There are so many ways for us to become more knowledgeable and skillful in nurturing the spiritual lives of children within the community day school environment. In the following reflections I focus mostly on a few of the challenges and opportunities of the middle and high school years.
“From infancy, then, we are inclined to have absorbed generally positive or negative feelings about the universe into which we have been born—a powerful sense of the presence or absence of the spiritual dimension of life. This originating sense of the mystery that we pick up from the group or community around us tends to remain with us for the rest of our lives, even though there are myriad changes and revisions in the course of that life.” (Carolyn Gratton, The Art of Spiritual Guidance)
One of the greatest challenges in nurturing the spiritual life of our children is understanding how to affirm and encourage their connection to and identification with images, stories, ideas and behaviors from the Jewish tradition that will not have to be unlearned later in life. Or to state more positively, whatever our children learn in the religious life must be presented in such a way, and ongoing development supported in such a way, that when the inevitable disequilibrium ensues from normal development and the acquisition of new cognitive capacities, the child is able to let go of old ways of seeing and accommodate and assimilate new ways of thinking and putting the world together, still in Jewish terms. Too often, we see children pass from the concrete operational stage of development (ages 7 to 12) into the formal operational stage (ages 12 and beyond) and reject his/her previous ways of relating to G-d, Torah and tefillah, without being supported sufficiently to find new, more sophisticated ways of understanding and relating to these central aspects of Jewish religious life.
The move out of eager engagement with davening and to some extent Torah learning is familiar to those teaching at the upper end of elementary school and into middle school. “It’s all myth.” “There is no One there.” “Science disproves the Genesis story of creation.” We see so many of our young adolescents embrace what I think of as a “naïve atheism” at this time. The disillusionment with one’s earlier ways of Jewish thinking and being, the growing distrust in one’s parents’, teachers’ and tradition’s representations of ultimate reality, and one’s own overconfidence in the role of reason are powerful enough for many Jews entering or in the midst of adolescence to prevent their successful transition into a new and more mature stage of positive, spiritual development.
For instance, children up to age seven (and often somewhat beyond) are usually willing to engage and play with anthropomorphic images of G-d. Torah stories are alive with the character of G-d; tefillah is addressed to a human-like figure known as Adonai; and classroom conversation about G-d is easily assimilated when G-d is spoken of as “He” or “She,” or characterized as caring, strong, or close to us. But what happens when cognitive capacity for logical thinking develops and children question whether G-d, having been imagined concretely as a Person, is “really there”? How do we help children just on the cusp of a new kind of thinking understand that we have been speaking to them all along until now, and the Torah and Siddur continue to speak, “as if,” in metaphor? (Have we been threading all our conversation about G-d throughout the elementary school years with this “as if” qualifier, so even if not understood, the words have been spoken?)
In the shift away from one’s earlier, relatively facile engagement with G-d-language toward skepticism, away from willingness and toward willfulness, what becomes of the child’s experience of his/her past? What factors will mitigate the child’s sense of loss and disillusionment with his/her earlier, often quite positive engagement with Torah, tefillah and conversation to and about G-d? What will encourage his/her sense of possibility about continued exploration and discovery in the spiritual life and inspire the effort, faith and play necessary to grow into a new stage of spiritual development?
For many educators in the Jewish day (and supplementary) school, this transition, taking place roughly around the Bar/Bat Mitzvah years and after, presents the greatest challenge in nurturing faith. In the elementary school years, we rely on children’s developmental openness to engaging in concrete use of language and image in Torah and tefillah. In addition, we capitalize on their developmental drive for mastery, method and competence, teaching tremendous siddur and synagogue skills, as well as significant content of Chumash.
In the high school years, when teenagers have gained the capacity for more abstract and logical thinking, we engage them in philosophical conversation about G-d (e.g. as our ultimate Source of values, as the “force for our Salvation” [Kaplan], as the One, etc.), about Torah (as a product of divine and human interactivity, as “sacred history,” as revealing layers or levels of meaning, etc.), and other key Jewish ideas, all from a variety of perspectives, multiple perspectives which they are now developmentally ready to hold. During the high school years, many students can explore multiple meanings of “mitzvah” or “observance” or even of “G-d,” and be supported to find an authentic, personally meaningful way of understanding. But what of the middle school years when the project of coming into a sense of one’s authentic self and one’s capacity for self-reflection are so very new?
During these years, we “tell all the Truth but tell it slant” for “success in circuit lies” (Emily Dickinson). We take a step back from the approach to G-d and the life of the spirit we took with our students as elementary students and approach it from the side, as it were—slant. Rather than debating about G-d’s reality or nature, we invite our students into explorations of themselves, made in G-d’s image. (They are, as we know, supremely interested in themselves at this time.) We invite our students into their creativity, a capacity we share with Borei HaOlam, the Creator of the world. We invite our students into their capacity for holy relationships, into their connection with the natural world and, most of all, into their questions themselves.
At this time in the life of a young adolescent, a time of questioning, doubt, turmoil and uncertainty, we do best by focusing not on answers but on questions. Through our curriculum and our teaching presence, we teach our students, as Rilke wrote, “to try to love the questions themselves” and not to “search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. … Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer” (Letters to a Young Poet).
I am suggesting that we imagine a certain period of adolescence as allowing for a religious-theological moratorium not unlike the psychosocial moratorium Erik Erikson describes that takes place around identity formation. Jewish adolescents should be allowed a period of time when they are free from the expectation of theological knowing or commitment, when exploration is explicitly at the center. They need to be encouraged to experiment with learning and expressive activities in school (e.g. in the arts, in investigating their emotional and relational lives, in nature, etc.) that might broaden their experiential base from which to reflect in later years, when reflective capacity will be more developed.
More broadly, our job as educators of young adolescents is to keep the door ajar to questioning and wonder. When the newly acquired and compelling power of logic, rationality, and linear thinking takes hold, our job is to resist its totalizing influence. A central feature of the spiritual life, born in childhood but potentially nurtured throughout a lifetime, is the capacity to wonder. By “wonder” I certainly mean the experience of encountering the natural world, creatures and events as “wonderful,” awesome, astonishing, amazing (in a Heschelian sense), the kind of wonder that might naturally lead to the form of tefillah we call shevach, praise. But I also mean the capacity to wonder about, to contemplate, to question.
One of the most powerful and simple teaching tools toward this end is social-emotional educator Rachael Kessler’s use of “mystery questions.” As adolescents explore existential questions of meaning and purpose, they are invited into safe ways to honor and express the important questions they carry in their hearts. “Does my life matter?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Do I have a soul?” “What happens when we die?”
These existential questions are so deep that we can never find the bottom. Certainly by the time a child enters adolescence, “each senses mystery in the cosmos and needs relationship to that mystery” (M. Gurian). (Rachel Kessler, The Soul of Education)
It is at this juncture that I believe it is most important for our students to be taught by educators who themselves are models of people “living the questions”; people who are unafraid of their own unknowing; people who engage in their own wondering; people who continue to nurture their own inner lives through practice and investigation; and people who know how to create truly safe environments for such deep exploration. Such educators, of course, need Jewish communal support to engage in their own spiritual development.
If successful, the result of day school education should be the establishment of a strong, stable, positive Jewish identity. We are dedicated, in partnership with parents and others in the child’s Jewish community, to “making Jews.” In addition to engaging in Jewish identity formation, our project includes the mandate of Jewish religious formation: shaping our children to understand themselves and their experience in Jewish religious terms (e.g. kadosh, neshamah, mitzvah, teshuvah), in Jewish time (e.g. Shabbat, Yom Tov, yemei chol), using Jewish language and ritual to express their inner being (through engagement with Torah, tefillah, gemilut chasadim). But by high school, when we hope the foundation of such Jewish identity formation and Jewish religious formation has been established, we need to focus on yet another area of formation: spiritual formation.
