Toward Spiritual Education

  • by: Aryeh Ben David

Addressing the Problem of “Disconnection”:

Creating a Learning Environment of Personal Relevance and Passion based on the Wisdom of the Kabbalah

I) The Problem:
For the past 15 years I have been teaching full-time. I have taught Jewish Studies to adults, ranging in age from 18 to 75. I have taught Torah, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish thought, prayer, ethics, and more. I have taught in Israel, the U.S., and England. As a measure of success, I have received letters years later from students telling me what a positive experience they had had in our classroom.
Nevertheless, at the end of most years of teaching, amidst the many thank you’s and expressions of gratitude of the students, I have been left with a restless feeling. I didn’t know where it came from, and didn’t know what it meant. I had a sense that something was missing. Though the students seemed satisfied, I had a sense that something was missing, something had not happened. What was it?
The students certainly had learned a tremendous amount of information. And for the most part they had enjoyed their learning. But still, something was missing.
For 15 years I’ve struggled with this unsettling feeling. Recently, it has become clearer to me where, regretfully, I have failed my students.
What was missing? Connection. It was a problem of connection, or rather, of disconnection.
The learning had not become part of their inner life. It had not deeply affected their being. They had not been changed by their learning. It had not entered the lives of the students, their identities, and their souls, but had remained – information. Disconnected. The information remained in the books. Sometimes it even remained in their minds. But still, something was missing.
Disconnection. Since this observation, I have had many conversations with other educators. It seems that almost everyone is aware of this problem, though I can’t recall the last time we discussed this issue at a faculty meeting. I ask, “has the learning in your classroom engendered passion in your students?” “Do you sense that your students are incorporating it into their lives?” “Has their learning become a transformative experience? Or has it remained – disconnected?”
There is often nod of recognition. Followed by a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, “what do you want? What can you expect? It’s school, after all.”
The problem of disconnection. Looking back, I now realize that it I also felt it as a student. Now I am frustrated by it as a teacher.
It is a problem that will not be solved by more content. It is a problem that will not be solved by better-educated teachers. It is a problem that will not be solved through more pedagogical techniques.
There is another approach. An approach that does not detract at all from the intellectual rigor and intensity of learning that we all desire. It involves shifting our present paradigm of focusing on what is learned, to focusing on what the learner is doing with this learning. And not just the mind of the learner, but his or her whole being.
There is no specific agenda describing precisely how the learner should integrate the material. The goal is not for the teacher to change the students. Rather the goal is to create an educational environment and approach which will invite and allow the students to change themselves.
The goal is to create connection.
II) “Spiritual Education”: the Voice of the Soul.
Is the goal of Jewish education to transmit knowledge? Or is the goal to transmit knowledge in order to affect and transform the identity of the student?
It is my experience that a purely mind focused approach to education will inevitably lead to states of disconnection for most of the students.
How can education become more than just an intellectual experience? How can it become what I refer to as “Spiritual Education?”
First, we have to do away with two widespread stereotypes of spirituality: 1) the stereotype of spiritual behavior, and 2) the stereotype of the goal of spirituality.
Behavioral stereotype: Often I ask a group of students, “What does a spiritual person do? What does a spiritual person look like?” I inevitably receive answers like: “they are mellow, they meditate a lot, or do yoga, they sing, they dance, they’re probably vegetarian or vegan, they wear flowing clothes, etc.” Then I ask the group “how many of you fit into these categories?” and rarely a hand goes up.
Goal stereotype: I ask the students, “What is the goal of becoming more spiritual?” Again, the answers usually revolve around the stereotype of “being at peace with oneself, achieving nirvana, calm and serenity.”
Unfortunately, maybe tragically, this pervasive characterization is terribly limiting. It subconsciously causes most of the people that I meet to conclude that, because they do not see themselves in this way, that they are not spiritual beings. It is a stereotype which excludes most of them.
Then I ask the students if they think that they have a soul. Virtually all of them respond affirmatively. “Well,” I ask them, “what does this soul do? What does it occupy itself with? Does it ‘just sit there,’ or is it active in any manner?”
The Voice of the Soul: According to Rav Kook, the soul is always active, always communicating to each person, though we may rarely be listening to it. The soul is always trying to convey to each of us what we should ideally be doing. It’s conveying our uniqueness, our mission in life. It is our inner voice.
How do we access this voice of the soul? Through moments of intuition, through moments that Rav Kook refers to as “spiritual lightning bolts.” Moments that we simply sense what is the right path for us, in the small or large picture of life. Moments that are inexplicable, to us or others, but nevertheless, moments which resonate with a deep truth. There are, of course, many competing voices. But ultimately, there is only one voice which is truly ours. It is only through listening to this voice of the soul that can grant the deepest happiness and clarity of purpose in life.
Rav Kook writes that if someone does not listen to their inner voice, they will consequently feel a sense of depression, a sense of personal confusion, a withering sense of enervation. Many of us feel at different times in our lives – a sense of the “blah’s.” Nothing objectively seems to be so wrong; no crisis has just occurred or seems imminent. Yet nevertheless, there is a lack of passion, a lack of excitement in my life. Writes Rav Kook that this happens because I am not leading my life, I am not listening to my inner voice.
The solution to this case of the “blah’s” is not to pick up a new hobby or take a vacation. The solution is not external, but lies within me. I need to begin to listen to this voice of God within me. Though Rav Kook was one of the Jewish greatest scholars of the last century, he placed a greater emphasis on the power of intuition than the power of the intellect. Intuition is this inner voice trying to break through to me, calling to me to become who I should be in this world.
Jewish spirituality is not to be equated with the goal of inner peace or tranquility. Rather it is connected with this sense of an inner voice, which inevitably leads to a sense of mission, a sense of calling.
Jewish Spirituality. Is it an oxymoron? It begins with understanding that we have an inner voice that is always talking to us.
III) Educational Approach of “Spiritual Education”: accessing our Inner Voice:
According to the Kabbalah, there are three primary inner voices; this inner voice of the soul expresses itself primarily in three dimensions: the mind, the heart, and the body. We can refer to them as the three primary voices of the soul. In Jewish mystical thought these three spheres of being are referred to as the Neshama (intellectual drive), the Ruach (emotional drive), and the Nefesh (physical drive).
The Neshama voice is concerned with what goes on in my mind. It urges me to elevate what occupies my thoughts, the content and direction of my thinking.
The Ruach voice is concerned with the meditations of my heart, my emotional world. It urges me to uplift my emotions and character traits. It is the voice which impels me to have deeper relationships of love and compassion.
The Nefesh voice is concerned with my physical self, my physical world, and my natural drive for survival. It urges me to take all of my physical drives and to elevate them, to refine them, and not to let my animal instincts control me.
Mind, heart, and body. Ideally, these three elements are harmonized, interacting in harmony with each other. No part of the individual is either ignored or denied. The spiritual dimension of these three voices direct me to utilize and express these three voices in an unselfish, giving manner.
Students have often remarked that this understanding of spirituality fundamentally alters their own self-perception. According to this approach, spirituality is not something which is limited to the synagogue or to special holidays. Spirituality is a level of consciousness or awareness that can be expressed in all spheres of human endeavor. Spirituality is not exclusively the human being’s relationship with God, but rather how the relationship with God is expressed in every sphere of behavior, at all times.
Education needs to respond and impact all of these levels. The student is not just a mind, but a whole being. Education needs to affect this whole being; it has to impact each of these dimensions individually and then harmonize these effects. Then it becomes what I refer to as “Spiritual Education.”
Programmatic Ramifications:
1. A safe and supportive environment must be created that will be conducive to the accessing of each of these voices.
2. Each subject has to be crafted so that the participant ultimately relates to it with his/her physical, emotional, and intellectual being.
When “spiritual education” engages, involves, and influences the whole being of the students, their soul, it becomes transformative, relevant, meaningful, and impassioned. It becomes connected.
IV) How does “Spiritual Education” work?
First of all, a “Safe Space” needs to be created:
1. Safe Space: The environment must be conducive to personal transformation. It must be a cooperative and supportive learning atmosphere, without judgment, conflict, or fear of excessive critique or attack. No personal and emotional engagement will occur in a setting bereft of mutual trust, support, openness, and empathy. The learning will remain exclusively intellectual, and disconnected from the hearts of the students.
At the beginning of a “Spiritual Education” seminar we lay the ground rules very clearly by stating: “Everyone is invited, but they must leave their cynicism at the door.”
The center of Jewish learning, the Beit Midrash, has always exemplified vibrant discussion and arguing. The Chevruta model (learning in pairs) promotes disagreement and challenge, all for the sake of arriving at a greater truth. Yet, if mutual trust and openness have not first been developed between the students, then they will be reluctant to open their hearts to each other and to the learning. Disconnection will inevitably result.
