What God is – or also isn't


A Jewish Waldorf teacher's view

by Samuel Ichmann


We've heard the accusation of 'anti-Semitism in Waldorf schools', but how does a Waldorf teacher with Jewish roots experience this? After decades of experience he concludes that merely citing anthroposophical tenets is far from sufficient if we are to avoid the pitfalls of discrimination. Though there may be no anti-Jewish attitudes as such, clichι-ridden ideas about Judaism – whether as the product of traditional Christianity or of dogmatically over-interpreting Steiner – have also surfaced in Waldorf schools.

To talk about being a Jew in Germany opens up a minefield! It immediately sets snares and pitfalls: of nostalgic sentimentality, suppressed dialogue, the black hole of our response to the cruelty Germans practiced on Jews, the resignation felt about the Shoah's destruction of hopes that German and Jewish culture might reunite. And, above all, the enormous awkwardness this theme awakens. But beyond all the traps and difficulties it is still a subject waiting for an answer. As a Jew living in Germany, in fact, I have also come to sense that here – and perhaps only here – we have reached such a zero point, such a tabula rasa, that a new beginning might actually be possible. The shock of the unimaginable, perhaps, has created a space where we might, and in fact must approach this subject in a quite new and different way. The stigmata of disaster in the body of Germany's history means that every straying from such a path leads straight to scandal. Could what is reported from contemporary Hungary ever happen here now – where in a football match in the Budapest stadium involving a club that Jews have supported as long as any one can remember, hooligans on the other side started chanting: 'Die, Jewish scum'? Or does such a thing only not happen in Germany because there isn't actually a football team supported by Jews, and because the majority of Germans have never even seen a 'real live Jew'?

A Jew in the Waldorf school

And then what about this for a theme – being a Jewish teacher in a Waldorf school somewhere in Germany! Is anyone interested? Do the roots of someone working in education matter, and what kinds of belief and mentality he has developed as a result of his own upbringing and education? Isn't this kind of education, at least, something that stresses the humanity of human beings? Isn't it a pedagogy that lives in the perception of a dynamic spiritual core in every child? And anyway, don't its impulses merge seamlessly with the central truth of all humanity's religious traditions? Isn't the Waldorf school, as a place where striving people can meet, independent of race, nation and religious or scientific persuasion - analogous with the basic principle which Steiner wished for members of the Anthroposophical Society? Isn't this true for teachers as well as pupils and parents?
No doubt. Except that we do not live in a non-historical vacuum of general principles, but in the concrete reality of actual situations, and accrued, often unpondered mentalities. Our ideals may be coherent and united, but life does not always look quite the same. Which is a good thing, for if this kind of education was a ready-packaged article it could not be what it is: ongoing task and living development.

What started me writing this?

This article had a specific impetus, the continual onslaught of accusations about racism in Steiner's works and in Waldorf education. Recently rumors have surfaced of anti-Semitic discrimination said to have occurred in Waldorf schools – an explosive theme, at least in German-speaking countries. These rumors seem to have no basis in reality. But even if some individual teacher did go off the rails in this sense, one could not necessarily draw any conclusions about the general views of a whole pedagogical movement. It is clear that racism and anti-Semitism are completely at odds with ethical foundations on which anthroposophical pedagogy rests. Anthroposophy is therefore almost inevitably exposed to slander, as a result of people's hazy perception of its different and demanding nature. It tries to awaken spiritual responsibility, which sometimes unleashes subconscious reactions. Naturally the best way to test its usefulness and validity would be through conscious and considered scrutiny, but opponents seldom pursue this path. Thus it can stimulate irrational hatred. In this respect, by the way, Anthroposophy and Judaism share the same peculiar destiny. Of course we must rebuff unsustainable and distorted portrayals. I absolutely support those who, following insinuations recently broadcast on German television, reacted swiftly, energetically and intelligently. Yet there are also internal perspectives that can easily be overlooked; and it may be of some interest to hear what a Jew has to say who has been a Waldorf teacher in Germany for many years. Such a person could contribute two things, as it were from the sidelines of such debate. First he could show how Jewishness is sometimes perceived, could point out some very German symptoms but also some which seem to be induced by a particularly anthroposophical response. Let me stress at the outset that this has nothing whatever to do either with the nature of Germans or that of anthroposophy as such, but ultimately with the fact that people are people, and that this is a very difficult theme. Secondly he could try to show how in a Waldorf teacher – a German-speaking, Central European Jew – spiritual motifs from Judaism and anthroposophy meet, in a way that has become important for him on his pedagogical path. This is really, for me, the point of this article. The circumstances I describe were the immediate stimulus for me to further explore my own spiritual understanding, and my need was to share something of this, not to accuse or polemicise. Becoming aware of areas of unclarity in our relationship to anthroposophy, however, ought also to be a useful task. The aphoristic and anecdotal notes contained in what follows are certainly subjective. They do not by any means represent all that I might say on the subject of Waldorf education, anthroposophy and Judaism, nor are they in any way conclusive or final. They represent only one aspect of my personal biographical experiences – though certainly not an unimportant one.

