Lifespan Judaism: Fostering an Ever-evolving Soul

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January 3, 2013
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Dayle A. Friedman

If we live long enough, which most of us will, we will surely encounter loss, limits, and mortality. Lest this lead you to run screaming out of the room, there is some good news: Some of us will move through these challenges with grace and grit. Some of us will continue to grow and thrive, even as our physical capacities or social world contract. As “Marjorie,” a vivid and articulate 79-year-old communal leader told me: “As I see it, there are only two choices at my stage of life. You can dwindle, as so many people I know do — just get narrower and narrower until all you can talk about is your aches and pains. Or you can be grateful. I prefer the latter.”

The vicissitudes of aging — and life-threatening illness — constitute life’s final exam. We will all be tested by encounters with loss. Our own body’s fragility will become ever more apparent as our capacity to bounce back from inevitable crises wanes. The roles that we have taken for granted in our professional and family life will change or disappear altogether.

What prepares us for this test, when our neshama, our soul, will either evolve or petrify? What can foster resiliency and help us to tap into compassion, engagement, and wholeness, even as we suffer these unwelcome but inevitable shatterings? What can help us be in the “grateful” camp rather than the “dwindling” one? Jewish life offers a spiritual curriculum to help us to grow and deepen in adulthood, to get ready for life’s final exam.

Judaism for the entire lifespan meets Jews at each life stage with resources that can promote learning and the development of tools, skills, and perspective. This approach is based on a developmental understanding of the lifecycle. Psychologist Robert Kegan suggests that as we face each new stage or task in life, we are “in over our heads.” It is in the gap between what we have prepared for and what we are encountering that growth occurs — the neshama evolves. Judaism equips us with tools and traits that help us to be resilient when we face the
inevitable moments of being in “over our heads.”

The content and context of Jewish life can help us to grow our neshamas as we face the challenges of each life phase. Torah offers wisdom to frame our experiences. Erik Erikson, among other theorists, lays out a specific task we need to master at each point in our development, such as developing intimacy in young adulthood and achieving integrity in later life. No matter how old we are, the text of Torah may help us to accomplish the work of each life stage. Jewish texts offer a lens through which to view and understand our own experiences; they acknowledge that our questions are not ours alone, and they help to guide us with myriad values, norms, and inspirations. It has been my experience that the text can speak even to those who have never previously felt inclined to “swim in the sea of Torah”; the richness of text and the elevating experience of engaging in sacred study can speak to someone who is open, curious, and seeking meaning.

Avodah, Jewish spiritual practice, empowers us to hold complexity and contradiction in balance as we contend with being in “over our heads.” The cycles of Jewish time and the rich array of sacred moments connect us to the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience — from the abject desolation of recalling the destruction of the Temples on Tisha B’Av to the giddy frivolity of Purim. As we encounter these moments and their attendant rituals year after year, our evolving neshama has an opportunity to gain deeper understanding. We bring our current life experiences to these challenges, and we find resonance, validation, and inspiration. In reading the book of Ruth on Shavuot, an underemployed young adult might identify with Ruth’s struggle to find sustenance and relationships, while a newly widowed elder might be intrigued with Naomi’s multiple losses and her unexpected discovery of new possibilities. In addition to the practices we encounter in the cycle of the week and year, daily practices of blessing, gratitude, and forgiveness can provide a framework for burnishing our character, for refining our middot/moral fiber.

The communal context of Jewish life can foster spiritual development across the lifecycle. In an organically integrated, multigenerational community (ideally, synagogues are such a venue), older people can be role models and mentors. And people who face illness or disability courageously, or those who rise up from the ashes of loss to reinvent themselves, are guides — even if they are not aware of their roles.

Those of us who shape Jewish experiences and communities — as rabbis, educators, scholars, and other types of leaders — can draw on this approach to inspire Jews across the lifecycle to engage more intentionally in the rhythms and contours of life’s pathways. Learning, practicing, and connecting can help us to prepare for the inevitable challenges life will bring.

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Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman is the author of Jewish Visions for Aging: A Professional Guide for Fostering Wholeness (Jewish Lights, 2008) and the editor of Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook from Traditional and Contemporary Sources.(Jewish Lights, 2010). She teaches, consults, and provides spiritual guidance through Growing Older, her Philadelphia-based national practice (growingolder.com). This work originated in collaboration with Dr. Beulah Trey.

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