Ask the Rabbis | Do People Become More Jewish as They Get Older?
When I was 17, I began attending weekly Friday night services at our large Reform temple. When there was no simcha, the crowd was impossibly small. With barely a minyan, mostly older people, we sat in a circle on the bimah. Following one of these services I asked my rabbi why it was always older folks who attended these services. He told me, “It will always be older people.”
As a congregational rabbi, I’ve experienced the same thing. It’s not that younger people don’t participate, but it’s the empty-nesters—folks in their 50s, 60s and up—who participate in the widest range of activities. Their need for connections amplified by changing circumstances, they seek in Jewish community a family of choice.
Some have attributed this phenomenon to a search for God. I’m sure that’s true for many. Yet since I’m a Humanistic rabbi, that’s obviously not what I’ve observed. Our older members value Jewish identity and belonging, but they are not looking for sacred reassurances. They seek greater meaning in life, something many of us learn to appreciate only as we grow older. One of the strengths of Judaism—broadly defined—is that it provides us with so many rich and varied paths of continuing growth and exploration.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI
Being Jewish is an anomaly. From ancient times to the present, we have been perceived by the world as pariahs. Even when we occasionally chose to assimilate or convert, we failed to drop our Jewishness.
Hitler understood this and refused to take a chance on half-Jews, quarter-Jews or ex-Jews. The Spanish Inquisition had a heyday rooting out Jewish converts to the Church because they stuck out like a sore something-or-other, maybe unconsciously rolling their eyes when offered the wafer. The Jew simply cannot conceal Jewishness, and it intensifies with age because it is not cultural; it is fundamental. Bottom line, whether you are born Jewish or a “Jew by choice,” an elder Jew or a young ’un, you are notably different from everyone else across the planet. Even the very adamancy with which some older Jews disown their Jewish identity, claiming they’ve long ago grown out of it, is in itself characteristically Jewish. Reb Mendl of Kotzk once remarked how much easier it is to perform a miracle than to be a Jew. It is just as impossible to become less Jewish than you already are, regardless of age.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Jewish Chaplain, Patton State Hospital
You would think so. The common wisdom is that as people age, they reach for the existential comforts of religion. This may come from fear of death or from what sociologists call “gerotranscendence”—a desire for deeper meaning and a connection beyond oneself. I have seen this in my own congregations, where this spring we are celebrating ten adult b’not mitzvah by women who never had a bat mitzvah in their youth. But I have also seen, in nursing and retirement homes, a strong resistance among older Jews to prayer, God or religious tradition. Historical circumstance plays an enormous role here, as do older Jews’ perceptions of what it means to be Jewish.
Rabbis have a ringside seat for all of life’s changes, and the passage of time is no exception. We wondered: Is it true that people rebel against religion in their youth, then return? Or is that a myth? Amid all of these explorations of calendars and cycles, historical eras and turning points, how does time leave its tracks in individual human lives?
I keep thinking about the verse from Psalm 37 recited in the grace after meals—I was a lad and now I have grown old/ and yet I have never seen a righteous person abandoned whose children are begging for bread. How can one say that with a straight face? But try adding four words at the end of the line—that I didn’t help—and it becomes a prescription for proper aging. How wonderful if, later in our lives, each of us could attest that we never passed by an adult or child needing food and compassion and did not help. Wouldn’t we all “get more Jewish”?
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches, “When humans mint many coins from one mold, all are alike; yet God mints everyone in the [Divine] image of the first human, and all are different.” Maturity develops fast in some, slowly in others. Deepened spirits and open hearts correlate only loosely with age. Eldering should include “paying it forward,” through mentoring, sharing, volunteering and nurturing; for some, though, it doesn’t.
Judaism commends these values and practices but can’t compel them. The same goes for communal involvement, spiritual development and other “Jewish” activities. Many seniors embrace these, not just because they have the time, but because they deeply appreciate the value of Jewish (and civic) engagement. Would that everyone of all ages felt that way! Seniority does not automatically confer wisdom and perspective. Let’s all be intentional about “spiritual eldering” and “wise aging.” And, whatever our age, what’s stopping us from getting “more Jewish” right now? Just do it! Practice one more ritual; support another cause or organization; embrace one more value. An ageless value to start with is the fundamental equality of all, young and old, created in the Divine image.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
An older member of our community came to me troubled. After some family crises, seeing the troubles in the world, she wasn’t sure what she believed about God anymore—or whether she believed in God.
While her commitment to Judaism was not waning, she sensed that her self-understanding as a Jew was changing. Was she becoming “less of a Jew” if she didn’t view God in the same way as when she was younger? As we mature, the way we see the world and act in it shifts. Frameworks of human development can provide some insight. Theologian James Fowler identified stages of faith development that articulate differences in the ways we view our presence in the universe and make meaning in our lives. While humans advance through the stages in predictable order, not everyone progresses through every stage, and some move back and forth. Furthermore, one stage is not more faith-filled than the previous stage; rather, they are different ways of understanding one’s self in the world. As we experience life, as we reflect on and integrate those experiences, we change, we grow and we don’t get more Jewish—we get different Jewish.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College
Los Angeles, CA
Two-career families, child-rearing and elderly parents can be time consuming. Sadly, important questions about the meaning and purpose of life are often postponed. As people get older, they do turn to religion. This is not a 21st-century phenomenon. A passage in Plato’s Republic addresses it: “For let me tell you, Socrates, that when a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before; the tales of a world below and the punishment which is exacted there…” For Plato, one becomes more engaged with religion because of a concern for the afterlife.
