Traditional Jewish yeshivot (centers of learning) have a custom that instructs everyone younger to rise when an older teacher enters the room. And this is done repeatedly throughout a day, even if the gesture is brief, as a sign of respect and honor. I name this as a custom, but it is directly connected to the biblical commandment in Leviticus: “You shall rise up before a graying head, and honor the face of an old man.” The first time I witnessed this, when I awkwardly hurried to stand with everyone else, I asked about it and was told about the custom. When I remarked about how moved I was by that, the student I was learning with said, “Oh, it’s not a big deal. It’s just what is done.”
My friend Daniel Murphy and I have been studying "On Heaven and Earth" — Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) and Rabbi Abraham Skorka’s excellent book of interfaith exchange. This week’s chapter, “On The Elderly,” saddened me, as the traditional spiritual teachings held by Christianity and Judaism (and undoubtedly all the great religions) on how to hold the elderly in high esteem clearly are not being practiced in our current North American situation.
Who among us wouldn’t say that the elderly in our midst should be treated with dignity? And yet as a result of many factors (the speed of life, the cult of productivity, the idealism of youth) in our collective shared life, we are not rising before the aged, literally or figuratively. Cardinal Bergoglio minces no words when he writes, “In this consumerist, hedonistic and narcissistic society, we are accustomed to the idea that there are people that are disposable” and he names the elderly as the primary example of this.
Let’s set aside just for the moment any critique of a for-profit health care system that in itself is dark and unsettling in how it reflects us and our values, and how many seniors are treated as a result. Let’s also set aside all the complex choices that we all wrestle with as families about how best to care for aging parents and grandparents, knowing that there is no one solution for all households. For the purposes of this column, let’s just stay with the image at the yeshiva of dozens of young people rising every 10 minutes or so as teacher after teacher walked through the study hall.
How might we learn to express our gratitude and our respect for those who have lived many years on this planet? Maybe there could be some contemporary ritual — in a non-patronizing way — of how we can acknowledge every elder as a teacher.
Rabbi Skorka points out that some facilities for the aged are really fantastic in terms of medical care and comfort, “but from a spiritual point of view they leave a lot to be desired ... the elderly need love, affection, and conversation.”
I would add that many of us are not accustomed to asking the elderly in our midst to teach us; we are not accustomed to honoring experience and wisdom and having the patience and bandwidth to invite it and listen to it.
In Hubert Humphrey’s last speech, he famously said, "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
— Rabbi Joshua Boettiger is the spiritual leader of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland.