Boy emerging from cave

This post is based on Mandel Center Director Jon A. Levisohn’s introduction to the recent Conference on Transformative Jewish Education, held at Brandeis in March. The conference web page has more blog posts and other resources.

When people describe Jewish educational programs as “transformative,” what do they mean?

Some argue that “transformative education” is an empty bit of hyperbole that does not mean anything in particular. There’s no reason to believe that there’s any well-reasoned conception of transformation that grounds the use of the terms. And there’s certainly no reason to believe that those who are using this language have any evidence that their programs are actually transformative for their participants.

The skeptics have a point. We often make claims about our programs that we cannot really justify. And there’s no reason to think that, each time someone uses the term “transformative” to describe a program, those usages can all be subsumed under one coherent conception.

Nevertheless, when we talk about “transformation” in Jewish education or use the adjective “transformative” to describe a program, there’s something else going on. The term, I believe, points to a desired outcome: an aspiration for the program to have a certain kind of impact on the participants.

What kind? We want some educational programs to do more than just teach participants certain ideas or skills. We want to go deeper—to shape character and identity, to have an influence on how these participants move through the world. We are thinking not just about what they know or what they can do, but who they are.

So in posing a question about transformation, I’m not really intending to focus on the term itself. I don’t care whether we continue to use it, or start using some other term instead. But I do care about our highest educational aspirations to influence character and identity in particular ways, and I do want to stimulate a discussion about them.

Consider the famous story about the great 1st century sage Rabbi Akiva.

How did Rabbi Akiva start out? He was forty years old and had never studied anything. Once he stood at a spring.[i] He said, “Who engraved this stone?”[ii] They told him, “It was the water, which drips upon it every day.”

Rabbi Akiva immediately drew a conclusion about himself: “If something soft (like water) could chisel its way through something hard (like stone), then surely the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, can penetrate my heart, which is flesh and blood!” Immediately, he turned to studying Torah.[iii]

How should we think about the change that Akiva underwent? There are two different ways of thinking about the story, and each of those can serve as a conceptual model of transformation.

The first is that Akiva had some kind of powerful experience at the spring that pulled him up short and made him realize that his fundamental assumptions about himself were not true.

What were those assumptions? Perhaps Akiva believed that he was fated to a life of ignorance, or saw himself as a failure, with a heart that could not be penetrated or changed. In a moment, the image of the water on the stone reshaped those assumptions, changed his frame of reference, and opened up new possibilities for him.

But there’s also another way to think about it. If I were to ask a group of people how many of them are musicians, a small number would raise their hands. If I were then to ask the same group of people, how many of them have ever studied music, a larger number would raise their hands. How come? How did it happen that some people who participated in an activity (music lessons) became certain kinds of people (musicians), while others did not?

The answer, of course, is practice. Some people kept at it, where the others stopped. Over time, they underwent a transformation, from being a person who takes music lessons, to being a different person, a musician. We cannot necessarily say exactly when that happens, because it doesn’t happen at one moment. But we know the difference between a music-lesson person and a musician.

This is a second model of transformation, in which the patient enactment of a practice, over time, affects who we are and how we see ourselves. Maimonides wrote about this in the 12th century.

Our Sages taught: Just as God is called “gracious,” you shall be gracious. Just as God is called “merciful,” you shall be merciful…

How should one train oneself to follow in these dispositions, so that they become ingrained? Let one practice again and again the actions prompted by those dispositions, and repeat them continually till they become easy and do not present any difficulty. Then, the corresponding dispositions will become a fixed part of one’s character.[iv]

There’s no destabilizing encounter. The person undergoing transformation doesn’t leave behind one frame of reference or one set of fundamental assumptions, and adopt another one. Instead, the person adopts a practice and over time becomes transformed into a different kind of person. By adopting gracious practices, one becomes a gracious person. By adopting merciful or generous or thoughtful practices, one becomes that type of person. Just like, by practicing music, one becomes a musician.

If we go back to the story of Rabbi Akiva, we might notice that what seemed so significant to him, about the water, was precisely that it had an effect over time that seems analogous to the effect on a person that Maimonides is describing. So, on the one hand, the story seems to fit with the first kind of transformation, the idea of a sudden change in the frame of reference. But on the other hand, the story also seems to fit with the idea of an incremental change over time, in which the person (or thing) being transformed ends up changed through the steady pressure of a particular pattern.

Ironically, perhaps Akiva’s original mistaken assumption is that people change suddenly – that they get hit by lightning and suddenly become pious or wise. Maybe that’s what he was waiting for, until he encountered the spring and drew a contrary lesson from it. He didn’t need to get hit by lightning, but he did need to get shaken out of the idea of getting hit by lightning. He needed the sudden realization that change would not necessarily happen suddenly, and instead, to begin to see the way in which the practice of Torah, enacted patiently over time, drop by drop, could actually transform him.

Abstracting from the story of Akiva, we now have two divergent models of transformation: sudden, through an encounter with a disruptive or destabilizing experience, or slow, through the patient enactment of a practice over time. Each leads to a person being fundamentally different than they were.

As we examine particular educational programs and think with their leaders about the kinds of transformative impact they aspire to achieve, and how they aspire to achieve them – what pedagogies, what mechanisms, what technologies – we should keep in mind that there is more than one model for what it means to become transformed.


[i] Others translate the Hebrew be’er as “well,” but the story makes more sense if we think about a spring from which water drips, rather than a well from which water is drawn.

[ii] From the context, it seems that Akiva was admiring a stone at the spring that displayed an intricate pattern of marks or grooves.

[iii] Avot de-Rabbi Natan 6:2

[iv] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot, 1:6-7.