Using Literature as a Vehicle for Exploring Spirituality

by | May 3, 2023 | Cultivating Jewish Spirituality | 0 comments

Introducing Spirituality in the Classroom

If cultivating spirituality means creating the drive to unify the self with God, to see God’s hand in one’s life, and to transcend the self to connect with others, then literature presents myriad opportunities to experience that transcendent sense of unity. In fact, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) may be a child’s first literary encounter with the foundations of this experience—friendship, which is woven of loyalty, kindness, compassion, and sacrifice. Interestingly, the spiritual nature of these four elements, i.e., transcending the self to empathize with another individual, is embodied by the web itself.

As we know, spider webs are constructed of filaments a spider sends forth out of itself. Like the fixed vertical (warp) threads on a loom, these filaments must cling to various points at the web’s perimeter before the weaving can begin. This process and the resulting web are metaphors for what it takes to build a friendship. We must send forth empathy out of ourselves to connect with another person, and only after numerous attempts to do so, can the web of friendship be woven. This, of course, is emphasized in White’s novel by Charlotte’s weaving the word FRIEND into her final web, and it is an opportunity for us to introduce spirituality to young children.

Some works are clearly about spiritual journeys, for example, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), and Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000). Others, such as Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), Bernard Malamud’s short story “A Summer’s Reading” (1956), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) offer spiritual allegories that we can teach students to detect and understand. Identifying these requires only a theological frame of mind and a sensitivity to characters transcending themselves. It is these which I will briefly explore here.

Infinity and God (The Phantom Tollbooth)

In Juster’s 1961 classic The Phantom Tollbooth, ten-year-old Milo thinks learning is a waste of time. Suddenly, a tollbooth appears in his room, and upon entering it, he is transported to the lands of Dictionopolis (a city of words) and Digitopolis (a city of numbers). Risking his life, he rescues these cities’ rulers’ sisters who have been imprisoned in the Castle in the Air, guarded by monstrous demons and a disappearing staircase. Milo succeeds, restoring reason and reunifying the Kingdom of Wisdom. Suddenly back in his room, the tollbooth gone, the boy realizes how much there is to do.

In Chapter 15, “This Way to Infinity,” the Mathemagician, ruler of Digitopolis, describes the concept of infinity to Milo by asking him to think of the greatest number and keep adding one to it. Then the boy asks about the smallest number, which also never ends, because, he is told, “you can always take half of whatever you have left.” But it is the .58 boy, one of the eccentric characters Milo meets along his journey, whose explanation of infinity links it, and learning in general, to the divine. He tells Milo:

“One of the nicest things about mathematics, or anything else you might care to learn, is that many of the things which can never be, often are. You see, . . . it is very much like your trying to reach Infinity. You know that it’s there, but you just don’t know where—but just because you can never reach it doesn’t mean that it’s not worth looking for.”

In other words, infinity is eternal in both directions (endless large and small numbers); it is unseen but exists; and just because you can never actually locate it does not mean it’s not there, or that it’s not worth seeking. These statements are true of God as well. He is eternal in time and space; He is unseen but exists; and just because we can’t ‘find’ Him doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, or that He is not worth searching for.

Understanding Faith  (The Phantom Tollbooth)

When Milo announces his intention to rescue the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason, their brothers, Azaz and the Mathemagician, tell him that getting to the Castle in the Air is “[c]ompletely impossible,” but as the boy has discovered, “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” It seems to me that doing the impossible because one believes it is possible is another way of defining faith. For instance, the idea of an invisible God that rules the universe might appear impossible, but if we have faith that He exists, we can bring him down from His metaphorical Castle in the Air and make Him part of our lives.

By the same token, if we have faith that we can accomplish something, we often succeed. Yet we are told that those demons guarding the castle are not destroyed, but merely driven away; they may return to block anyone’s path at any time. This is why we must be alert to their presence on our own journeys, particularly our journeys of faith. That is, there will always be obstacles and doubts to block our way, but our faith must conquer them.

Exodus Allegory (Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading”)

This tale is the story of twenty-year-old high school dropout George Stoyanovich, who leaves the perceived slavery of school for the freedom of the streets. After wandering aimlessly for months, worried that the lie he told to his neighbor Mr. Cattanzara, an alcoholic subway change-maker, (that the boy was reading 100 books, would be found out, George is saved by the man’s ‘commandment’: “Don’t do what I did.” This turns out to be George’s revelation, and he keeps his promise/covenant by going to the library (his temple), counting off 100 books, and reading.