In contrast, many of the adults I have worked with turn to Judaism because they are looking for meaning and purpose in this world. They have time to explore important existential questions when their children are older or they are more established professionally. Sometimes an encounter with mortality inspires these questions. As they get older, adults become more Jewish in different ways. Some begin to attend daily or Shabbat worship; others read, take classes or travel to Israel.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
As with most aspects of human behavior, some people do more as they get older and some do not. The Talmud tells that at the Celebration of the Drawing of Water in Second Temple times, there was dancing, singing, acrobatics and juggling (of flaming torches!) The pious men who led the celebration chanted, “We are grateful that our [behaviors in our] youth did not embarrass our old age”—meaning that they had been consistently observant and studious over their lifetime. However, the baalei teshuvah (returnees) would chant, “We are grateful that our old age atoned for our [behaviors in our] youth”—meaning that they had become more observant and learned in their old age.
Judaism does not pronounce that growing older will automatically make us better or worse Jews. That depends on the choices we make and the directions we take in life. Judaism does say that older people are entitled to extra attention and respect. There is a commandment,“Stand up in the presence of a hoary head [white-haired person] and honor [the face of] the elderly” (Leviticus 19:32). In the Talmud, some rabbis say this honor is due because people become wiser as they grow older. Other rabbis say no: Just living longer entitles people to extra care and honor. By respecting the elderly—whether or not they become wiser or more Jewish—we honor human life itself. (This only dramatizes what an enemy of human life the coronavirus is, since it targets and kills the elderly more than others.)
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Gerontologists tell us that as people get older, their focus and interests change. No matter how Type A they were, they come to value family and friends far more than before. Of course, those things are Jewish values. But there’s another level. There’s a commandment in the Torah to rise for an elderly person. The famed 16th-century rabbi known as the Maharal of Prague has a beautiful explanation of this mitzvah: According to Genesis, human beings are composites of physical and spiritual elements, animated by the breath of God. While Judaism values both, it puts the spiritual side on a pedestal. The Maharal observes that as people grow older, their sheer physicality begins to wane; we stand before them because we are seeing less of their material presence and more of their soul.
Recently we’ve seen the formation of Kollels, intensive study groups, for retirees, people throwing themselves into Torah study who never had time for it on a daily basis, sometimes getting deeply involved and doing it for years. I guess you could say it’s making them more Jewish, or more deeply in touch with the Judaism they always valued but never had a chance to really embrace. It’s a sharp contrast with the attitude that urges older people into retirement communities with golf courses and tennis courts, as if they can nurture the dream of youth until their dying day.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Los Angeles, CA
Not necessarily. People follow different patterns. From my observation, changes in attitudes to religion depend on many factors, including personality, education, life experience and how they came to practice Judaism. Some rebel at an older age against everything they believed in because they feel betrayed by the blows that life, or God, has dealt them. Some practiced Judaism as a routine and later, usually after retirement, cling to these routines and habits as a lifeline. If before they would read and chant for an hour, now they will do it most of the day, finding comfort and solace in the familiar rituals and texts. And there are those whom I envy: thinkers and tinkerers whose curiosity and intellectual honesty are restless. Those people get more Jewish as they grow older because they keep asking questions. Their Judaism, in both faith and practice, is vibrant and alive, and even if their observance is perceived by the masses as “less Jewish” than what normative or mainstream Judaism dictates, for me they are the mentors we should seek. There are the great masters such as Arthur Green with his Radical Judaism, and there are many quiet masters hidden in synagogues, nursing homes and probably our own families. We only have to make the effort and find the wise elder, or as the rabbis’ wordplay suggests: “Zaken” (elder) = “Ze Kana” Hokhma—One who acquired wisdom (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32:2)
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Many people (re)discover their Jewishness later in life, as they reflect upon their years and wish to embrace a more meaningful existence, or after a crisis or life-altering event like the loss of a loved one, especially one who was pious. At that stage, people tend to feel they’ve built themselves up, and now they need to decide how to go forward.
Others drift away as they age and become bored, complacent or disenchanted with their Jewish practice. Perhaps they want to relax, having been diligent in their younger years. This is usually a result of lacking continued and proper learning. While the practice of Judaism can be inculcated by parents and teachers and developed in the course of life, its active preservation in adult years is crucial. When the Torah refers to G-d giving us the Torah “on this day” or “today,” we must remember that it is really every day. It is up to us to invest the effort and time to keep our interest in Torah energetic and enchanting. If Torah and Jewish practice become rote, you seriously risk an evaporation in the spiritual fulfillment they provide. You miss the precious “connect” to G-d available in every mitzvah. One must constantly renew and nourish that. As we feed our bodies, so too must we feed our souls—for all of our days.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov
Executive Vice President
American Friends of Lubavitch