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Heavens and Earth: a Jewish creation story as a metaphor for interreligious and enterfaith dialogue.


At best, education permits students to draw out the very best in themselves, while engaging their hopes and imagination. Italian educator Maria Montessori (1870-1952) wrote, "And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being." (1) In optimal educational settings, reflective teachers who are open to their own personal transformations allow students the freedom to recognize that they are not isolated people; rather, they discover that they are connected to others with whom they share a social responsibility. Thus, education enables students and teachers to encounter their own inherent potential, so that they may work for the transformation of the world and its inhabitants. In other words, when education focuses on the personal and moral development of students and teachers, thereby making it an introspective exercise that leads to outward action, it is transformational.

A religious metaphor may foster such transformation. Employed by religious educators, it may act as a conduit through which to connect our daily experiences to our sense of God's presence within and around us. By suggesting new analogous words or images for original terms, the metaphor can further our understanding of what we do, why we do it, and what we hope to become. This essay explores a "Heavens and Earth" teaching metaphor as a means to reflect on the motives for our involvement in education. It focuses on the work by Isaac Luria, a sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, specifically his metaphorical and mystical teachings on God's self-distancing from the process of creation through the acts of withdrawing, breaking, and repairing. I apply Luria's teaching to a twenty-first-century educational context by proposing an approach to teachers that enables them to develop the inherent productive abilities of their students in order to change themselves and the world.


Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1534-72), also known as the Ari or Arizal, is regarded as one of the most influential kabbalists of all time. Born in Jerusalem and later residing in Egypt and Safed, Luria reconstructed Kabbalah (from Hebrew, meaning "received tradition") (2) by concentrating on the intersection of Jewish mysticism and Jewish ethics. For him, all people, through prayer and acts of good work, must collaborate to achieve unity within themselves and of all reality with God.

Among his teachings in the Zohar (a collection of mystical commentaries on the Torah first published in thirteenth-century Spain) and on the concept of God as Ein-sof (meaning "limitless and infiniteness"), Luria promulgated the metaphorical story, "The Breaking of the Vessels" (shevirat ha-kelim), using it to explain the workings of creation and the insertion of evil into the world. In the story, creation undergoes a threefold process: (1) God withdraws (tzimtzum) to make space for creation; (2) the vessels into which God pours the Divine Light break and scatter throughout the world (shevirat ha-kalim); and (3) God desires humans to gather the broken pieces and restore them to their original design by repairing the world (tikkun olam). This threefold process of creation-- withdrawing, breaking, and repairing--also indicates both that creation is the expression of God's desire to be made known and how God relies on humans to work in undoing the disorder caused by God's love bursting within the Heavens and Earth. Although the creation process for Luria was a divergence from the Genesis accounts of creation and the insertion of evil into the world, it was intensely relational and demonstrated God's abundant love for the Heavens and Earth. Each movement in the process, as described more fully in the sections that follow, is interactive and dependent; each offers an image on which we can reflect to improve our teaching.

The Art of Withdrawing

As the first movement in the creation process, God withdraws to make space for creation. In doing so, God intentionally removes Godself, leaving an empty space in which creation may occur. This is not to suggest that God abandons aspects of creation; rather, God allows room for creative autonomy. Luria wrote:
   Say this: the purpose for the creation was that the Blessed One had
   to be complete in all of His deeds and His powers, and all of His
   names of greatness, perfection, and honor. If he had not brought
   forth His deeds and His powers, He could not have been called
   complete, so to speak, either in His actions or in His names or in
   His attributes. (3)

This act of withdrawal underscores the sanctity and magnitude of creation as something distinct from God. God is manifested throughout the Heavens and Earth, and God's love and presence can be found everywhere. In other words, God's self-distancing opens a space within which the potential of creation is realized.

Imagine the silence and stillness that such a withdrawal produces. Imagine, too, the darkness that prevails. How could the metaphor of God's withdrawal provide a way for religious educators to engage our learners more meaningfully? In the most general manner, it suggests that through a conscious effort we can provide our learners with the time and space necessary for their faith to be challenged, struggled with, and brought to greater depths.

One semester, I taught a course on interreligious and interfaith dialogue to undergraduate students at a Catholic university. Believing in God was not a requirement for this class, but I encouraged all students to ask and to respond to profound questions as to how other people--namely, Jews, Christians, and Muslims--talk about God. Throughout the semester as we visited a synagogue, a church, and a mosque and later engaged in dialogue with people of these Abrahamic traditions, I discovered that the students began to grasp that they are not alone in their experiences, beliefs, doubts, and thoughts. All of them came of age during the post-9/11 era and had very negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, in particular, but discovered that, despite people's religious backgrounds, we all have much in common with one another. They heard the rich and personal stories of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and, through such deep dialogue, they glimpsed the mysterious ways in which God is manifested in human life.

I knew I could not have stepped in at any point to tell students what to think about Jews, Christians, and Muslims; they had to figure that out for themselves. One student made this comment on an end-of-the-semester evaluation form: "My favorite and most valuable part of this course [was going] to the different places of worship and having a dialogue with people of those faiths. This was such a wonderful experience and helped me understand each religion better."

Space formed by my withdrawal permitted the students to probe more deeply into their own faith-lives in relation to the stories of those of people of other religious backgrounds. In doing so, they brought to life the words of the psalmist:
   I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
      From where will my help come?
   My help comes from the LORD,
      the maker of heaven and earth.
   God will not allow your foot to slip;
      your guardian does not sleep.
   Truly, the guardian of Israel
      never slumbers nor sleeps.
   The LORD is your guardian;
      the LORD is your shade
      at your right hand.
   By day the sun cannot harm you,
      nor the moon by night.
   The LORD will guard you from all evil,
      will always guard your life.
   The LORD will guard your coming and going
      both now and forever. (4)

The art of withdrawing means that I am present with the class by setting the overall context and watching for any conflict or harm. 1 leave room for creative thought and sharing, and I do not intervene to control what the students share or question. Further, the art of withdrawing involves the realization that many of my students are only beginning to look at their lives in relation to faith, to question their long-held beliefs, and to have an openness to engage in dialogue with people of different beliefs. As with the Israelites in the above psalm, many of them admitted to feeling nervous, afraid, and apprehensive, especially when visiting the synagogue and mosque. They were afraid of insulting the rabbi or imam by asking inappropriate questions or doing something that would be disrespectful in their places of worship. But, in my withdrawal, I was able to help the students see that such visits are educational opportunities for both us and them; no question was off-limits as long as it was phrased in a respectful way that could be heard and answered. Nervousness was most evident when we visited a mosque, where men and women were separated and ushered through different doors, and when the imam later came to visit the class for a dialogue. In their final papers, students criticized the media for teaching them wrongful stereotypes about Muslims and Islam.

In such religious educational settings as this, what I found to be most important is the space that allowed students to challenge and struggle with their ideas of faith and to see how that faith is evident in people's lives. In this context, God can move around quietly in the hearts and minds of students and gently invite them to discover new ways of living out their potential and of transforming the world. As with Luria's God who extracts Godself to allow room for creation, the art of withdrawal provided my students an opportunity to define their own relationship with God in relationship to the faith-stories of people of various religious backgrounds.

In my years of university teaching, I have discovered that withdrawal is the most painstaking and difficult movement. I have found that it occurs numerous times throughout the semester, especially when issues of theodicy, salvation, and eschatology are addressed. It requires a balance between offering cognitive information on which the students are to be assessed with letting go of any explicit or implicit learning outcomes. Moreover, some students begin to see that God is present, even when we experience God as silent, distant, or absent; God is at hand in the midst of life's greatest trials and sorrows. Withdrawal is a gift we can give to our students, so that they may experience God within themselves and determine how they can be of service to the Heavens and Earth.

The Art of Honoring Brokenness

The darkness after God's withdrawal from creation has been felt throughout history, and it is experienced today. For Luria, through the act of withdrawal, God made space for the creation process--making space for creative autonomy and for God's immense love to be known and felt throughout the Heavens and Earth. To reveal Godself, God poured Divine Light (sefirot) into vessels. However, it overwhelmed them with the force of its perfection, power, and love, and the vessels broke and scattered throughout creation (qelipot). For Luria, the breaking of the vessels explained the introduction into creation of evil-shattered pieces of God's immense love. However, God did not create the Heavens and Earth as defective. God made everything from love and goodness, but, as witnessed by the breaking of the vessels that could not contain God's love, creation has inherently destructive qualities, but it still holds God's presence. Regarding this issue, one scholar noted:
   The perfection of God, Luria taught, was unique, and the attempt to
   replicate His [sic] own perfection and to embody it in creation
   could not be accomplished without producing disruption and chaos.
   In attempting to communicate something of His own essence to the
   world, God overwhelmed the world's capacity to serve as a vessel
   for divine perfection. The overload led to a fracture in the
   process of creation and produced a world in which pain, evil,
   exile, and disorder predominate. (5)

Today the broken pieces exhibit themselves in the brokenness of people and all creation. We cannot accept the darkness and be satisfied with the pain and the fractured nature of reality. For Luria, the spark of Divine Light remained present in the scattered fragments of the vessels that still permeate the Heavens and Earth; thus, God is present in all broken lives and situations.

In the space where learners can wrestle with faith-related questions, many of them begin to reflect on their own experiences and feelings of brokenness. They may question, for example, why God would "allow" the death of their best friend in a car accident, why a family member is addicted to drugs, why they grew up in an alcoholic home, or whether God has a favorite religion. They may confront the oppression they have experienced because of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Admittedly, our learners would not agree that their experiences and feelings of brokenness were caused by God's overabundance of love. However, religious educators can challenge our students to look for places in which God can be found within human suffering. We help them recognize that our brokenness is often caused by a lack of connection with ourselves, others, all creation, and God.

I am reminded of the final assignment for the class: to investigate the rise of religious fundamentalism and religious extremism in the United States and/or the world and then determine the role interreligious/interfaith dialogue plays, must play, and does not play in dealing with those phenomena. One student blamed the rise of these phenomena on the media, writing:
   A problem that our generation is facing is that our ability to form
   our own views on a subject is being inhibited; our views are
   largely influenced by what the media has implanted us to believe
   and we no longer develop our own individual thoughts or ideas. In
   recent events many of this generation have had their views on
   Muslims develop into a fear due to the personification of the media
   towards the religion. The media has [sic] implemented these ideas
   that are not related to the traditions of the religion. This can
   easily be solved by spreading awareness and education. These ideas
   have caused a mass movement that has led to a great issue which is
   Islam-phobia. This issue only helps to enhance the other issues
   that our generation faces when it comes to acceptance of others,
   such as Gays, lesbians, undocumented immigrants. and various
   religious groups like the Jews. We as a nation, not solely speaking
   about my generation but as a united country!,] need to learn to
   become more aware of the situation that is currently blockading our
   compassion towards others.

This student suggested further that people in his generation should learn how to critique the media; additionally, he joined the thoughts of the other students who insisted that people, especially college students, should have opportunities to engage in interreligious and interfaith dialogue so that such stereotypes and prejudices can be broken down. Moreover, they were reminded of the psalmist's recollection of creation:
   For the LORD'S word is true;
      all his [sic] works are trustworthy.
   The LORD loves justice and right
      and fills earth with goodness.
   By the LORD'S word the heavens were made;
      by the breath of his mouth all their host.
   The waters of the sea were gathered as in a bowl;
      in cellars the deep was confined. (6)

The Art of Repairing

For Luria, the Heavens and Earth held some amount of irony: While they are shattered, pained, and broken, they yet contain all they need to achieve unity with God. After all, they were once united. All of creation is a reminder of God's everlasting presence, love, and infinite hope. Luria's process of worldly repair (tikkun olam) allows the hidden sparks of God to be revealed and God's will to be achieved. Luria writes that God "saw/the vessels He created had shattered/for the light was overpowering/and they could not contain this light;/thus, it arose in His will/to recreate all these worlds/so they could bear the light." (7) God seeks to repair all the trapped and fragmented pieces of the Divine Light, so that all existence can be revelatory of and a space for God. Humans are called upon to help recreate a world replete with God's love.

According to Luria, all creation always remained distinct from God, because it could not embody God's perfection. However, he also argued that humans are called to become ever more like God by helping restore and transform creation. Therefore, the sinful and shattered world is not a reflection of the sinfulness of humans. (8) Rather, it is a reflection of God's desire to work with us and God's trust in us to restore the world. We achieve this by liberating all the hidden specks of Divine Light and restoring them to unity with God. For Luria, this goal required a balance of prayer and action. Such balance involves (1) seeking out creation's brokenness, (2) bringing it to prayer, and (3) seeking to alleviate it and to reveal God's goodness in every aspect of creation. (9) The art of restoration is both other- and future-oriented. We are entrusted to care for the Heavens and Earth now and for generations to come.

God thinks highly of humans to bestow upon us the care and protection of the Heavens and Earth, as witnessed by the psalmist:
   O LORD, our Lord,
      how awesome is your name through all the earth!
      You have set your majesty above the heavens!
   Out of the mouths of babes and infants
      you have drawn a defense against your foes,
      to silence enemy and avenger.
   When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
      the moon and stars that you set in place-
   What are humans that you are mindful of them,
      mere mortals that you care for them?
   Yet you have made them little less than a god,
      crowned them with glory and honor.
   You have given them rule over the works of your hands,
      put all things at their feet:
   All sheep and oxen,
      even the beasts of the field,
   The birds of the air, the fish of the sea,
      and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
   O LORD, our Lord,
      how awesome is your name through all earth! (10)

Whereas the first movement of the Heavens and Earth metaphor (the art of withdrawing) may be the most difficult for religious educators, the final movement (the art of repairing) is oftentimes exciting to witness. In it, learners act on the realization that all the facets of creation are shattered, but not destroyed, and hold vast amounts of God's love. They discover that they are truly brothers and sisters to all and are thus called to the mission of global restoration. The art of repairing simply involves fulfilling the universal command of doing good unto others.

It calls us to help our learners develop and put into practice such morals and values as love, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and tolerance and to participate in personal and communal prayer--all of which will help transform the world. It is not enough for our learners to be aware of and to internalize these values; rather, they must put them into practice. For example, one semester before 1 taught the interreligious and interfaith dialogue course, I took some undergraduate students to an interreligious and interfaith conference. I marveled at their willingness and enthusiasm to overcome stereotypes and prejudices. Through their questions, observations, and interactions with those who at first appeared different, the students developed an understanding not only of people's religious beliefs and their prayer styles but also of what they hold in common. They concluded that, although they may adhere to differing belief systems, they are nevertheless connected through a unique bond: They are created in the image and likeness of God and are, therefore, worthy of deep regard and respect. In other words, these students repaired the world in a most needed way by seeking out the "other" and befriending him or her. Through dialogue, they liberated the pieces of God's love that are trapped by self-interest, fear, and prejudice.

The art of repairing asks us to become contemplative in action. We develop our prayer styles and value systems to become more aware of the needs of people and of all creation and to respond to them. It requires that we draw out the best in ourselves. The result of such work is nothing less than the transformation of the world, making it a place where the magnitude of God's love can be seen and shared by all, where all people have the opportunity to live out their intrinsic potential, and where our personal and spiritual development propels us to greater social responsibility.


Luria's teaching of the threefold process of creation---withdrawing, breaking, and repairing--is a metaphorical story of transformation that centers on God's creation of the Heavens and Earth, so that God's love can be seen and experienced. Likewise, Luria's teaching provides a metaphor for transformative education, in which religious educators and their learners are asked to draw out the best in themselves in order radically to alter the world.

However, the metaphor has certain drawbacks. It is highly learner-centered wherein learners largely educate themselves within the time and space provided by religious educators. The metaphor does not always consider students who regard themselves as atheists or their responses to the activities mentioned in this essay. In my class, everyone self-labeled as Christian. Even after recognizing such limitations, the Heavens and Earth teaching metaphor still provides us with an opportunity to witness the personal changes in students that can generate global transformation. Montessori's words come to mind when 1 think of how it challenges us: "We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe, and are connected with each other to form one whole unity."

Cyndi Nienhaus, C.S.A., PhD.

Marian University Fond du Lac, WI

(1) Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind, tr. Claude A. Claremont (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967; New York: Henry Holt, 1995), p. 8.

