Abraham Joshua Heschel and Spiritual Education


We are in the opening weeks of the 2017 fall semester at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. One of the innovative aspects of this year’s academic program is the introduction of a new program on Jewish spirituality. It is composed of three primary elements: Kabbalah and Hassidism; World and New Age spirituality and spiritual education.  In the spirit of this exciting new program, I would like to briefly explore one of the most significant Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), whose approach to Jewish education places spirituality at its center.

Heschel’s philosophy begins with the assumption that faith and encountering spirituality is essential for human existence, since the essence of reality is its spiritual dimension, the part of the reality that cannot be captured by thought or language. Our inability to articulate something about this aspect of reality does not weaken its significance. Indeed, its powerful and rich existence is what prevents us from conceptualizing and containing it in thought, and despite its ineffable character it is the ultimate source of value. However, Heschel also notes that spirituality should not be understood as some impersonal force. Thus, he identifies a personal God as underlying the spiritual realm. According to Heschel, our encounter of the spiritual dimension of reality must lead us to forging a covenantal relationship with God.

Heschel also addresses the question of the means of acquiring faith. According to Heschel, the path to encountering God is arduous and filled with obstacles. Heschel therefore attempts to instruct us in the means of experiencing spirituality and creating a personal relationship with God. One way of encountering transcendence is through orientating ourselves properly to the world. As Heschel argues, “There are three aspects of nature that command our attention: its power, its beauty and its grandeur” (God in Search of Man, p. 33). For Heschel, human beings must focus more on the grandeur of nature, for it produces within us awe, wonder and reverence. Only when we relate to nature in a non-teleological manner and experience reality in an unmediated and direct encounter will we get in touch with the spiritual dimension of reality. The direct encounter with nature will bring about a sense of “radical amazement” and allow us to be sensitive to the mystery of the world.

For Heschel, this spiritual experience will bring about a personal transformation by fostering humility. Instead of relating to God as an object we must relate to him as a subject and ourselves as the object of God. No longer do we see the world revolving around human beings who are the source of all meaning and value, we come to realize that the truth and value originates with God.  It produces within us a concern for the other. It allows us to transcend our egotism and self-interest. This new perspective will replace our egotistical outlook. It allows us to shift our attention from our generally trivial needs to truly ultimate concerns.

From our analysis thus far, it is no surprise that Heschel identifies the primary goal of Jewish education to arouse in the student a sense of awe and wonder, focusing on the spiritual dimension of reality. As Heschel argues, “A reorientation in our educational work both in the schools and on the adult level will have to take place. Our goal must be to teach Judaism as a subject of ultimate personal significance” (The Insecurity of Freedom, p.234). In calling for a spiritual reorientation for Jewish education, Heschel places himself in opposition to views expressed by others on the purpose of Jewish education. Firstly he argues against those who identify socialization as the focus of Jewish educational activity. He declares: “The significance of Judaism, therefore, does not lie in its being conducive to the survival of this particular people but in its being a source of spiritual wealth, a source of meaning relevant to all peoples” (p. 226). Heschel’s spiritual approach to Jewish education also excludes the ideal of the self-fulfillment of the student. To Jewish educators (influenced by John Dewey) who place the growth of the student as their primary goal, Heschel argues: “I do not want to minimize the great importance of self-expression in the realm of education. I only claim that in order to help a pupil to attain self-expression we must first help him to attain self-attachment to sources of value experience” (pp. 229-230) That is, for Heschel, the growth of the student can be achieved not through allowing for the unfettered expression of the student but by bringing the student to meaningful encounters with the spiritual dimension of reality.

Thus, the Jewish and educational philosophy of Abraham Heschel is an important resource for any educator who is concerned with developing a vision for spiritual education. It provides a rich understanding of Judaism grounded in Hassidic sources which views Judaism in general and the commandments in particular as leading towards a personal relationship with God. This spiritual interpretation of Judaism is in turn translated into a program for Jewish education.


Dr. Ari Ackerman is Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School where he is a lecturer in Jewish Education and philosophy. His most recent publication is The Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin.