Abraham Joshua Heschel and Holistic Education

An Introduction to Abraham Joshua’s significance for Holistic Education – by a universally-minded, non-Jewish teacher

I was floored, knocked out, amazed by Heschel – starting with his book Who is Man

His beauty in his poetic-philosophy, mysticism and social action is one of the two or three richest sources of inspiration for me – for Holistic Education, and for its spiritual dimension in particular.

For this introductory piece I draw on Robert M. Seltzer’s paper entitled, Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet’s Prophet. It is a very good short, general introduction to Heschel. (SEE references below)

Here I use several extracts from the Seltzer piece in order to indicate of few of the areas of inspiration that Heschel provides for those committed to Holistic Education, and particularly to its spiritual dimension. It is a brief example of ‘principle hunting’ – looking for inspiration for shaping educational theory and practice from a great source that is not ostensible ‘education’.

Seltzer sums up his article by saying that Heschel aimed, through his writing and teaching, to shock modern people out of complacency and into a spiritual dimension. Non-sectarian, universalist spiritualization of education is the challenge!

Seltzer points us to several emphases -to which, for now, I suggest a corresponding educational principle or two:

1 Heschel’s Thought: “Radical Astonishment” and Confronting the Ineffable. In Heschel’s view, the basic intuition of reality takes place on a “pre-conceptual” level; a disparity always remains between what we encounter and how we can express our encounter in words. The great achievements of art, philosophy, and religion are brought forth in movements when the individual senses more than he can say;

“In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement…Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.”
Educational Principle: Sensing more than we know doesn’t start with adulthood. In dealing with children we must honour the fact that they sense more than they know. We must model, talk about it and respect it in ourselves and in the children. Such teacher behaviours are conducive desirable consciousness and sensibility in the children.

2 How can modern man regain a personal awareness of God? A universally accessible feeling is the experience of the sublime—for example, in the presence of the grandeur of nature. A sense of the sublime entails wonder and “radical astonishment” Astonishment is radical because it embraces not only what one sees but the very act of seeing and the very self that is astonished in its ability to see.
Educational Principle: we must enable experience of wonder, both as the root of philosophy and as the state of amazement. The former is the generator of intellectual development, the later is the generator of humility and such ‘God qualities’.

3 The individual confronts the “ineffable,” that which cannot ever be expressed in words. Heschel insists that the ineffable is not a psychological state but an encounter with a mystery “within and beyond things and ideas” The divine is “within” because the self is “something transcendent in disguise.” The divine is “beyond” because it also is, “a message that discloses unity where we see diversity; that discloses peace where we are involved in discord…God means: No one is ever alone.”
Educational Principle: : Realization that ‘I am much more than I can possibly know’, encounter with mystery/the Whole via science as well as the mystical-metaphysical enables our consciousness of Self and relatedness – and prevents us from falling in to the abyss of ‘self’.

4 A second experience that, according to Heschel, awakens the individual to the presence of God is a pervasive, underlying anxiety that he calls “the need to be needed.” Religion entails the certainty that something is asked of man and that he is not a mere bystander in the cosmos. When the individual feels the challenge of a power, not born of his will, that robs him of self-sufficiency by a judgement of the rightness or wrongness of his actions—then God’s concern for his creatures is grasped.
Educational Principle: ‘Only connect’ – in all its ramifications.

5 For Heschel, it is the Bible—particularly the prophets—that provides a primary model for authentic spirituality.
Educational Principle: : We must prepare the young for the future they will have – but look back, look forward and look now – in that order.

6 A third mode of apprehending God’s presence is the life of holiness. A few of Heschel’s aphorisms convey his rejection of a utilitarian, sociological approach to Jewish observance and his supra-cognitive, mystical feeling for halakhah [Jewish law]. The halakhah sharpens men’s sympathy to the ineffable: “To perform deeds of holiness is to absorb the holiness of deeds.” “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.” Whereas the term ceremony merely expresses what we think, mitzvah expresses what God wills: a mitzvah [commandment/good deed] is “a prayer in the form of a deed.”
Educational Principle: The dynamic of ‘experientiality’ in learning!

7 God’s concern with man is expressed – in Judaism – through the idea of a covenant imposing a mutual, correlative responsiveness on man and God both, because God needs man for the attainment of his ends in the world.
Educational Principle: : To teach that we are needed, that we have a place, that we are not alone creates a sense of purpose. This is healing and the antidote to alienation.

8 Heschel stands in that stream of modern Jewish thought which emphasizes the limitations of reason to grasp the full significance of the religious life. His approach has been called “devotional philosophy”, a religious rhetoric, mystical apologetics—all honoured and accepted types of religious writing.
Educational Principle: To show life as sacred and joy-full, a dance between the known and knowable and the unknown and unknowable this is our goal and the gift of the great people such as Heschel. If only all of our schools could do this……

9 Heschel himself characterized his method as “depth theology,” the attempt to rediscover the questions to which religion is the answer…
Educational Principle: To teach that questions are at least as important as answers and to teach that in a living matrix of holistic theory and practice. That is the challenge. That is ‘depth pedagogy’!

This is just a short inadequate piece that both celebrates my great love of this man and demonstrates how we should actively seek out the principles for educational theory and practice that lie in the lives and work of great men and women of ‘spirit’. Heschel deserve a dozen theses on the value of his life and work for education – or better still a 100 schools and universities dedicated to spiritualizing the practice and theory of learning and teaching!

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Bibliography

This article draws upon a paper by Robert M. Seltzer entitled, Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet’s Prophet reprinted from Jewish People, Jewish Thought, published by Prentice-Hall.

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history_community/Modern/IntellectualTO/AbrahamJoshuaHeschel.htm

Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1959) God in Search of Man, NY: The World Publishing Co. (Meridian)

Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1959), Between God and Man; an interpretation of Judaism, New York: The Free Press (Macmillan)

Heschel A J, (1965), Who is Man, Stanford, California : Stanford University Press

Heschel A. J. (1971), Man is Not Alone, New York: Octagon Books

Heschel A J, (1954/1998), Man’s Quest for God, Santa Fe, New Mexico : Aurora Press

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