Journal Watch
Tue, 12/29/2009
Lifnei seiva takum, v’hadarta p’nei zaken — “You shall rise up before the elder, and you shall honor the old person.” Kabed et avicha v’et imecha — “Honor your father and your mother.” These two normative biblical principles, separate albeit related, inform much of Jewish life and by extension our larger society, often — and sadly — more in the breach than in the observance. Noteworthy is the fact that the injunction to honor one’s parents is one of two in the Hebrew Bible for which the reward for performance is specifically articulated, in each case “in order that your days will be lengthened” — long life. The linkage of veneration of the aged and respect for one’s parents is explored in Rabbinic literature, as neatly outlined by J. Gordon Harris of the North American Baptist Seminary. In “Rabbinic Responses to Aging” (Hebrew Studies, 2007), Harris tracks, progressively through the Mishna, Talmud and Midrash — with each extending the biblical emphasis on parental devotion — the elevation of old age and of filial obligations in ancient and Rabbinic Jewish societies. Harris notes that Judaism differed from other societies, such as the Roman one, which stressed patria potestas, or “parental authority” or power. Jewish law and tradition framed its admonitions in terms of responsibility, with Jewish teachings ensuring “an exalted status for parents extending into old age.” That’s Judaism. Journal Watcher asks, what about the other “Abrahamic” faiths — Christianity and Islam? Is there a commonality amongst the three faith communities in terms of how we relate to aging and to the aged? And how did each community contour its approach to veneration of the elderly as central to the ordering of society? University of Miami’s Stephen Sapp, in his comprehensive “Mortality and Respect: Aging in the Abrahamic Traditions” (Generations, Summer, 2008), tackles this question. Sapp’s starting point is the centrality, in all three faiths, of respect for parents. In each faith this respect for parents is generalized to all older people. Sapp traces how this dynamic set the tone in the earlier communities and for those that followed, to the present. Judaism, Islam, Christianity — each understands two key concepts with respect to the aged: first, the acknowledgement of mortality, which is central to accepting aging and dealing with it constructively; and second, the respect of one’s elders. Sapp notes that from the outset in the Jewish tradition the very positioning of the commandment “Honor your father and your mother,” coming as it does between those that refer to the relationship with God and those that govern interactions with other human beings, “suggests the centrality the Law places on properly ordered generational relationships to a correctly ordered human community.” In the New Testament and in the Koran as well, society’s protection of the elderly begins with protection of the family, which is paradigmatic for the protection of the society as a whole. Social psychologist and psychotherapist Eva Fogelman of the Training Institute for Mental Health studies goes in a radically different direction in terms of the service that the elderly provide to society. For Fogelman (“Psychological Dynamics in Aging Survivors of the Holocaust,” Clio’s Psyche, December 2008), the study of aging Holocaust survivors is a vehicle for showing how the persecution of and losses suffered by the survivors led to their unique experience of aging — “their old age is marred by massive traumatic historical catastrophe” — which is different from other elderly who led lives under more normal circumstances. Survivors did not have the opportunity, at the time, to mourn family members who were killed by the persecutors. Aging survivors, as they face their own death, now undergo this mourning process. Family members, and survivors themselves, often do not understand this dynamic; it is an unconscious process. Fogelman notes that many survivors are able to overcome despair, and the depression that comes out of despair, by using their traumatic past as a vehicle to “bear witness,” and thereby have their past validated by others. The personal integrity of the survivors is thereby restored; at the same time, the aged survivors fulfill their generational role by teaching future generations. In American culture, the aged are not valued, we do not rise before the elderly and the old person is rarely honored. The Jewish aged teach us that integrity in Judaism is not based on victimology; Jewish identity is not perpetuated through victimhood. The aged are our living link to the past, and we learn from them; they are a reminder to us of the resilience of the human spirit.