As a 29 year-old rabbi, I am frequently told what an important commodity I am for the Jewish community. While I (perhaps sinfully) appreciate the boost to my ego, I cannot help but thinking that the reasoning behind this sentiment is flawed, and that the strategy extending from it represents a communal tragedy.
The reasoning goes something like this: because the affiliated Jewish community is aging and shrinking, young people are the only viable future. The survival of Judaism depends on engaging younger Jews. And, so the argument goes, if we want to bring younger Jews into the affiliated community, if we want to show Judaism’s relevance for their lives, we need young rabbis. Only young rabbis can communicate Judaism to young people.
That premise is seriously debatable. When I reflect on all the rabbis, teachers, and mentors who inspired me to live a committed Jewish life, the quality that unites them all is not their age, but their wisdom. These figures attracted me to Judaism because they could demonstrate that it contained deep, meaningful wisdom; that it could help me live a better, more consequential, and more fulfilling life. When my rabbis, teachers, and mentors embodied that wisdom, it was an invitation for me to see that it had value. By and large, these people were older, usually at least 30 to 40 years older than me. And I continue to seek out older mentors for sage advice.
I know I am not alone. For example, when I offered my professional services to my sister for her wedding, she politely declined, saying, “I would rather have the sanction of an older rabbi for this moment in my life.” And in the Orthodox world, it is common for young people to go out of their way to study with and become inspired by older teachers and rabbis.
One could understand this in quite simple terms: the older a person, the more time they have had to learn and study, and therefore the more knowledge they have of the Jewish tradition. Yet knowledge alone is not the critical factor. I have met 20 year-olds who have studied far more Talmud than their 80 year-old counterparts. The critical factor, instead, is wisdom.
Wisdom is best described as “organic thinking,” a term coined by the great 20th century Jewish philosopher Max Kadushin. Organic thinking is the ability to organize facts into clusters of information, or “value concepts.” More importantly, it is the capacity to relate value concepts to each other, and to synthesize groups of value concepts with real-life experience into useful guidance for how to live a good life. Years of study alone cannot produce this. But study, when combined with a depth of experience and a breadth of human interaction, can. Older rabbis, in this sense, are able not only to draw on the ancient teachings of the Jewish tradition, but also have the unique ability to understand more fully what wisdom is relevant for a particular situation, how to interpret that wisdom usefully, and how to separate what works from what doesn’t.
It is not surprising, then, that the value of learning from elders is deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition. Leviticus 19:32 urges us to “rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” Abraham was 75 years old when God called him (Genesis 12:4), and Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus. Their advanced age, far from disqualifying their leadership, is considered a strength. Figures like Abraham and Moses are compelling, in part, because they possess a wisdom that only comes with age.
Even after the dawn of the rabbinic era, when Jewish leadership became a more democratic meritocracy of the learned, most people assumed that real authority came with age, not just with education. The Talmud recounts that a young Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, when appointed as Patriarch of the ancient Palestinian Jewish community, miraculously grew a long grey beard overnight so that all the Sages would regard him as a repository of wisdom.
This does not mean that all older people are wise; nor does it mean it is impossible for a younger person to be a good organic thinker. Similarly, older rabbis are not by nature good at what they do. Jewish communities cannot be expected to award jobs in perpetuity to those who do not demonstrate success, simply because of their age.
But too often, advanced age is considered a rabbinic handicap, prima facie evidence that a given rabbi cannot connect with or attract younger Jews.
This shift in communal priorities has made it increasingly difficult for qualified older rabbis to find and retain positions of leadership simply because of their age. It is tempting, to paraphrase the Book of Psalms (71:9), to cast away our elders and forsake those whose strength has failed. But we do so at our own peril.