Magazine article Tikkun

Prophet of Postmodern Aging -- from Age-Ing to Sage-Ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller

Magazine article Tikkun

Prophet of Postmodern Aging -- from Age-Ing to Sage-Ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller

Article excerpt

From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller. Warner Books, 1995. 303 pp. $21.95.

This has been a strange anniversary year for those of us paying attention to the care, public policy, scientific study, and experience of growing older. Americans (at least some Americans) celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Social Security, the fiftieth anniversary of the Gerontological Society, and the thirtieth anniversary of Medicare. Yet these institutions are under siege or in turmoil, unsure of their future. Meanwhile, the modernist dream of curing mankind of the disease of old age is being challenged by a new emphasis on spirituality.

There is good news and bad news here. The bad news lies in the serious threat to the health and welfare of older Americans (especially women and minorities). In Washington, while military spending continues at Cold War levels, Republicans and conservative Democrats launch reckless attacks on Social Security, propose drastic Medicare reforms, and seek to end federal Medicaid entitlements. The odds favor compromise on protecting middle-class entitlements but further erosion of public provision for the most needy.

The good news? You won't see it in the headlines, but we are witnessing the gradual erosion of modern culture's strong temporal prejudices--that progress renders the past obsolete, that the new is better than the old, that youth is better than age. More and more people are grappling with Carl Jung's question about the meaning of aging: "A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species," wrote Jung in his famous essay, "The Stages of Life" (1933). "The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life's morning....Whoever carries over into the afternoon of life the law of the morning...must pay for it with damage to his soul."

In the late twentieth-century Western world, old age is a season in search of its purposes. It is not always easy to discern this amid consumer capitalism's continued emphasis on youthfulness and our culture's manic pursuit of individual health as the summum bonum of life. But increasingly, writers, filmmakers, advocates, artists, scholars, and elders are telling us a story that modern science suppressed: Aging is not a problem to be solved but an experience, an opportunity for human ripening and completion.

A little over ten years ago, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was approaching his sixtieth birthday, the age he would become an emeritus professor of Jewish mysticism at Temple University. Though he struggled to maintain his hectic schedule as a teacher and spiritual leader, Reb Zalman did not like what he saw in those exhausted, unguarded nighttime moments when he looked at himself in the mirror. "Feeling alone and vulnerable, I feared becoming a geriatric case...." Looking ahead, Zalman saw nothing to inspire him--no good models, guides, codes of behavior, or social scripts "to shape and give meaning to my life."

Zalman Schachter was born in 1924 into a Hasidic community in Poland. When he was less than a year old, his family moved to Vienna, where he studied in a yeshiva and in a leftist Zionist high school. When the Nazis came to Vienna, sixteen-year-old Zalman fled to France, where he was interred in a camp for a year. In 1942, he came (by way of Marseilles, Casablanca, and the West Indies) to the United States to study at the Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn, where he was ordained in 1947. He later earned a Master of Arts in the psychology of religion from Boston University and a Doctor of Letters from Hebrew Union College. Over the years he served as a congregational rabbi, a Hebrew school principal, a Hillel Foundation director, and a professor of religion and Jewish mysticism.

Beginning in the 1960s, Reb Zalman--who was a founder of the havurah movement--merged as a unique, charismatic, and controversial figure in the countercultural Jewish renewal community. …

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