2. Deep Listening: after the model of “safe space” has been introduced, the idea of “deep listening” needs to be presented. The students need to be familiarized with the approach of active, compassionate listening. Not listening in order to challenge and confront, but deep listening in order to draw out what is truly happening with the other, withholding judgment, withholding evaluation.
Without a safe supportive environment, the students’ mind may be present, but their hearts will be absent. In the words of Parker Palmer (The Courage to Teach), a non-supportive environment will not engender intellectual rigor, rather it will result in intellectual rigor mortis. Students will not be willing to explore new and creative territory for themselves if they are anxious that they will be confronted. Transformation involves risk-taking, and only an encouraging, empathetic environment will allow for this vulnerability.
V) Engaging the Heart:
The Talmud repeatedly states that “a person only learns from the place where his/her heart desires.” The problem of connection is, first and foremost, a problem of the heart. If the students’ hearts have not been opened to the learning, then they will surely remain disconnected from whatever content is being studied. In the language of the students: “I’m simply not into it.”
How can the heart be engaged?
First, the students need to recover their own voice. They need to “check-in” with themselves vis-à-vis the subjects being learned. What is their personal attitude toward the material? What does this subject evoke within them? Does it excite or anger them? They need to recover their own voice, even if it says “this material bores me.”
How is it educationally possible to engage the hearts of the students?
1. Stage #1 – As Individuals. The opening question of a learning session is addressed to each individual student. Each student is asked to answer the question of “ayeka” (“where am I?”) in writing: “Where am I – – vis-à-vis whatever subject is presently being studied?” Before learning about what others have thought and said regarding the subject being studied, they must first contemplate what their own approach and attitude is toward it. This question invites the students to engage personally with the subject at hand.
2. Stage #2 – With a partner or small group. To further enable the students to personally connect with the subject, we then invite them to take a partner and discuss several trigger questions together. We refer to this exercise as a “spiritual chevruta” (learning in pairs). These questions invite the students to speak very openly about the issues being studied. It naturally continues the mood of personal engagement that the opening question began.
If we are studying Jewish spirituality, then following questions could be asked: “How would I describe the condition of my spiritual life today? How would I like it to be? When do I feel most spiritual? When is it difficult for me to feel spiritual? When was the last time that I had a spiritual moment?”
This sharing in pairs is conducted in consonance with the previously introduced concept of “safe space”. Students are instructed to listen with great care, and to ask only “reflective questions” which will help the speaker clarify his or her position.
3. Stage #3 – As a group: Now, after the students have individually wrestled with their own approach to the material (stage #1), and have begun to go deeper and articulate their thoughts (stage #2), we invite the students to gather together and listen to each other. At stage #3 they are asked to think if they have ever had a personal experience in their lives which reflects the subject at hand. If we are studying, the students are asked to share a “spiritual moment.”
We have found that this process begins to open up the heart and cohere the group as a whole. As the students hear some members of the group talk sincerely and openly, the rest of the group are moved to become more sincere and open. Through the developing of “safe space” and sharing personal experiences, the hearts of the individuals and of the group opens wider and wider.
VI) Engaging the Mind:
Education, of course, engages one’s mind. But “Spiritual Education” engages one’s mind in a radically different fashion. In classic education, the goal is the acquiring of information, the understanding and assimilation of content. It amount and depth of the learning is measurable, we can test the students to determine how much they have understood. In “Spiritual Education”, the goal is not the acquiring of information, but rather the integrating of the information in an active and personal manner. Thus, learning is no longer the “end”, it now becomes a springboard for personal integration.
This change of purpose alters the learning experience in three primary ways: 1) the focus of the teacher, 2) the focus of the student, and 3) the teacher-student relationship as a whole.
1) The focus of the teacher:
“Spiritual Education” reorients the motivation and goal of the teacher. My goal is not so much “to convey” as “to evoke”.
The goal should not be what the teacher says. It is, of course, crucial that the teacher be knowledgeable in his/her field, prepares well, and presents the material in an engaging manner. But all this is a springboard and catalyst for the responses of the students. The goal should be what the students say.
2) The focus of the student:
The student needs to be active in his/her learning. The traditional Jewish method of education is called “chevruta (paired learning).” Often this method spawns a thesis-antithesis-synthesis process which enables the students to probe much deeper into their learning than if they studied separately.