(2) Kabbalah is a compilation of prayers, writings, songs, and practices that were experienced over time in the Jewish tradition. Many believe that Ezekiel's mystical vision, as detailed in Ezekiel 1, is the basis of modem Kabbalah. According to Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (1542/3-1620), "The goal of Kabbalah is to penetrate the surface of everyday reality, to explore unseen spiritual words through rational inquiry and mystical meditation and thereby to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of life" ([Hayyim ben Joseph Vital,] The Tree of Life: Chayyim Vital's Introduction to the Kabbalah of Isaac Luria--The Palace of Adam Kadmon, tr. and intro. Donald Wilder Menzi and Zwi Padeh [Northvale, NJ, and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson, 1999], p. xvii).

(3) Ibid., p. 3.

(4) Psalm 121, New American Bible (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 1986) (hereafter, N.A.B.).

(5) David S. Ariel, The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism (Northvale, NJ, and London: Jason Aronson, 1988), p. 165.

(6) Ps. 33:4-7, N.A.B.

(7) [Hayyim ben Joseph Vital and Isaac ben Solomon Luria], Kabbalah of Creation: Isaac Luria's Earlier Mysticism, tr. and comm. Eliahu Klein (Northvale, NJ, and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson 2000) p. 55.

(8) Ariel, Mystic Quest, p. 165.

(9) Vital, Tree of Life, p. xlvii.

(10) Psalm 8, N.A.B.

(11) Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential (Chennai, India: Kalakshetra Publications, 1948), p. 8.
Table 1. Movement: The Art of Withdrawing

Description               Teaching Practices

--Recognize that          --Involve students in
our students and          intuitive writing
their life situations,    practices.
despite their
fragmentation, are        --Engage students
expressions of            in small-group
Divine Love.              work to learn the
                          stories of their
--Permit God to           peers and to relate
intervene in our          the topic at hand
students' lives.          to their own lives.

--Allow space for         --Introduce students
our students'             to historical and
relationships with        contemporary
God to unfold,            religious figures.
thrive, and flourish.
                          --Begin class
--Encourage our           sessions or small-
students' ongoing         group work with
relationship with         a prolonged silence.
God through
contemplative and
liturgical prayer.        --Give students
                          ample time and space
--Reaffirm the            to address their
centrality of call-       doubts and concerns.
and-response in our
students' lives.

--Support our
students' personal
power to act in
moral ways.

--Resist the
temptation to do
all the work for
our students.

Table 2. Movement: The Art of Honoring Brokenness

Description               Teaching Practices

--Empower our             --Help students
students in their         to conconfront
quest to live out         contemporary issues.
their relationships
amid the                  --Provide the
fragmentation of          means to reflect
contemporary life.        on God's presence
                          amid suffering and
--Allow for               evil.
mistakes and
repentance.               --Encourage students
                          to positive ways to
--Honor the dignity       their own feelings
of all students:          and experiences of
fast learners,            brokenness.
slow learners,
healed learners, and
wounded learners.

--Look for ways in
which God is manifested
in all situations
in life, including
the harshest of life

--Acknowledge and
engage with the
suffering of all life.

--Trust in our
students' responses
to God's invitation.

--Question and confront
uncritical ideologies,
hegemonies, and
vacuous curricula.

--Resist the
temptation of
passivity, coercion,
and manipulation.

Table 3. Movement: The Art of Repairing

Description                 Teaching Practices

--Develop and share         --Help students create
a common vision             their own value system
that alleviates             that will help them do
injustice.                  good unto others.

--Recall that God           --Provide meaningful
initiates the               ways for students to
relationships that          move beyond self-
transform the world.        interest and toward a
                            sense that we are all
--Rely on and promote       interconnected as
the distinct gifts          brothers and sisters.
and capabilities of
students.                   --Work with students on
                            issues relating to social
--Model necessary           justice.
with God.                   --Help students learn the
                            art of genuine dialogue.
--Analyze and respond
appropriately to the
occurrences around
us, both locally
and globally.

--Engage the "other"
and be open to and
transformed by his
or her viewpoints.

--Evaluate with our
students their efforts
to repair and transform
the world.

--Celebrate the
increase of faith,
hope, and love in the
lives of students and
in the world.

--Resist the temptations
of fanaticism, narrow-
mindedness, and the
pursuit of one master,
universal story or
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Author:Nienhaus, Cyndi
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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