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Jewish Sacred Aging

Time To Find Your God?

By Rabbi Richard Address –

Eric Weiner, a former National Public Radio reporter, has just published a fascinating book entitled “Man Seeks God.” I mention it to you because it raises some interesting questions about our relationship (or lack thereof) with God. Questions posed by young and old alike.

The genesis of his book was a discussion Weiner had with a health care professional in a hospital. He was there thinking he was extremely ill. This health care worker, thinking the tests were going to be bad news, asked Weiner, “Have found your God yet?”

That simple question set Mr. Weiner off on a whirlwind exploration of various religions. Eric was trying to understand what each religion’s God was, and if he could adopt it for himself.

The book is quite relevant to many of us who are, in some ways, dissatisfied with the God that we were raised with. So many people are searching for some sort of meaningful faith that Weiner’s journey, in many ways, symbolizes the journey for many of us. We may not have the means to travel the world and spend weeks in various communities; but we are searching. That is the point, I think, of the book. I like the phrase, “have you found your God?” Our generation of baby boomers has pioneered the ability to create personal religious responses and, in many ways, hybrid definitions of God. This spiritual dynamism marks a clear reality across the religious landscape. It represents some real creativity on the one hand, and sadly, for some, a way to just do “religion lite.”

The search for our own God is a serious undertaking. It asks us to confront our own sense of self, our relationship with life and death and our own view of what we see as our legacy. In the New Year now beginning, I suggest that it is a perfect time to consider undertaking your own search. Looking for your God, unencumbered by “oughts” and “shoulds” may be a liberating and energizing experience. An experience you can start today and not left until you are older.


Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

Learn more about Rabbi Address on his bio page. Find more articles by Rabbi Address in Spirituality & Life section of our library.

Rabbi Address is author of the book “Seekers of Meaning: Judaism, Baby Boomers and the search for Healthy Aging”. You can learn more about Rabbi Address and his books at

Light the Lights

by Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin – 

December is a difficult month. Amidst the crush and the hype of our culture’s addiction to “shop until we drop” is an all too often underlying discomfort. This discomfort can grow as we get older.

The “holidays” (as we now know them) are upon us. Kwanzaa, Christmas, Chanukah: all arrive to remind us, we hope, of something beyond the need to spend money for gifts. They also remind us of people no longer with us. I was reminded of this aspect as we were about to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and I thought of my own mom who died this past July. I pulled out a photo from Thanksgiving 2010 which was the last time she was in my house. She was leaning over her soup bowl with her great granddaughter next to her. One year, so much had changed. For you as well, I would imagine. So now we enter that month when family gatherings are in the forefront of our minds and memories becomes so important.

So what of these lights? In each culture, lights become important. Remnants of pre-religious life, these lights have a variety of meaning. In many traditions, lights symbolize hope, life, faith as well as memory.  Light drives out the darkness and maybe that is why we love it so much. Perhaps it is the darkness of loss that these lights speak to. Each of us has the choice to retreat into our own self, especially at this time of year, and despair. Too many are alone; too many are living with a tension in life brought on by the economy. There is a real darkness of mood that could be possible—if we so choose!

Yet, at the darkest time of the year come these festivals that place so much importance on light. We light these lights not only to celebrate aspects of various religious movements, but also, let me suggest, to really symbolize the light of our own soul. Light is the potential that rests within us to do sacred acts. It is a symbol that we can best honor those we miss by dedicating our life to eliminating the darkness of despair and fear that inhabits so much of our contemporary world. To do this would be to give our self and our world a REAL gift.

May you enjoy the family of relationships that embrace you at this time of year and may you light the light of your own soul. Shalom,

Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.MIn

The Wizard of Oz and Our Search for Meaning

More than just lions and tigers and bears (oh my!)

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

I have the honor of teaching in the doctor of ministry program at Hebrew Union College in New York. The other day, I asked the class to watch The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps that is a strange assignment for a dozen clerics from different faiths who are engaged in serious postgraduate study. Yes . . . BUT!

You see, The Wizard, and others like it (for example, my personal all-time favorite, Peter Pan), are part of the mythology of our culture. They are great fun when we are kids. Yet, as we grow older, we can revisit them with a more seasoned eye and recognize messages that go far beyond the escapism of youth.

