Connectedness: On the Possibilities and Limits of Spiritual Education

by | May 3, 2023 | Cultivating Jewish Spirituality | 1 comment

Even if they haven’t theorized it, Jewish educators have known for a very long time that various developmental stages necessitate new and more complex theological approaches and frameworks and that the failure to properly introduce or develop aspects of our theology stunts the development of the Jewish mind and spirit. The conception of God, the approach to Midrash, the reading of a Rashi—all of these are initially taught in some of our earliest years and in some of the sweetest, most endearing ways. Yet, we would certainly agree that should a student graduate from the day school system with the same conception of God or with the same methodological approach to Humash, the system has absolutely failed him. Certainly, the Mishnah in Avot 5:21 reflects this understanding of an evolving developmental approach to our tradition in its prescription of texts by age for instruction: age five for Scripture, age ten for Mishnah, and age fifteen for Talmud. Underlying this mishnah is the assumption not only of accessibility and canonicity for the youngster, but that the mature mind can and should be introduced to texts with greater historic variance, ambiguity, and sophistication.

The same development can and should be true for spiritual education. Parker Palmer, perhaps the greatest public thinker about spiritual development in schools, lamented in 1998: “When we fail to honor the deepest questions of our lives, education remains mired in technical triviality, cultural banality, and worse: it continues to be dragged down by a great sadness.” This grief, Palmer concludes, is “at bottom, a cry for human meaning.” If we are to define spiritual education, at the bottom, as a search for human meaning, then we must do so with an eye for the ethics in so doing: what is at stake, otherwise, is an existential vacuum.

And yet. In the last 40 years, both the UK and the US have seen a sudden interest in spiritual education, even in public school settings, that has adopted uncritically the language and practice of various spiritual traditions. For Jonathan Long, the challenge of encouraging experiences of transcendence without consideration or exploration of the “metaphysical frameworks which may be used to interpret them” results in an unmediated or rudderless experience. Instead, he suggests that educational contexts should be responsible “to expose what meaning or significance is being attached to any experience of transcendence.”

As a Sacks fellow at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel School of Jewish Studies, I sought to canvas the state of spiritual education in contemporary Jewish day schools, and I proposed to pilot a curriculum of my own founded on the possibilities and limits of spiritual education. In my research, I found little consistent pedagogical practice. Some schools teach standalone medieval Jewish philosophy curricula, focusing on tenets of faith and central arguments and disputations. Other schools found Tanakh education to be the springboard for conversations about God, humanity, and ethics. And others found the occasional experiential program to be the locus of spiritual engagement: a weekly tisch or oneg, or a seasonal or holiday-based program. I did not surface a curriculum that intentionally addressed the developmental shifts of young adolescence to young adulthood, evolving the theological understanding of such basic concepts of God, or the obligations of humanity to itself, others, and the world.

With such a chasm in the field, then, I attempted to outline a curriculum, founded on developmentally appropriate models for spirituality. In what follows, I’ll share a summary of such a vision and curriculum for spiritual education that centers on connectedness between Self and God/Other/World/Self.

While there are many, the two contemporary educational theories about the spiritual development of the child that I found most useful were Jean Piaget’s and Kuhn/Dean’s. Jean Piaget is perhaps best known for his work on the development of morality and epistemology in the child, in that moral knowledge becomes at once more internalized and more abstracted. Piaget’s spiritual autobiography and development offers a clear model for these same theories of morality. For just as the rules of morality are “initially experienced as sacred and outside the self” but are then subordinated to “conscience, the norms of reason, and consideration for multiple points of view,” the spiritual maturation of Piaget’s conception of God likewise moved from transcendent to immanent.

Kuhn and Dean’s foundational study of developmental stages through the lens of metacognition, from infancy to young adulthood, is another useful paradigm. In their reading, children move through four stages of epistemology: realist, absolutist, multiplist, and evaluativist. In the realist stage, unique to infancy and through the age of four, beliefs and knowledge are copies of reality. The knowing mind does little to construct or critique such knowledge. From the age of four until adolescence, children engage in absolutist thinking: knowledge is construed as facts, and falsehoods can be noticed in the process of knowing. In early adolescence, knowledge becomes less objective and the possibility for subjective ways of knowing emerges, where “everyone now becomes right.” Finally, with early adulthood, a critical faculty is appended to the multiplist way of thinking, so that the young adult can evaluate subjective ways of knowing, providing “an intellectual basis for judging ideas better than others.”

Both Piaget and Kuhn/Dean offer paradigms for developmental psychology that are easily transferable to the cognitive and spiritual development of childhood and young adulthood. For Piaget, the shift towards internalization of one’s learning as a personalized, moral compass, reflects a healthy maturation. For Kuhn/Dean, it is the movement away from absolutist thinking and towards acknowledging others’ experiences of the truth, ultimately followed by the critical ability to discern and evaluate. For both paradigms, the measure of maturation is commensurate with the connectedness to the abstraction. God, in other words, is no longer an inherited, symbolic representation; God is now both an immanent experience and a personalized knowledge.

In thinking through the dearth of existing curricula in Jewish day schools, the literature around spiritual education in public schools, and the ethical necessity to educate the child according to his or her developmental stage, the overarching theme of connectedness emerged as a useful paradigm for both general and Jewish modes of spirituality. As Daniel Vokey has argued, spirituality is typically presented either as consisting of, or as leading to, experiences of connectedness with (a) our deepest selves, with all our secret hopes and fears; (b) other human and non-human souls; (c) the natural world; (d) the larger purposes, potentials, and powers.