Remarkably, Malamud’s story reimagines Exodus’s main episodes: moving from slavery to freedom, experiencing Revelation, receiving the Law, accepting the Covenant to follow the Law, and building the Temple/Sanctuary. Here, the library represents not only a sanctuary from wandering but also the building of a sanctuary or temple within, in terms of George’s educating himself.

Thus, George’s re-enacting of the Children of Israel’s steps from slavery to freedom can suggest similar journeys in our students’ lives. Children can identify their own perceptions of slavery and what freedom would mean to them. Then, just as Mr. Cattanzara acts as George’s redeemer, so too, children may identify change-makers in their own lives and wonder whether, like Moshe, they have been sent by God.

Spirituality with No Outlet (Frankenstein)

Mary Shelley’s novel of mad-scientist Victor Frankenstein and his unnamed monster (composed of corpses) is a lesson in the importance of transcending the self to love an Other, for the consequences of failing to do so are tragic. Repulsed by his creature’s grotesque appearance, Frankenstein abandons it at ‘birth.’ But the being suffers in loneliness and compares himself and his maker to Adam and God in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Shelley’s work is a study of the twin tragedies of a man’s inability to transcend his own pride and of an empathetic creature who has no one to love. The being begs Frankenstein to create an Eve, but proud and selfish Victor refuses, fearing his legacy as the father of a race of hideous monsters. The unnamed creature has the spirituality his creator lacks but has no one to receive his devotion. Tragically, rage and loneliness drive the innately benevolent being to become a monster who murders everyone Frankenstein loves.

Transcendence (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler)

Spirituality in this novel takes the form of three egocentric characters learning to love and appreciate each other. Konigsberg’s children’s classic presents the subjects of sibling rivalry, selfishness, arrogance, and ingratitude as isolating and self-destructive. Twelve-year-old Claudia and her nine-year-old brother Jamie run away from home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art because Claudia believes her mother does not appreciate her and favors her three younger brothers. Over the course of three days, Claudia learns to value Jamie for more than the money he brings to their adventure, and he, who had had virtually no relationship with Claudia, actually worries about her safety and comes to love her.

Eventually, a wealthy old reclusive widow, a client of their lawyer-grandfather, rescues the children from the museum, to which she had donated a hitherto unknown statue of an angel by Michelangelo. The childless woman, Mrs. Frankweiler, sees herself in the selfish and arrogant Claudia, and secretly bequeaths to the children Michelangelo’s drawing of the statue. As Jamie suggests ‘adopting’ the woman as their grandmother, Claudia and Mrs. Frankweiler come to transcend their respective pride to bond with each other. Importantly, this novel demonstrates the need for transcending the self to create healthy family relationships. In other words, spirituality begins at home. For if we are each siloed in our own sense of pride or privilege, we risk sacrificing that joyous feeling of unity with another person. In this sense, then, spirituality is the antidote to loneliness.


From the very first novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), whose idealistic knight believes he is fighting God’s battles; to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), which seeks to justify the ways of God to man; to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), whose title character experiences the revelation of an “invisible world and a kingdom of spirits”; to Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev (1972), which asks how to have a relationship with God when the gift He has given you is spurned by all, literature has been suffused with the search for spirituality.

It is in this vein that I have endeavored to demonstrate how to use literature as a vehicle for teaching young people what spirituality looks like and, hopefully, to cultivate in them a spiritual habit of mind. For many children, spirituality often takes the form of asking, “Does God control everything in my life?” Surprisingly, Juster’s novel may offer an answer: The tollbooth that magically appears in Milo’s room can stand for opportunities or doorways that God provides, which can empower us to direct aspects of our own lives. Whether we walk through them—or not—is up to us. But seeing God’s hand in phantom opportunities, unlikely redeemers, or in our inborn need to transcend ourselves and love others can serve as the first steps in a child’s life-long spiritual journey.

Eileen H. Watts chairs the English Department at Kohelet Yeshiva High School (Merion Station, PA) where she co-teaches a course on Literature, Philosophy, and Jewish Thought. Dr. Watts was bibliographer for The Bernard Malamud Society from 1994 to 2009 and writes about the intersection of literature and Jewish theology.

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