HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Nurturing the Spiritual in Jewish Education

by Michael Shire Issue: Nurturing Faith

Jewish education today is mainly concerned with the transmission of knowledge, the development of ritual skills, the formation and strengthening of Jewish identity and the affirmation of values. It deals little with the nature of religious experience, the development of religious growth, or the field of spirituality in general. It has found this area of religious education difficult to promote in a modem secular society with teachers and parents ambivalent about their own religiosity, let alone about transmitting it to others.

How can faith be formed and nurtured authentically in Judaism, and how can young people be personally enriched and their faith enhanced through Jewish religious education?

Jewish education has primarily been concerned with the outer dimensions of religion; the historical, social, and theological forms of religious expression. It has been less concerned with elements of spiritual experience such as trust, awe, and love especially beyond early childhood. Where it has focused on inner dimensions, it has not considered the relationship between inner and outer. Aspirations for graduates of Jewish educational programs often focus on evidence of knowledge, pride of association and expression of moral values. Where spirituality is included, it is often regarded as a separate entity, perhaps expressed in music or experiences removed from the home and synagogue such as camping or Jewish travel.

However, religiosity is a vital component of Jewish life and experience and needs to be integrated into the very fabric of Jewish education. Many Jewish educators are uncertain as to how it can be translated into educational objectives incorporated into the curriculum of Jewish educational settings. One of the key issues for Jewish education is how to make spiritual development an explicit objective of educational programming.

Jews have been uncomfortable with the use of the word “spiritual” when it has related merely to a series of inner spiritual virtues. For Jews, spiritual awareness without explicit religious expression is incomplete. Martin Buber therefore used the word “religiosity” to describe a spiritual openness within a religious tradition. According to Rabbi Arthur Green, Jewish religiosity is described as “striving for the presence of G-d and fashioning a life of holiness appropriate to such striving.” Jewish spiritual life is thus a continual task of creating holiness even in the most mundane of daily acts as Jews seek to build a life of holiness for communities and for individuals.

The opportunity for spiritual encounter is paramount in nurturing religious development, and the experience of encounter leads to a motivation to learn more about the nature of a religious life.

Since the establishment of the field of faith development in the 1980s, a vast array of research has been performed in the area of children’s spirituality, religious development, theologies of childhood and educational approaches to religious growth. For Jewish educators, however, questions and concerns abound about defining children’s spirituality in a Jewish context as well as understanding the roles of the Jewish educator in enhancing it. Critiques of both the definition of spirituality and its intended outcomes have been expressed by Jewish educators. Nonetheless, spiritual development has become a normative feature of children’s education, even resulting in its assessment of attainment in British schools by the Office of Standards in Education.

Prompted by this newly developed field of educational development, Jewish educators need to ask questions about the nature of educating for religious growth and spirituality and the relationship of religious development to religious learning and practice. Specifically we will want to know how the faith of the child can be characterised and expressed in Jewish terms. What conceptual tools can be used to best understand the nature of the spiritual child? How can faith be formed and nurtured authentically in Judaism, and how can young people be personally enriched and their faith enhanced through Jewish religious education?

What is meant by spiritual development? Is it different from spirituality, religious development or religiosity? There is little consensus about the nature and scope of this particular dimension of life. Where there is research, it has situated itself within the field of the psychology of religion. The originator of this field of study combining theological enquiry with psychological development is Professor James Fowler of Emory University in Atlanta. Fowler’s theory of faith development is summarised as follows:

Faith may be characterised as an integral, centering process underlying the formation of beliefs, values and meanings that (1) gives coherence and direction to people’s lives, (2) links them in shared trust and loyalties with others, (3) grounds their personal stance and loyalties in relation to a larger frame of reference and (4) enables them to face and deal with the conditions of human life. The stages of faith aim to describe patterned operations of knowing and valuing that underlie our consciousness.

Fowler uses a broad definition of the word faith. Rather than limiting faith to religious belief, Fowler denotes a process of making meaning which is shared by all human beings. Faith is therefore a process of trusting and structuring meaning making that incorporates belief but goes beyond it.

Reflection allows students to translate their spiritual encounters into Jewish religious language.

Fowler conducted research interviews with hundreds of people from a variety of different backgrounds, ages, sexes and religious affiliations. From these interviews, he derived six stages of faith through which an individual passes. These stages are structural; they characterise the inner operations by which a person makes meaning of the world. These stages are claimed to be common to all people. Though the content of the stage will change from individual to individual, Fowler suggests that all people at the same stage compose meaning in a structurally similar manner. The stages are sequentially ordered with each stage incorporating the processes of the one before while adding to it in a new dimension. Each stage has its own integrity so that stage four is not categorised as more faith full than stage three, rather it has developed in a qualitatively new way. The transition from stage to stage becomes apparent when the individual is no longer able to make meaning using their familiar processes and seeks to move beyond them. These transitions are often triggered by life crises where new ways are sought to understand painful and difficult circumstances.

