Torah Godly Play: An Innovative Approach to Religious Education for Shlemut

Rabbi Michael Shire, PhD

The challenge of religious education is how to induct young people into a 4,000-year-old tradition and to inspire them to carry it forward, shaped by their own life experience. Jewish education has sometimes struggled with success in doing both. We have primarily relied upon the “grammar” of schooling and instruction to effect this goal. The emphasis has been on instruction, knowledge, and comprehension. More recently we have introduced the “grammar” of enculturation, or experiential learning, with its focus on application of learning and reflection on practice. Emerging for us now is a shift toward the personalization of tradition and religious values and practices that is called “shlemut.” This call for a new paradigm shift in religious education needs to find expression in educational strategies and practices that intentionally cultivate and foster personal meaning-making, while at the same time embedding spiritualized ritual practice, Judaism’s value claims, and most importantly, a sensing and knowing beyond self to community and commandment. Michael Rosenak described these two as combining inner and outer religiosity, drawing upon earlier medieval Jewish teachings of the duties of the heart and the duties of the limbs.

What is more is that this combination of inner, personal meaning-making and outer expression of practice and values has to be formed individually but fostered and sustained communally for Jewish education to be deemed successful. It is as if the very goal of religious education is, in the words of religious educator Dr. Bob Pazmino, to become “who you are and whose you are.” We will only know that if a generation finds that the tradition they have inherited and shaped is the very one that gives them meaning and purpose and to which they offer their loyalty and commitment sustained in communities of practice. It’s a tall order for 21st-century Jewish education—and yet a crucial and vital endeavor for our People and, in the light of our prophetic teachings, a repaired world.

I came to this understanding after Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah’s Fellowship in Educating for Applied Jewish Wisdom, but it did not emerge ex nihilo. My experience with Torah Godly Play had given me the insight into how this philosophical approach to 21st-century Jewish education could be implemented inside the ”grammars” of our instructional settings.

How do we help form and nurture the innate sense of God in our children in the light of our sacred texts and value claims? This was the question I was exploring when I came across a pedagogic method called “Godly Play” that is designed to do exactly that. Drawing upon the sacred stories of the Bible, Godly Play invites children into the entrancement of the narrative while leaving room for wonder, creativity, and imagination as they build their own spiritual search and discover a Divine presence in their lives.

The method requires a unique approach to storytelling, coupled with artifacts of natural materials, around which the children sit in a storytelling circle. The entrancement comes from preparing the children to be “ready” via a “doorkeeper” and inviting children “into” a story through the special guidance of the storyteller. Children find that the methodology draws them into an active engagement with the story so much so that they often are seen leaning into the space where the story resides.

The unique methodology is designed intentionally in all aspects for explicit and implicit religiosity. It enables the very youngest children to make these sacred stories their own and live within them as they imagine their own notions of God and bring into language their understanding of religious concepts that have been nonverbal. One six-year-old wondered about the bravery of Moses going up a mountain filled with fire and smoke, much as his own father went off to war in Iraq.

As we cultivate dispositions of trust, joy, contemplation, and love, we are beginning the work of authoring the self as a religious person. Artifacts and objects, made of wood, stone, cloth, or sand and used for telling stories, are carefully and intentionally designed for maximum spiritual resonance. Stories are beautifully crafted for the early childhood age and somehow also provide a rich and deep impact for adolescents and even adults. We ask, “I wonder where you are in the story or where the story is in you.”

Torah Godly Play is an adapted, innovative approach to religious education that seeks not so much to tell stories of faith in order that we will “know” them, but as a means to invite exploration, wondering, and meaning-making through encounter with the text. Did Pharaoh finally respond to Moshe, wondered a six-year-old, because Moshe always asked for what he wanted kindly? The pedagogical ideal of this approach is that, from the earliest age, children are invited to experience and become increasingly aware of the spiritual call within sacred story and of their own deep response as something naturally afforded by religious narrative.

Godly Play, founded by Dr. Jerome Berryman, a Christian theologian and educator, has been developed over three decades in the United States. Its respect for and attention to childhood spirituality and the significance of sacred story through its unusually contemplative and playful style address pedagogic strategies common to Jews and Christians. Godly Play was developed by Berryman as an outcome of his work with Montessori-based Religious Education, combined with a contemplative reading of sacred texts (the practice of Lectio Divina). In Berryman’s analysis, this is a return to the nonverbal, relational communication system that is foundational to spirituality and which we started with as children before shifting to a reliance on language for expression.

As such, it uses specially created artifacts and symbolic objects to enable a trained storyteller to powerfully engage children of all ages in the wonderment of sacred texts. It is not like anything else that we have witnessed in Jewish education, and in some ways it is countercultural to the norms in our community of “struggling” with or deconstructing the text. It might be considered much more a personal “encounter” with the text.

Research into children’s spirituality tells us that religious language is a key to either enhancing or suppressing innate spirituality. Our religious language for God and prayer derives from our adult theologies, but we superimpose it upon children before they are ready to comprehend and own it. It is only by listening for the language of the child that we can begin to understand their readiness for theological language. A child hearing the story of Abram’s call comes to wonder about how conceiving of God as One and Universal becomes true for her as well. Torah Godly Play focuses on the wondering language of the child, and the adults take their cue from that language both in their storytelling and in the children’s subsequent “work” of exploration and expression. As such, Torah Godly Play is not merely an educational method but also a means by which to enact the theology and liturgy of Jewish language. The time spent together in Torah Godly Play is a liturgical experience as much as it is a telling of a story.

As you can imagine, Torah Godly Play is a complex and intricate approach to religious education, inviting children into an encounter with sacred time and sacred space as a community of children. It involves a holistic approach to the prepared environment with a purposeful classroom setup, a means to foster readiness for encounter with a sacred text, a wondering time full of exploration, inviting the nonverbal to become verbal and a means to deepen that wondering through creative expression and playful reflection on experience. Most importantly it nurtures an intentional community of children who work and play collaboratively, sharing their wonder and searching. Adults enable the experience but not in the instructional mode. Rather, they honor the children’s experiences and offer the connections between implicit and explicit religiosity in the light of each child’s spiritual signature.

As we develop the frameworks for understanding religious education in all of its wholeness, we can draw upon innovative practices that seek to foster and deepen the six components of educating for shlemut. Torah Godly Play invites children to cultivate social, emotional, and spiritual dispositions while shaping their own experience of sacred text. They do so in an intentional community that enacts Jewish values and practices in sacred spaces. Our work together in the fellowship validated this approach to religious education and deepened my appreciation of the variety of possibilities that Jewish educators bring to the work of educating for shlemut.


Rabbi Michael Shire, PhD is the chief academic officer and dean of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education at Hebrew College Boston. He convenes a community of practice for Torah Godly Play, and offers training and consultancy in its practice.