“Spiritual Education” slightly alters this focus, something else would be added. Since the goal is not exclusively acquiring the content, but creating the “connection” between the student and the material, we would also spend some time asking questions like – “what do you think of what we are learning? What, if anything, has affected you? Either positively or negatively.”
Furthermore, since the goal is learning for personal integration, it now becomes incumbent on each of us to learn more about each other. Just as I am not learning exclusively with my mind, but also with my heart and body (see next chapter), so too it is incumbent upon me to assist my learning partner to do likewise. Thus, the more we know about each other, the more we become two full human beings sitting opposite each other (as opposed to just two minds), the better we will be able to help each other learn and personally integrate the subject at hand.
3) The focus of the teacher-student relationship:
The Talmud refers to the relationship between teacher and student as comparable to a parent-child relationship. “Spiritual Education” seeks to draw upon this parallel and to let it inform the learning process.
If the goal is acquiring information, then the person who has the most information and is able to convey it accurately is the most appropriate candidate. But if the goal is to enable the student to connect and grow with the material, then other considerations are requisite – the teacher who will help the student listen to his/her inner voice through engaging in the material studied.
For the teacher, “Spiritual Education” also requires a shift in focus. The teacher has to care not just about the depth of the material but also about, as Parker Palmer writes, the inner life of the student. The teacher needs not only to love the material of the subject, but also to love the students. This demands taking the time to listen to their stories, their fears and their loves.
Only if the teacher begins to comprehend the inner lives of the students will s/he be able to begin to know how the subject can actually impact and aid the student become who s/he needs to become.
VII) Engaging the Body:
Mind, heart and body. Thinking, feeling, doing. Neshama, Ruach and Nefesh. Three voices of the soul.
The first stage in Spiritual Education is to engage the heart. The second stage is to engage the mind. Both of these stages are internal, what we are feeling and what we are thinking.
The third stage, engaging the body, represents the “doing,” the external expression of these earlier two stages. Together, they compose the three pillars upon which spiritual education stands.
What does it mean to engage the body? During this last stage the students expressly in some physical form what has previously remained internal. Different modes are offered to the students to express themselves. Some students feel more comfortable drawing, some writing.
For example, in the seminar on spirituality we lead the students in a guided imagery and then asked them to write whatever came into their minds during the guided imagery. We were studying the idea of the “inner voice” that is the voice of the soul that is always communicating to us, trying to allow us to intuit what we should be doing. During the guided imagery we asked the students to imagine that they were walking along a path, planning on meeting someone. In the distance they see this person. They feel joy as they have been looking forward to this meeting for a long time. They approach this person and realize that it is their future self, themselves in five years’ time. In the hand of their future self is a present. Their future self then offers them this present and says that this is exactly what they need to fully become themselves during the next five years.
Then we ask the students to open their eyes and write or draw whatever they saw during the guided imagery. What exactly was the present that their future self gave to them? Again, the goal of this stage is not to produce something of quality, we are not performing; rather the goal is to tangibly express inner reflections. We then ask them to share with the group what they wrote (anyone may also choose to “pass” and not share his/her work).
What does this kind of exercise achieve? By virtue of creating something physical, i.e. their writing, their feelings and thoughts take on a new level of reality. Intangible feelings and abstract thoughts now have taken on a concrete reality. And this affects the students differently. Both the process of creating something tangible as well as talking about it and sharing it with the group clarifies for the students where they are really holding vis-à-vis any particular subject we are studying.
Rudolf Otto writes in his classic, The Idea of the Holy, that spirituality cannot be taught; it cannot really even be described. He refers to it as “numinous,” the ineffable. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel calls it the “unknowable.” The goal of spiritual education is not to teach the students what spirituality is and how to “do it” in their own lives. Rather, the goal is to create a climate in which they will be encouraged to evoke their own individual, personal sense of their spirituality. We have found that the combination of “safe space” and listening deeply to themselves has consistently enabled the students to realize that they have spiritual identities and this has consequently transformed their own self-perception.
VIII) The Results of this process:
We have now run Workshops, Shabbatonim, and Retreats for over 1,500 people, of all ages (18+) and backgrounds. After each program we distribute forms for written evaluations. Attached are some examples of the comments of the participants. We have found similar results in virtually all of the programs:
1. Participants are affected very deeply, their souls are touched.
2. Participants are eager for more programs of this nature.
3. Participants have shared personal and profound conversations and experiences through which they have developed new friendships and have begun to build a growing community together.
4. People’s desire for learning Torah and applying it to their lives is greatly increased.