'But you won't force that down everyone's throats, will you?'

I sit in a restaurant not far from an East European capital, opposite a fairly prominent German colleague, whom I hold in high regard. A training project for Waldorf education that is running here, which we are both teaching in, has brought us together. The food is excellent and we take the opportunity to get to know each other better. The conversation is open and friendly: we tell each other about our life and experience, exchange personal stories. At some point or other I 'out' myself as Jew. My colleague looks at me a little uncertainly and says: ' But you won't force that down everyone's throats will you?' I do not know what to reply. Does he mean something like 'insist on telling everyone'? Is that what I have just done – unwarily, or even with Jewish chutzpa? I examine myself. No, I do not have the tendency to 'embarrass' people by making them classify me immediately as a Jew. On the other hand I do not have the slightest inclination, either, to keep it a secret. Why should I? Jews who keep quiet about their Jewishness may have their own personal reasons (or complexes), but this was never something I wanted to do. I have always taken the opportunity of informing my colleagues about this aspect of my origins whenever it seemed natural and sensible to do so, as I did in this long conversation on a gentle summer's evening, far away from Germany. So I'm at a loss for words now, and the colleague opposite also says nothing for a minute, then adds the following question: 'But you are a Christian surely?' This is somewhat unexpected. What does he mean by this? He knows, after all, that I am a dedicated Waldorf teacher, well acquainted for years with the foundations of anthroposophy. They are my daily bread if I am serious about my profession. How could I have elbowed out the important motifs of Christology? I have also just been telling him about my involvement in religion teaching. Or was he not listening properly? What answer does he want from me? Should I tell him of intimate experiences which every pupil on a spiritual path is careful to keep to himself? I hesitate for a fairly long moment. If I don't like keeping quiet about my Jewishness, this applies even more so to my conviction about Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. Does he mean this question when he uses the word 'Christian'? I am not a Christian in the traditional sense: I have never left the Jewish community in which I grew up, nor have I ever joined a Christian church. But he, as an anthroposophist and Waldorf teacher will surely not care about that, or even expect otherwise!
I reply to his question with a thoughtful 'Yes'. I don't need to unsettle him surely? Later, on the way to my lodgings, I think about it all again and have mixed feelings. Perhaps I should have unsettled him! Wouldn't it have shown more presence of mind to answer with Kierkegaard's great phrase: 'One cannot be a Christian, only become one'?
I tell this anecdote because it highlights a deep problem. Apart from all over-hasty labels, identifications, 'isms' and ideologies, what do people really know about the way Jews look at the world? What do they know of the feeling of opposition, often only resonating in unspoken, subconscious realms, to having any kind of idolatry forced on one? Of the one and a half centuries of reservation about a Christianity which, through many of its representatives as well as many of the forms of worship and doctrine it assumed, could not, and was not permitted to answer Jewish needs; of the inner strength and warmth which it draws from the spirituality of its traditions, and which it is a strange blindness to want to deprive it of – for only by being so deprived was a Jew allowed, until late in the twentieth century, to be accepted as a Christian; of the impossibility of regarding as obsolete, superfluous and redundant things of the most intimate, personal, profound meaning which one drank in, as it were, at one's mother's breast – because, once 'Christ had appeared', all this was apparently no longer valid!
I don't really want to plunge into theological debate at this point, but one thing is certain: Christians who ponder their outlook and roots are very aware nowadays that to deny Judaism is to undermine their own origins. But it is this same misguided tradition of denial, reaching far back to the first centuries of the post-Christian era, and extending into our own recent past, that has sometimes worked its way into people's (mis)conceptions of anthroposophy and Waldorf education. But this rests on the projection of what I believe are wholly false interpretations onto Steiner's Christology, on the continued circulation of theological prejudices that were at least partly overcome after the second world war, though not necessarily in our circles.