At this point, when we can more fruitfully engage the high school student in greater philosophic and rational theological discourse, we also need to turn our attention to the growing capacity of high school students for self-reflection and individuation, when they feel themselves not only part of a group (Jews) but also more and more clearly their own person, with their own, precious inner life to nurture: a potentially central source of meaning, insight, and guidance. In other words, we need to engage not only in the ongoing process of Jewish identity and religious formation but in individual spiritual formation, as well.
While Jews at this age are part of a religious community, they are also beginning to discover and name their own particular spiritual preferences (akin to personality preferences; see Carl Jung, Myers Briggs) and proclivities. They need to be supported in discovering their own spiritual path and expression.
Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the Seer of Lublin: “Show me one general way to the service of G-d.” The zaddik replied: “It is impossible to tell men what way they should take. For one the way to serve G-d is through learning, another through prayer, another through fasting, and still another through eating. Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose this way with all his strength.” (Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man)
Here we can learn from recent decades’ work in the Jewish community with adult spiritual development and apply it to the high school years, where appropriate. In particular, the recent work in the development and application of Jewish spiritual direction (now offered at most liberal seminaries, and pioneered through the work of two Jewish spiritual direction training programs, Lev Shomea and Morei Derekh) becomes a resource and model for nurturing the inner life of the individual. Perhaps it is possible to offer high school students voluntary, monthly sessions with a trained Jewish spiritual director to help the student understand, value and savor the glimmerings of his/her own particular inner life.
Spiritual Direction is a relationship in which we dedicate a regular period of time to the exploration of the presence of the Holy in our lives. In one-on-one relationship to a spiritual “director” or guide or in a group, seekers are guided to notice, savor and deepen their awareness of how the Divine has been present in their lives in recent days and weeks. Seekers may speak of any life experience—tragic or joyful, powerful or ordinary—and in the reverent context of the spiritual direction relationship, discover a sense of the sacred that might otherwise have escaped their notice. In Spiritual Direction we look beneath the surface of our daily lives, recognizing sparks of the divine, experiences of Oneness, or a sense of being guided or accompanied along our life journeys. We ask what a particular life event or struggle may have to teach us, what new level of growth we are being called to, or what G-d may be offering us through this experience. (Rabbi Amy Eilberg, “Ayeh Mekom Kevodo?”)
Monthly spiritual guidance can be helpful to many young people, not only those who are contemplatively oriented or facile with G-d language. The ritual checking-in with a wise guide who regards the student’s inner life to be interesting, compelling and valuable helps the young person regard his or her own experiences similarly. Such attention fuels the light of the soul and allows it to shine more brightly, in no small measure through the affirmation of a trusted adult’s listening and interest.
Not only must we help our students understand their inner lives as real, important, and potentially guiding, but also, where possible, as related to Jewish religious categories. A time of painful, emotional constriction can be reflected back as a kind of “mitzrayim,” and the experience of release and renewal as “yetziat mitzrayim.” Times of alienation from a sense of G-d’s presence can be framed a “hester panim”; moments of insight and clarity about one’s own purpose and direction as a personal “matan Torah”; a sense of maintaining wholesome physical boundaries as protecting our personal “mishkan.” Such work can take place within the context of a spiritual direction/guidance relationship.
By paying attention to Jewish identity formation, Jewish religious formation, and individual spiritual formation, we hope to avoid the growing phenomenon of Jews identifying either as “Jewish, but secular” or “spiritual, but not religious.” Our generation of Jewish day school educators is charged with the challenging, complicated and worthy goal of setting the foundation for our children to grow into a meaningful sense of themselves as Jewish, religious and spiritual. ♦
Rabbi Nancy Flam was Co-Founder of the National Center for Jewish Healing and Founding Director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, where she now serves as Co-Director of Programs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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