Chief rabbi David Lau.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The ongoing disgraceful attempt by figures within the Chief Rabbinate to remove Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as Efrat’s chief rabbi has triggered justified condemnation from many quarters.
Frustrated by Riskin’s challenges to its rulings regarding conversion and other matters, the council announced it will review whether he can continue to serve in his post past the age of 75. Legally, city rabbis elected after the year 2007 may continuously serve until age 70 and have their tenure extended to 75, while rabbis appointed before that year (including Riskin) may serve until 75 with an optional extension to age 80.
In practice, municipal rabbis have received automatic extensions – as in the case of Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (who is 78), father of current Chief Rabbi David Lau.
The attempt to capriciously deploy this law, for ideological reasons, against Rabbi Riskin is an outrage – especially given his continued robustness in faithfully serving his community.
Nonetheless, the affair does raise the opportunity to review halachic stances regarding mandatory retirement ages.
This is a particularly important question in our era of increased longevity, which can facilitate the continued service of elderly figures who might display great vitality (think Shimon Peres) or suffer from failing health (as Pope Benedict XVI recognized about himself).
In a particularly poignant Talmudic passage, the Sages passionately debated the potential impact of aging on scholars. In the Bible, Barzilai the Gileadite refused King 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?” The Sages creatively interpreted Barzilai’s lament as referring to his rational faculty, which could no longer properly distinguish between the sensible and foolish.
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This sentiment drew a sharp response from other sages, who accused Barzilai of distorting the situation while averring 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 which old age can take on elderly scholars.
Fears of the waning strength of spiritual leaders might have prompted the Torah’s mandate that Levites serving in the Temple must retire at the age of 50. Yet the Sages limited this rule to the era of the desert wanderings, in which the Levites required strength to transport the Tabernacle. Once the Temple found a permanent home, a Levite could remain in service until his vocal cords could no longer harmoniously sing; even then, he could continue to serve on guard duty or in advisory roles. Kohanim, 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 tremble or an inability to stand on one leg while tying their shoes.
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. But it remains difficult to quantify the appropriate physical criterion, especially regarding spiritual figures whose primary roles might include informal teaching and moral guidance.
A second text addresses whether old age impairs the judgment of senior jurists.
The Sages ruled that ideally, one should not become a judge until they have sufficiently aged. Yet they also declared that one who has become “very elderly” may no longer hear cases regarding capital crimes. 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. They feared that an elderly judge might have lost his merciful “fatherly” touch because he had forgotten the difficulty of raising children, or that alternatively, his old age may make him impatient and mean-spirited.
Citing this passage, former chief rabbi Yitzhak Nissim (d. 1981) suggested that the rabbinate could embrace the mandatory retirement age for Israel’s civil servants on the condition that both state and society would provide them with proper pensions and honorary roles. Others scoffed at the suggestion, contending this passage was legally irrelevant because it only applied to courts adjudicating on capital matters and that Jews had historically allowed their spiritual leaders to serve until they saw fit. They cited a halachic principle which asserts that absent sinful behavior, one may only promote – but never demote – a spiritual figure (ma’alin bakodesh ve’ein moridin). This principle was intended to protect the dignity of a dedicated leader who may suffer from grave social disgrace.
Some decisors, however, have responded that this concern is irrelevant when the initial appointment was made under defined employment conditions, and especially when everyone understands that officials must retire at some age. Nissim, moreover, contended that this principle would certainly not be a factor when the leader’s physical conditions did not allow him to fully fulfill his work responsibilities.
These Talmudic passages highlight the dilemma facing our society, which is blessed with many aging leaders. We want them to serve in health and vigor, but also to find alternative contributing roles when their energy wanes and the times arises for them to pass on the torch in a manner that dignifies them, their successors and the community.
Israeli society must think carefully about this dilemma – but only in an objective, even-handed manner, and not as a guise toward removing a beloved and vigorous spiritual leader. ■ The writer directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars for yeshiva and midrasha students, and is a junior research fellow at the Israeli Democracy Institute. His first collection of these columns, A Guide to the Complex (Maggid), won a 2014 National Jewish Book Award.
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