Retirement: The ages-old dilemma
June 17, 1983
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
It is a pity that what was once deemed a blessing for which man actually prayed is now deemed a curse or at least a serious problem, a situation to be feared or dreaded. I refer to old age and to the concern of governments and individuals because so many people are living longer that society finds it difficult to cope with the challenges of aging populations.
It is not only in the United States that social planners deal with the problem. In Israel, too, the concern is great, and many programs are projected not only to 4 add years to life” but “to add life to the years.” The Brookdale Foundation, in cooperation with the government, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the universities, is rendering a historic service.
We must not forget that the Jewish people lost a million children who, if still alive, would now be middle-aged. Thus the average age of Israel’s population would today have been considerably lower. Alas, that is not so.
Both the U.S. and Israel can learn much from each other in this area. The two countries can be partners not only in weaponry but in innovative social programs.
In Israel many government departments and businesses conduct seminars for employees on the eve of retirement. Here, too, we Find a paradox. The overwhelming majority of people do not enjoy their work and look forward to the day when they can stop working and do whatever they please. Yet as that day approaches, they are worried. What will they do with their free time?
How will they adjust to the fact that there is nothing to get up for in the morning? Surveys show that people in the same age group who do not retire have fewer complaints about physical illness than those who do retire. But retirement is usually not voluntary; it is mandatory.
Pondering this and related problems, I decided to look at the Bible to see what guidelines it might offer. Unfortunately, source material is sparse.
From the Bible one learns that old age was meant to be the golden age, the time when one reaped the reward of one’s labor. The Bible ordered reverence for the elderly. (Leviticus 19:32) This was virtually conclusive proof, however, that people generally did not behave that way. Otherwise, the Bible would not have had to mention it. It would, therefore, appear that God willed that his people should not behave as many pagans did. Pagans often abandoned their aged. Sometimes they even hastened their deaths.
The Bible wanted to insure not only the survival of the old but their honored role in society. To be deemed an elder was a compliment. The young had to apologize if, despite their youth, they offered advice. The old were thought to have a monopoly on wisdom and experience.
But does the Bible say anything about retirement? Yes. There are important references in several chapters of the Book of Numbers. (Chapter 4 especially)
The Levites, it would appear, were to begin five years of training for service in the Temple at age 25. From age 30 to 50, they were to be on duty. At 50, they retired, even though they continued to enjoy all the privileges of their status, such as they were.
Unfortunately, many see good and evil in this arrangement. The good is that in retirement one suffers no change of status. The evil is the compulsory retirement at what is now regarded as a comparatively young age.
A bit of additional research showed that the rabbis saw the Bible s mandate as one that was applicable only to the period when Jews were in the wilderness. Then the Levites were responsible for transporting the mobile sanctuary and all its contents. Once the Jews settled in the Promised Land and there were permanent shrines, the Levites’ duties were changed; no one had to retire so long as he could do his job. His privileges were never affected. But the duty to work ended only when a man could function no longer. In Jewish law this rule also applied to judges.
This rabbinical limitation is quite a revelation. The Oral Law apparently did not approve of compulsory retirement. Yet we know that there is much to be said in its favor.
Compulsory retirement has a number of benefits. It permits the young to move up and assume positions of authority. It eliminates men who are not receptive to new ideas. And it prevents people from acquiring vested interests in positions that they hold until they die. By the same token, compulsory retirement is often devastating to able men who, despite their age, can still function with credit.
The conflicting claims were recently considered in Israel in connection with the election of the chief rabbis. Many wanted to see new faces in authority; many others argued that the incumbents should be permitted to stay on so long as they were still in their prime physically and intellectually. Those favoring change won, but the debate continues in other areas in industry, in the civil service, in academia.
Is there no way to reconcile the conflicting claims? I believe that there is, but senior people will have to cultivate much more self-control if they want to continue to serve. Rotation in every sphere is important. Younger people must be given a chance to advance. They bring new ideas to all the programs. But if senior people could learn to surrender their authority graciously and be ready at all times to give new incumbents the benefit of their counsel and experience, employers would enjoy the best of all worlds. The trouble is that too often senior people are filled with resentments and want their successors to fail. Often they are given the status of consultants, but they do not know how to give advice without being demanding, imposing or authoritative.
Sometimes I feel that this should also be the role of grandparents toward children who are raising the grandchildren. They would be supportive with counsel when asked but never be the deciders.
Needless to say, Jewish literature has much more to teach us about the aging, but at least the status of the Levites is an interesting illustration of the ongoing tension between the wise requirement for compulsory retirement and the possible waste of valuable manpower that is its inevitable consequence.