From my research into the enhancement of religious development, I have proposed an approach to educational programming that enables educators to explicitly take into account religious development in Jewish educational programming. Three elements of curriculum design have been identified as contributing to religious development in Jewish education: encounter, reflection and instruction.

Promoting experiences for encounter involves supportive times and spaces that evoke an emotional response in a spiritual setting. These responses can be intense feelings, moments of contemplation or peacefulness, expressions of wonderment or awe. The intensity of the experience marks the encounter as students express a closeness to G-d or a sense of G-d’s presence. A participant in a Jewish educational program describes this phase of the curriculum:

Being spiritual should be a feeling of contentment. It’s like opening a door of perception. It can be a road to somewhere else, another way of thinking, another plane of awareness.

The opportunity for spiritual encounter is paramount in nurturing religious development, and the experience of encounter leads to a motivation to learn more about the nature of a religious life. Music, ritual, the creative arts, prayer and meditation are all catalysts for such experiences of encounter. Encounter can be an experience with the self, others, a text, an idea, a location or directly with G-d. Encounter prompts a questioning in students, enabling them to verbalize spiritual feelings and awareness. Group experiences can heighten the sense of encounter particularly in adolescence as the group becomes the shared locus of making meaning. During the phase of encounter, educators act largely as facilitators, structuring experiences and framing perceptions.

A second phase of program design involves reflection. Reflection is an activity that prompts students to question and review perspectives. Reflection provides the opportunity to deliberate on religious questions of meaning and is often evident in personal meditation, prayer and dialogue. Reflection can also be expressed in creative writing, discussion and debate. Reflection is an intimate, imaginative and highly personal activity that allows for speculation, exploration and personal discovery. The connections made during this phase bring deep consciousness and realization to new meanings personally held. Educators facilitate reflection through questioning at the highest forms of Bloom’s taxonomy with questions of analysis and judgment.

Reflection allows students to translate their spiritual encounters into Jewish religious language. Reflection aides in naming and understanding the experiences of students. In this mode, educators act in essentially a counseling role, offering encouragement, active listening and sharing of experiences. Reflection is evoked when there is a strong relationship between educator and student. However, it is often the presence of supportive peers that allows for the most significant opportunities for reflection. This support is fostered where spiritual experience is seen as normative for human development.

Instruction for religiosity is a third phase including the use of creativity, knowledge and acquisition of skills. It provides the theological underpinnings for students’ spiritual experiences. It includes a connection to Jewish history and tradition as well as engagement with the texts of our tradition. Instruction is a phase that includes elements of affective teaching as well as knowledge and skills. Instruction for religiosity provides the theological underpinnings for students’ spiritual experiences, and it forms a critical consciousness in the student. Teaching varying concepts of G-d allow students to place their experience in personal meaning understood at its fullest depth: what makes truth religious is not that it relates to some abnormal field of thought and feeling but that it goes to the roots of experience which it interprets.

The spiritual awareness found in encounter and the verbalizations that emerge from it can lead to articulation of questions in reflection. These questions are responded to by the Jewish context offered in instruction. The three phases of encounter, reflection, and instruction for religiosity are not sequential, but operate concurrently. All three influence each other, as instruction for religiosity opens up students to new encounters. Reflection is a crucial phase, however, in that it allows articulation of spiritual awareness to be connected to explicit religiosity in instruction. Reflection allows others to hear experiences and encourage a future disposition to such encounters or a questioning attitude that places the encounter in a religious context. The sharing of reflections is as important for the individual as it is for the educational group. As Buber has posited, “It is in the asking of questions by students and the subsequent learning in the teacher that a mutuality of education takes place.”

The identification of the three phases of encounter, reflection, and instruction for religiosity allow Jewish educators to understand the processes at work in enhancing religiosity in any educational environment. All three phases are needed, and educators will need to plan for them when formulating their programs. In each phase the role of the educator changes, and it is therefore important to understand these differing roles and develop a repertoire of skills to be used in differing phases. The enhancement of religiosity is promoted through the presence of all three phases in the curriculum. The challenge of educating for religious experience is to help learners identify spiritual experience as Jewish religious experience. ♦

Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire is Vice-Principal and Director of the Department of Jewish Education at Leo Baeck College in London, England. He can be reached at Michael.shire@lbc.ac.uk.

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Nurturing Faith

Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.

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