Don't read 'engraved in stone', read 'freedom'

I look back on myself in my early years as a Waldorf teacher – almost thirty years ago – sitting in the college meeting of a south German Waldorf school, where I completed my apprenticeship. I look back with much gratitude, also to the dear colleague of mine whom I am about to quote. I met him again a few years ago, and thanked him for the many helpful personal conversations we had. A very modest person, who never said anything without reflecting on it first, and never adopted a 'holy-holy' attitude. The words he spoke which I am about to cite were, therefore, no doubt ones of genuine conviction which he, a scientist, drew from the general mood that then still held sway in Waldorf education as a relic from the pre-war years: 'Judaism,' he said, 'is purely a religion of laws. Even today a strictly orthodox Jewish doctor would still be forbidden from healing someone on the Sabbath who was near death.' We had been talking about Jesus' healings on the Sabbath as described in the Gospels. I must stress that there wasn't the slightest nuance of disdain or even anti-Semitism in his words or his attitude. He simply put it forward as a fact of cultural history. And was not contradicted. Not even by me. In my own defence I can say that I, very young, and sitting there between tried and tested, long-serving authorities, was firstly distressed, for I had never heard such a thing before, and it seemed to me to be diametrically opposed to the Jewish ethos of 'He who saves a single person, saves the whole world'. Secondly, I had grown up in a religious but not an orthodox context, and was not very knowledgeable on questions of halacha, or interpretation of the ritual laws. Thirdly the discussion had moved on to another point before I had come to inner focus again. Nevertheless, this and other similar situations were a stimulus for me to broaden and deepen my knowledge of Judaism. In brief, the statement above about not saving someone on the Sabbath is false. A doctor is actually obliged by religious laws to try to help a sick person close to death, on the Sabbath or otherwise. But even the more general assertion that the Jewish religion is one based only on laws, turns out on closer inspection to be rather inaccurate. I am not disputing that there are fossilized forms of religious observance. But the real sense of the mitzvoth – an untranslatable word that is often rendered as 'duties' – is linked with one of the deepest spiritual attitudes to the world that we know in all religious history: the consecration of every action, even the slightest and smallest - in other words, deed as prayer. In Hassidism this tendency blossomed in great and undogmatic fashion. The essence of mitzvoth enters a class-teacher's activity each day if he teaches with moral intuition and imagination. There is also a wonderful Talmudic phrase that belongs here, that bursts from within the confines of purely legalistic understanding which people like to foist on Judaism. It arises through a kind of play on words, which has a fairly important role in traditional Bible interpretation. Because the Hebrew script has consonants only, a word in the Torah can receive various different meanings according to the vowels one gives it. The passage in Exodus to which I am referring relates to the law tablets, in which the so-called Ten Commandments (actually the 'ten words') were engraved. The sentence goes: Al tigra harut ela herut, which in translation is: 'Don't read "engraved in stone", read "freedom".' I recommend this as meditation for those who wish to ponder the spirit of the Torah; and perhaps for others as well – it might prove a useful approach, for instance, to interpreting the Waldorf curriculum. Or for 'reading' another human being, for thinking deeply about a child's nature and trying to conjure up his past and future development before our inner eyes.

