Knowing When It’s Time to Go

By Shlomo M. Brody
Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement of his retirement at the age of 85 has raised broader questions regarding other elderly leaders, both secular and spiritual. 89-year-old New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg recently put such questions to rest by deciding not to run again for office, and another 89-year-old, Shimon Peres, has short- circuited such issues by remaining in the largely ceremonial position of president of Israel and not throwing his hat, yet again, into the prime ministerial ring.  Yet the Pope's admission that he no longer has the necessary "strength of body and mind" for the papacy makes one wonder about other Jewish leaders, particularly within the ultra-Orthodox community, which has always placed a premium on the wisdom that comes with age.  Its primary spiritual leaders are almost always above the age of 70.   

The Sages engaged in a debate regarding the potential impact of aging on scholars (Shabbat 152a).  In the Bible, Barzilai the Gileadite refused Kind David's offer to move to Jerusalem as a privileged pensioner, citing his old age: "I am 80 years old today.  Can I distinguish between good and bad?" (II Samuel 19:36)  The talmudic Sages creatively interpreted Barzilai's lament as referring to his rational faculties, which could no longer properly distinguish between the sensible and the foolish.  But one Sage accused Barzilai of distorting the general situation and failing to acknowledge that his own physical weakness stemmed from a life steeped in fornication.  The Talmud further asserted, "The older Torah scholars become, the greater wisdom increases within them."  Yet the same passage also cites numerous examples of the physical and emotional toll that old age can take on elderly scholars. 

Fears of the waning strength of spiritual leaders raise questions about the propriety of mandatory retirement ages.  The Torah mandates that Levites serving in the Temple retire at the age of 50 (Numbers 8:25).  Yet the Sages limited this rule to the era of the desert wanderings, a time when the Levites needed strength to transport the Tabernacle (Hulin 24a-b).  Once the Temple found a permanent home, a Levite could remain in service until his vocal skills no longer allowed him to sing in harmony during the service; even then, he could continue to serve on guard duty (MT Klay Mikdash 3:8) or in advisory roles (Tashbetz Magen Avot 5:21).  Kohanim (priests), by contrast, were not given age limits, but according to the Sages, were required to step down once they had physically aged, as signified by a tremor or their inability to stand on one leg while tying their shoes.  (Rabbi Hanina, the Talmud reports, was able to do this even into his 80s, thanks, he said, to the soups and oils that his mother had provided him in his youth!) 

Accordingly, one basic requirement for elderly spiritual leaders is that they maintain the physical strength to perform their fundamental roles; otherwise, they must accept more limited responsibilities.  Yet it remains difficult to quantify the appropriate physical criteria, especially regarding spiritual figures whose primary roles might be informal teaching and moral guidance. 

A second text addresses the question of whether old age impairs the judgment of senior jurists.  The Sages ruled that ideally one should not become a judge until he has sufficiently aged (Sanhedrin 17a).  Yet they also declared that one who has become "elderly" (according to Maimonides, "very elderly") may no longer hear cases regarding capital crimes (Sanhedrin 36b).  Following a general trend to prevent the overuse of the death penalty, the Sages required that a judge possess the sensitivity to view the defendant mercifully.  The Sages, medieval commentators suggest, feared that an elderly judge might have lost his merciful, "fatherly" touch because he had forgotten the difficulty of raising children (Rashi/Meiri) or, alternatively, that his old age may have made him impatient and mean-spirited (Ramah). 

On the basis of this passage, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim (d. 1981) suggested that the Israeli rabbinate could embrace a mandatory retirement age of 70 for Israel's civil servants on condition that both state and society provide them with proper pensions and honorary roles.  Others scoffed at the suggestion, contending that the passage was legally irrelevant, because it applied only to courts adjudicating capital matters, and because Jews had historically allowed their spiritual leaders to serve until they saw fit.  This dispute continues to flare up in contemporary Israel, where the government is attempting to enforce regulations mandating that civil service municipal rabbis leave their posts at age 67, even as many of them continue to serve with vitality.    

One major concern about forced retirement is that it violates a halakhic principle which asserts that in the absence of sinful behavior, one may only promote, but never demote, a spiritual figure (ma'alin bakodesh v’ein moridin).  This principle was intended to protect a dedicated leader from suffering the indignity of a major social disgrace.  Some decisors, however, have responded that this concern is irrelevant when the initial appointment was made under clearly defined employment conditions, especially when everyone understands that officials must retire at some age.  Rabbi Nissim, moreover, contended that this principle would certainly not be a factor when the leader's physical condition did not allow him to fulfill all of his work responsibilities. 

This principle highlights the emotional difficulty involved in leaving office at an older age.  Some Sages reported that Rabbi Yehoshua once stated, "All my life I fled from power, yet now that I have entered office, anyone who would try to remove me, I'd pour this cauldron onto them." (Yerushalmi Pesachim 6:1)  Rabbi Yosi, however, could not accept the notion that this statement was self-serving: "God forbid that he desired [power].  Rather, he asserted that anyone who would replace him should be equally capable of sanctifying the name of God."  Perhaps, one might suggest, Rabbi Yehoshua himself was somewhat ambivalent and made both statements. 

Be that as it may, these talmudic passages highlight the dilemma that faces us today, when we are blessed, as never before, with so many aging leaders.  We want them to serve in health and vigor, but also to find alternative ways of contributing when their energy wanes and the time comes for them to pass the torch in a manner that dignifies them, their successors, and the community.    

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes a column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for post-high school students.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.