Rabbinic Responses to Aging

By Harris, J. Gordon | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Rabbinic Responses to Aging


Harris, J. Gordon, Hebrew Studies Journal


Rabbinical literature elevates old age and filial obligations. Elders reflect God's blessing and wisdom. Second, teachings of the rabbis cherish filial respect as does the Roman patria potestas and illustrate how an adult child should honor parents despite parental provocations. Two biblical terms show the importance of filial respect in Judaism: "kibbud" and "mora." Respect for aging parents becomes the basis for unconditional support for the leadership of the older generation and social structures they represent. Consistancy and uniformity in rabbinical literature emphasize the importance of the elderly and a widespread ethos of support for elders

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I include this essay in Hebrew Studies to honor the National Association of Professors of Hebrew Executive Vice President Gilead Morahg, University of Wisconsin, Madison for his many years of service. This essay focuses on how rabbinical literature reminds the association of requirements to honor older members of society.

The first time I attended a Society of Biblical Literature meeting of the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, the New York hotel meeting room was filled with older rabbis. By the time I attended the next meeting, most had retired or could not attend outside of New York City. Fortunately, new leadership appeared who included a number of younger professors from the University of Wisconsin. Among the new leaders was Gilead Morahg. The society elected him as Executive Vice President and the association has followed his leadership to national prominence.

Members interested in Biblical Hebrew and Hebrew Literature and teachers of Modern Hebrew filled rooms at its meetings during the SBL conference. The Association also added a spring meeting for Teaching Modern Hebrew and Hebrew Literature. Under Gilead's leadership the association has risen to include scholars from around the world, especially from Israel.

As a past president of the association, I appreciated the pleasant demeanor and organizational skills of Gilead. As both of us have joined the elders of the association at age 65, I dedicate this article, a revised section from my book, Biblical Perspectives on Aging (Fortress Press, 1987, pp. 96-103; Second edition; Hayworth Press, 2007), to the contributions he will make as an elder of NAPH. Gilead has much to offer the association and scholarship in general in years to come.

1. SACRED DOCUMENTS OF JUDAISM AND AGING

Sacred documents of Judaism reflect values similar to those of ancient oriental societies elevating old age and filial obligations. Those values appear in meager teachings on the subject in Mishnah tractates, their commentaries, and related Talmuds. The documents reinforce the common theology of ancient Israel and at the same time make distinctive adjustments.

For example, devotion to parents is important to the moralists and jurists whose sayings are recorded in the Talmud and Mishnah. These traditions cherish filial respect as does the Roman patria potestas. They illustrate how an adult child should respond respectfully to parental provocations. Such materials support obedience to elders in halakic examples or stories with a moral and thereby support current social structures.

How widely Jewish circles actually practiced respect for elders as taught in the halakot can never be ascertained with precision. However, consistency and uniformity of beliefs in Judaic literature supporting elderly and filial obligations point toward a general acceptance of these ideals. Truly, insights from early rabbinical literature reflect a widespread Jewish ethos of support for elders.

1.1 Mishnah

Support for the importance of older leaders appears in traditions discussing the origin of Jewish sacred books. The Mishnah describes itself and its commentaries as the heritage of the elders. Talmudic collections of halakot are said to be the product of elders or rabbinical teachers. …

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