Jewish caricature

I cannot continue my account without speaking of the Oberufer 'Three Kings Play' that is often performed in Waldorf schools. As people may know, unlike the other two Oberufer plays – the Paradise and the Shepherds plays - the clergy had a hand in creating this highly dramatic piece of folk theatre, and it is perhaps for this reason that the priests and high priests were given the general gloss of 'Jews'. Was this an attempt to hide the fact that every cleric, even a Christian one, can sometimes act more as a hindrance to, than mediator of good? Or was it a straightforward reference to the Jews as 'God-murderers'? Whatever the truth, I would like to describe the impression made on me the first time I saw the Three Kings Play. This was at the Uhlandshφhe Waldorf School in Stuttgart, in 1973. I stress the date because I assume that things have changed since then, and that the play is no longer directed there in the same way. I was attending the Stuttgart Waldorf teacher-training course at the time, and we students were invited to see the plays. The play struck me as a powerful and remarkable piece of theatre, with an intense inwardness which greatly appealed to me, and which I gladly involved myself in – and then the 'Jews' appeared all of a sudden. They wore East European orthodox Jewish costume – broad-rimmed, black hats, caftans, beards and long side-locks – and twitched, pitter-pattered about, spoke in a hasty, fidgety jargon, and finally fell over backwards together off their bench. This was, by the way, quite a theatrical achievement, for the teachers were not professional actors. One can imagine the uproarious laughter of a hall-full of children of all ages. But I was deeply troubled. Over-sensitive reaction from someone who still bore the wounds that a collective memory retained from centuries of persecution and denigration? Or quite simply the fact that my great grandfather on my mother's side, Israel Schuchner, used to wear such a costume; and that he was a quiet, pious man devoted to prayer and study of the Torah, who had the good fortune to die a natural death shortly before the Nazis arrived in the East European town where he lived? (My great grandmother, Perl Rochel, was transported to Auschwitz at over eighty, together with some of her children and grandchildren. None of them returned.) But perhaps my distress was also connected with everyone's unexpressed awkwardness about such things.
At the school where I first taught as a Waldorf teacher, I was asked to join the 'Three Kings company' barely a year later. The director, someone for whom I had and still have the greatest respect, and who sadly died far too young, was a Waldorf teacher of the 'old guard', son of a teacher on the very first college of teachers of 1919. He knew of my Jewish origins and thought I might, for that very reason, be able to bring an authentic quality to the gestures! At the time I was astonished at this German naivety, and am still astonished today. Luckily the costumes at this school were quite different from the ones in Stuttgart – very original, stylized priest costumes, without the faintest resemblance to village Jews of eastern and central Europe. I also noticed that for these characters the term 'high priests' gradually replaced the designation 'Jews'; and I remember a colleague asking the striking question in a college meeting whether, after what the Germans had done to the Jews, one ought still to perform this play at all. It is only in retrospect that I realize that in the early seventies the process of working through recent German history had really only just begun. However I did not accept the role offered me (taking another instead).

What God is – or also isn't

I would like to relate one further symptomatic tale. We are now no longer in southern Germany but in the North. Here a fresh wind blows, people are more tolerant, more open and have more distance from things than in the South. I have returned to Germany after a longish time working in another European country – in the 'Hoyerswerda' year, in fact, when neo-Nazis were setting houses and people on fire – and my homecoming is not altogether encouraging. A few more gray hairs, a few less illusions, but by no means burned out. We, teachers of non-denominational religion lessons, are sitting in the school library together with a Christian Community priest. We are studying a theme from Christology. The invited priest takes part in the discussion, contributing very clear formulations.
As things unfold the north-German priest – a cultivated figure, very well educated and doubtless profoundly knowledgeable about esoteric themes – says with powerful conviction and in a tone of forceful pronouncement: 'Jahve is not the Father God!' He is by the way unaware of my Jewish ancestry. This contemplative meeting is not the right place for an argument, and I am not much interested, anyway, in hammering out questions of religious dogma. I know of Steiner's great teachings of cosmology and divine hierarchy, and of the specific perspectives derived from occult research, and regard it as an important task to integrate these with my knowledge and understanding. Various studies of my own have also brought me some familiarity with patriarchal and scholastic fields, as well as with some basic aspects of church council and heretic history, with their disputes over dogma. The question of the trinity has occupied me for a long time – not only as an academic, historical question, but also a living one, and naturally too in relation to Steiner's pedagogical anthropology which refers to a trinity within man and the world. I try to connect with experiences and insights such as those evoked by the 1923/24 Foundation Stone meditation, seeking to avoid speculations in which the intellect assumes it 'knows what's what' as far as divinity is concerned.
'Jahve is not the Father God'! I go home, and this 'is not' refuses to let go of me. Not the content but the way it was put, not the question but the apodictic 'thus it is' is what troubles me somehow. I naturally respect the fact that a priest preaches – that's his job after all. Maybe he doesn't have to do it everywhere, all the time, but we all have our human failings. Yet what am I meant to make of this 'is not'? I want to find out what it is that bothers me about it. Is it really the way it was said, or perhaps the content after all? I decide to make full use of the school library where this discussion took place over the next few days, for it contains a complete edition of Rudolf Steiner's works. With the aid of an index and reference volume I examine every passage I can find in which Steiner said anything about the being of Jahveh. Naturally I cannot cite chapter and verse here, but as I read it becomes very clear to me that it is impossible to derive an ultimate 'is' or 'is not' from the dynamic, descriptive depiction characteristic of Steiner. He approaches this, as many other questions, from the most varied perspectives; and the student only arrives at a fuller understanding, beyond Steiner's actual text, by combining these perspectives! But maybe this is my Jewish mentality coming to the fore again – 'Don't read 'engraved in stone', read 'freedom'! - that does not wish to pigeonhole the spiritual and divine in the form of dogma and parroted phrases fixed by decree and made obligatory for believers. Rabbinical Judaism, after all, contains the principle of mahloqet – or 'multiplicity of voices' – in which different, conflicting teachings can stand alongside one another without being resolved. Perhaps the multiplicity of perspectives in Rudolf Steiner's work is also a kind of spiritual-scientific mahloqet?
Then something else of great importance also enters my reflections. I imagine someone going to a pious Jew and trying to explain to him that the divinity to which he prays daily is not the Father at all, the Creator, the Ground of creation, Sustainer of the world, but 'only' – well, whatever you like. He would shake his head at best – and rightly so. Who are we to fiddle around with the great traditions from outside, or to come along with our two cents worth of academic learning? Thinking one knows better than others does not, as far as I am aware, belong to the virtues which Steiner recommended to those striving for knowledge.
A Jewish prayer book lies before me. Morning-, afternoon-, evening prayers: all imbued with the most solemn, sublime formulations, symbols and metaphors, which direct the praying person to ponder ultimate, absolute things; and all penetrated by the name of the Father. In the Pessach-Haggadah stand phrases which render any reductionism to 'merely' hierarchical aspects impossible, though the latter do not, of course, have to be excluded. Even intertrinitarian differentiations, however important these may be in other contexts, have no place here, since they come, as one says in Jewish tradition, from 'Greek', not Hebrew thought. And this 'Hebrew' thinking, if you don't mind me saying so, has nothing to do with what people sometimes dismiss as 'superceded', 'abstract' and 'monotheistic'. 'Greek' thinking, from Dionysus the Areopagite to Vladimir Soloviev, has its own inimitable flavor, its grandeur, beauty and deep truth. But why should it be the only kind to approach Christ? A religion can after all only be understood from within, however difficult such a phenomenological methodology may be in practice. If I try to understand Buddhism through the views of Thomas Aquinas I have failed before I begin. And the reverse is also true of course. In Christianity, naturally, people have got used to regarding Judaism as a mere preparatory stage, just as Judaism has come to see Christianity as a kind of apostasy. Nowadays, I believe, it is high time to overcome such habits of thought. Let me quote another passage from the Haggadah:

I led you out of Egypt,
no angel
and no seraph
and no messenger.
I myself and no other.

Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish religious philosopher, articulated his understanding of the Messiah through this 'I myself and no other', and was the same man who once, in referring to the Jews' awaiting of the Messiah and the New Testament teaching of Christ's second coming, asked the enigmatic question whether, if these events should occur, they would not be one and the same!

The breath of learning children

I remember in my student days how a French Christian Community priest once embraced me joyfully and told me how great was his love and reverence for Judaism. This heartfelt warmth was surely genuine. I once gave him a volume of Martin Buber's 'Tales of the Hassidim', and he later told me this was something all priests should read, and had been of great help to him in his work. A few years ago I also learned that Rudolf Steiner advised a young man who came to him to ask whether he should become a priest, to study the book of Baal Schem Tov, the semi-legendary, eighteenth-century founder of the Hassidic movement.
The question I have is whether this book might not be a very good resource for preparing for the 'holy' profession of teacher, as Rudolf Steiner saw it. It is increasingly hard to find access to impulses of thought and feeling which stress the religious quality of Waldorf education. In my opinion this is not only because of the compromises which in our movement have sometimes been internalized, far more than necessary, in people's life of feeling, and which stifle the spontaneity of our pedagogy; but because our desert wanderings doubtless have a purpose: to ignite an inner fire, one fed through the meeting of individuals. The deeper purpose of meeting is to practice attentiveness and devotion towards the being and potential of another, to the child made in the image of God who has been entrusted to me.
If I ponder – and I would like to conclude with this – the central task of education, particularly in our day and age, I think of that 'learning to breath' to which Rudolf Steiner gives such emphatic importance at the beginning of his 'Study of Man'. Are we really serious about this? Are we not frequently so out-of-breath ourselves in our daily rush that, while we understand this theoretically, and can relate all kinds of ideas to it, we do not in fact manage to make it real? Do we not need to daily recreate and revitalize our awareness of this in the most mundane of everyday situations? How strangely familiar and at the same time newly expressed for us is that Talmudic phrase, which seems to have an inner relation to the underlying pedagogical and therapeutic motifs of Waldorf education, and which is nevertheless coined in inimitable 'Hebraic' manner: The world rests on the breath of learning children.

This article originally appear in Info3, a German language anthroposophical print publication.