This model of connectedness resonated deeply with my experience as an educator, in which I was challenged and charged to deepen the connection of students’ spiritual relationships. It also resonated deeply, because the central spiritual relationships in Jewish commandedness, as we formulate them, consist of bein adam lamakom, between man and God, and bein adam lahaveiro, between man and his friend. By extension, to follow Vokey’s schema, I added bein adam le’atzmo, between man and himself, and bein adam la’olam, between man and the natural world.

My piloted curriculum, therefore, consists of four units or modules, each of which encourages the development of the young adult’s relationship, with the aim of shifting from transcendent to immanent, and from absolutist to multiplist. While this is not the forum for a full presentation of the final curriculum, I will share a few examples of texts included in the curriculum that encouraged new, more sophisticated, and ultimately more immanent ways of thinking, experiencing, and knowing God. The trajectory that I trace here is one that encourages releasing prior, developmentally earlier conceptions of God, in order to embrace a more complex paradigm for relating to God—first, through an unfolding, process theology, and second, through a personalized immanence aligned with prayer.

First, to complicate the conception of a knowable, static God, and thus prompt students to develop and mature their relationship with God, I include a text that encourages a “negative theology”—that is, not holding onto prior conceptions of God, but by knowing God through an undoing of that very same knowledge. Here, we cite R. Nachman of Breslov’s Likutei Moharan, 6:

And even if a person knows inside himself that he has been totally sincere in his repentance, he must still repent for his first act of repentance. This is because when he first repented, he did so according to his level of perception [then]. But afterwards, when he [again] repents, he certainly recognizes and perceives even more about God. So that relative to his present perception, his first perception was certainly crude in comparison. We find, therefore, that he must repent for his original repentance, for having made crass the exalted nature of His Godliness.

Relating to God through an act of repentance necessitates, at the very same moment, an unknowing of that initial knowledge, lest God become static. For students, this is a text that affirms a paradox: of pursuing and developing a relationship with God by also undoing prior, perhaps irrelevant paradigms.

Once students are encouraged to cast away stale conceptions of God, we introduce a new way of thinking about God’s progressive relationship with the individual and through history. Here, we include the commentary of the Mei Hashiloah, commonly known as “the Izhbitzer,” on the first of the Ten Commandments:

The opening commandment begins with anokhi, but not with ani, for had it opened with ani the implication would have been that God had revealed all of His light in totality. Had He done that there would be no room for deep contemplation of God’s word as it would have all been revealed. The letter khaf (which, as a prefix, means “like” or “as if”) which transforms ani into anokhi, demonstrates that God’s revelation was not total but only a facsimile of the light which He will later reveal. With every layer of depth of understanding of Torah, the individual recognizes that until that point they were living in relative darkness.

Students are prompted to consider that God’s revelation of Himself was not complete, nor is it ever complete. What was revealed was an aspect or likeness of God’s light, which is emblematic of God’s revelation through history—and in our own lives. As such, they are encouraged to develop an understanding of God through both personal and historic times and to see God’s revelation as a theological process, one that is, perhaps, infinite and asymptotic.

While the prior text offers a theology, I will close here by offering more of a personal, even mystical teaching by Rav Kook that encourages a new way of thinking about the immanence of God, the presence of God in every student’s life, through the personal act of prayer. While this text is included in the unit on bein adam le’atzmo, it certainly has relevance and some overlap with the prior unit on one’s connectedness to God. Ultimately, it encourages a non-dualistic insight, which is a cognitive maturation towards the Piaget-like immanence and personalization of God:

Prayer comes in its perfected form only with the consciousness that the neshamah is always praying. Does she not fly, and join to her beloved (Song of Songs 8:5) without any break at all? It is only that, in the time of active prayer, the soul’s ceaseless prayer is revealed in actuality. This is her fineness and her pleasure, the glory and beauty of prayer, which is like a rose that opens its fair petals to greet the dew or the sun’s rays which appear on her in her radiance; therefore, “Oh, that one would pray all day long!” (Berakhot 21a)

Here, Rav Kook’s text might be utilized to reorient prayer—not as an outward projection, but as an inner listening. It promotes a divine self, an immanent divinity, self-compassion, and trust in both quieting outside voices and trusting one’s inner voice. Students are prompted to not only think about this text but to experience this text—and specifically, as a meditation preceding their daily, ritual prayer.

While still in its infancy, my hope and prayer is to contribute a developmentally appropriate schema to Jewish spiritual education, one that appropriately challenges and evolves students’ conceptions and relationships with God, themselves, others, and the world. With developmental psychology’s stages and the lens of spiritual connectedness, I believe, we will clearly frame a Jewish spiritual education founded in rich and complex Jewish texts.

Hillel Broder is Principal of DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach. Rabbi Broder holds Semikha from Rabbi Ari Enkin and a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center, and is currently pursuing an MA in Jewish Philosophy at the Bernard Revel Graduate School where he is a Sacks Scholar Graduate Fellow in Ethics and Entrepreneurship. This paper was researched and composed as part of his fellowship.

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1 year ago

How do you suggest offering into a curriculum the warmth of a personal relationship with one’s rebbe which critical to internalizing the love of G-d, the love from G-d, and ultimately the love of each student as valued by the rebbe and, by extension, G-d? Second question is how to do you help students appreciate the Absolute Truth of Torah, and encouraging questions which take the Truth of Torah as axiomatic, rather than subject to doubt and disbelief?