Why Does the Jewish Community Devote Little of our Resources to the Spiritual Lives of Those No Longer Young?
I recently studied a teaching on aging with a group of six women (ranging in age from 49 to 70-something), who have been learning with me for several years. Through the lens of Jewish text, we’ve grappled with many of the core questions of life, including the challenges of aging – both our parents, and ourselves. But this particular text – a commentary by the Mei Hashiloach on the patriarch Abraham’s old age — struck an especially deep chord.
The commentary begins with a verse purportedly by King Solomon: “This is my portion from all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:10). What is our “portion” in old age, the yield of a lifetime of hard work? Citing the answer the Talmud offers in the name of Shmuel – “it is his water jug” (Sanhedrin 20b) — the Mei Hashiloach writes:
For a jug is a vessel of reception, meaning, ready and still yearning to add to it. This was [Solomon’s] delight, for this is the main point (ha-ikar) of the life of this world. And this is the meaning of the verse, “v’Avraham zaken ba bayamim — Abraham was old, coming in days…” (Gen. 24:1) — that he came to the roots of life, and he himself became a vessel of reception, longing for an increase in his life from God, more at each moment.
As a group, we loved this text not only because it presents a magnificent and inspiring vision of aging. It moved us because it challenged us to question why – if the essence of successful aging is continual longing for spiritual growth — we as a Jewish community devote precious little of our resources to the spiritual lives of those no longer young?
Much of my rabbinate is focused on small group teaching, primarily close analysis of Biblical text searching for such nuggets of meaning, and primarily with people of the baby-boomer generation and older. I love this work; it is my passion. And I love it precisely because my experience of the people I teach in these groups is just as the Mei Shiloach imagines Abraham and Solomon: they are vessels of reception, yearning to keep learning and growing, longing to deepen their relationship with Judaism and with God.
The women in this particular group are highly Jewishly educated and engaged, actively involved in leadership roles (some are Wexner Heritage alumni!). But over the years I’ve discovered a similar receptiveness and hunger for serious, deeply-meaningful Jewish study among widely diverse populations of empty-nesters, the young-old, and old-old, even among people with little or no Jewish background. These people too are “receptive vessels,” capable of great depth, complexity and nuance. Often, life experience has helped them develop what Keats called “negative capability” – the ability to hold mystery, ambiguity, and multiple truths. And they want not only to learn, but to change, and to invite God more deeply into their lives.
Indeed, spirituality – and this kind of integrative, transformational learning – may well be one of those things that we do better as we age. The deepest treasures of our tradition are inaccessible to children, and often neither relevant to nor fully appreciated by younger adults. As the Talmud says (Avodah Zara 5b), it takes forty years to fully fathom the Torah of one’s teacher. Or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
May I suggest that . . . old age be regarded not as the age of stagnation but as the age of opportunities for inner growth? . . . The years of old age may enable us to attain the high values we failed to sense, the insights we have missed, the wisdom we ignored. They are indeed formative years, rich in possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through inbred self-deceptions, to deepen understanding and compassion, to widen the horizon of honesty, to refine the sense of fairness. One ought to enter old age the way one enters the senior year at a university, in exciting anticipation of consummation. Rich in perspective, experienced in failure, the person advanced in years is capable of shedding prejudices and the fever of vested interests. . . . What the nation needs is senior universities, universities for the advanced in years where wise men should teach the potentially wise, where the purpose of learning is not a career, but where the purpose of learning is learning itself (“To Grow in Wisdom,” in The Insecurity of Freedom, pp. 78-79).
The thinking that focuses investment exclusively or primarily on the young is based on a quantitative, rather than qualitative, value system, and perhaps even more troubling, on a transactional model that treats Jewish engagement as a means rather than an end. Jewish parents need to be engaged so that they will better raise and educate their children. Young Jewish singles and teens need to be engaged so that they will in-marry and have Jewish children. Of course it’s true that engaging older adults in serious Jewish study has incidental benefits: they continue to be teachers and role models for their adult children and grandchildren, they may increase their financial contributions or fund more wisely, etc.
But we can only understand Heschel’s reference to old age as “formative years” by stepping out of that framework entirely. Heschel is not referring to the formation of Jewish community; he is speaking of the formation of the soul. How ironic and sad that we’re less likely to fund projects where the purpose of adult learning is simply learning itself, unlikely to be “leveraged” into the future.
Ideally, of course, Jewish study as we age would be the continuation — the “senior year” – of a lifetime of learning. The reality is, for many baby-boomers and older, it is not. Vast numbers of older Jews were not privileged to encounter a meaningful expression of Judaism in their youth and young adulthood. Unlike the women in this group who knew what they were looking for and where to find it, many equally “receptive vessels” can’t identify precisely what it is they hunger for, don’t know to look for it within Judaism, and wouldn’t know where to begin if they did. Like the young, they too need outreach, geared to them.
Without question, we need to invest in the future of Jewish community. We also need to invest in teachers and programs who can help today’s Jews come like Abraham “to the roots of life, [becoming] a vessel of reception, longing for an increase in his life from God, more at each moment,” just for their own sake. Because, as the Mei HaShiloach says, that is the “ikar, the main point of life.”
Rabbi Jan R. Uhrbach, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna, Class 10, and current faculty for the Wexner Heritage Program, is the founder of NAHAR, a new Jewish experience in Manhattan, and the founding Rabbi of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in Sag Harbor. Rabbi Uhrbach is the associate editor of Siddur Lev Shalem, a new Shabbat and festival siddur to be published by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, having served as a member of the editorial committee for Machzor Lev Shalem, published last year. The rabbinate is Rabbi Uhrbach’s second career. A graduate of Yale University (1988) and Harvard Law School (1985), Rabbi Uhrbach was ordained at JTS.