern reader; they tried to decide what to do with Bible texts whose subjects seemed too adult. Gold shows that three broad approaches were used: what I would term a recapitulation-enlightenment approach, whereby young children were taught the stories at face value and then later exposed to more modern, critical perspectives; not reaching the Bible at all until they were old enough; and the most dominant approach, modifying and adapting biblical texts for young children. Often, as Gold demonstrates, this third approach led to the deletion of large chunks of Biblical material in children's Bibles.

As the Bible became a means to two ends, Biblical stories were subordinated to the moral lessons that could be deduced from them. For example, in her analysis of how different textbooks dealt with the story of Cain and Abel, Gold states that the Biblical text contains three major difficulties for the reader: "Why was Abel's offering acceptable to God and Cain's not? Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did God protect Cain as well as punish him?" (p. 144). Gold shows how various children's collections provide answers to these questions that in essence remove the questions entirely. …