By Arielle Levites

All educational sites have some program of change embedded in them. They reflect beliefs about who the learner is at the start of the process, who the learner should rightly become, and beliefs about how to best effect the evolution from A to B. But not all educational sites call themselves transformational.

Programs that offer Jewish spiritual educational often frame their pedagogy as transformative. For example, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality has a page on its website devoted to “Stories of Transformation.” These personal accounts testify to the power of Jewish spiritual learning and practice for participants.

For all that leaders and participants use the term “transformation” to describe their work and experiences, they often offer different models for how transformation can happen and how its effects are felt.

One popular model of spiritual transformation in the American religious imagination is the “conversion” model. Exemplified by the conversion of Paul on the Road to Damascus, it depicts transformation as sudden, swift and permanent. Featuring high emotional arousal and a sense of intense personal experience, the conversion model is usually marked as extraordinary in some way.

In sites that teach Jewish spirituality, however, other models of transformation take center stage. In the “cellular metabolism” model, for example, this transformation happens slowly and subtly over time, until the self is remade—like the belief that the human body remakes itself over at the cellular level every seven years or so. It’s change that is not obvious from the outside. While not the only native model of transformation at work in Jewish spiritual education programs, the cellular model is a popular one. According to this model, spiritual transformation is radical change that might not be noticed. That makes it hard to assess with many of the tools researchers often use to demonstrate change over time.

Learning more about models of transformation in Jewish education can help researchers understand the terms by which these educational programs seek to be understood and measured.

Arielle Levites is an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center, where she directs the Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics Project.