Every culture has its set of myths, legends, tales, and folklore that forms basic aspects of who we are and places values on who we wish to be. It was good fun to engage in a dialogue with the class to discuss their own cultural myths (many of the students are from outside the United States) and to explore what really was going on in the trek down the yellow brick road.

Dorothy’s three friends seek meaning from the Wizard: a heart, a brain, and courage (a soul?). Dorothy is determined to find her way back home, to that place of security. Everyone seeks the “answer” from an outside source. They set off in search of meaning, help, answers.

In a way, the story is a real metaphor for what so many of us at our stage of life are doing as well. We lack something. Life seems to be missing just that “one” thing, so we go off and seek that answer. It is out there somewhere, if we can only get to the right club, or buy the right toy, or find a new relationship, or whatever. The beauty of the Oz legend is that it reminds us that all too often these searches for truth and meaning are in vain. The Wizard is unmasked as just another human being. Dorothy, like the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion, must find a way to harness her own inner strength.

Estelle Frenkel, in her book Sacred Therapy, has a brief but moving interpretation of the story. “Dorothy,” writes Frankel, “needs to find her own inner source of power. . . . It is only when she faces her deepest fears and takes back the power she has been projecting onto others, like the Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the West, that Dorothy is able to reclaim her own inner strength and find her way home. And as Dorothy and her companions courageously overcome the many obstacles in their path, they discover that, in fact, they already have within them the very power or trait that they thought they lacked.”

This is a very religion- or faith-based message common to many religious traditions. We have the power within us to achieve our dreams and goals. To totally focus on outside validation, outside affirmation, and the like may be to ignore the sacred aspect of our own souls. The power to change, to grow, to achieve, to evolve starts within each of us, and we all possess this ability. It is the spark of the Divine that rests within each of us by virtue of our being alive. In other words, it is okay to like yourself and find validation in yourself, for from such a sense of security (home) are you better able to handle the world with intelligence (your brain), compassion (your heart), and vision (your brain).

So, next time you sit down to read a story to your grandchildren, try to see and hear it not only through their eyes and ears but also through your experience. I think you will find many of those stories more meaningful. I invite your interpretations of your favorite “story.” It would be fun to compare how we see them now.


What do You Mean, “Medicare”?

Celebrating Wisdom

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

Okay, I must admit that I cannot dodge this anymore. For about a year, when AARP mailers would come, I just threw them aside. I knew that if I opened them, I would immediately be sent to a home and given a walker.

I started opening those notices from AARP and Aetna a few months ago. In bold letters, they trumpeted the fact that I was closing in on 65—I just turned 50—and it was time to join the Medicare club. Right! As if! That guy in the mirror is not 65. Sure, he’s a little worn around the edges, but Medicare? Get real!

Then, letters from the government arrived, announcing, with official fanfare and language, benefits and registration timetables. Friends advised me that correcting the mistake could be done via the computer. “Easy as pie,” said my buddy Steve, who had already signed up. Lo and behold, a very official letter from Social Security arrived this week. It shows tables and lists of numbers and all kinds of stuff. I am running out of time. I made the call and was handled nicely. I am almost there. Not funny! How did this happen?

I think that in churches and synagogues and mosques, there should be a small ceremony marking this passage. Why not? We celebrate anniversaries and other birthdays. What is more meaningful in our society than turning 65? In fact, maybe there should be a real celebration. A ceremony that praises people who reach this milestone and are still active, alive, and looking forward to life, rather than preparing to fade away.

The longevity revolution has made it possible for us to achieve untapped new heights of personal, and by extension, communal worth. Why not celebrate this achievement? Believe it or not, a new ritual—a simchat chochma—has emerged from the Jewish feminist movement in recent years. In English, the term means “a celebration of wisdom.” People have done this in their communities when reaching 65 or 70, and the language of the ritual notes that a person has real life experience and is now in a position to share some of that wisdom with his or her community and the world.

Every religious tradition has texts and language that could enhance this ritual. Why not celebrate living and life and the wisdom that we accumulate along the journey?

Each of us is a reservoir of experience that can be shared with others. Both the good and the bad times are illustrative of how we choose to live and face a world that sometimes does not conform to our expectations or dreams. Who knows what your story can mean to someone else? Who knows the value of what you have lived and how that can be supportive and caring to someone in your community who may be living those challenges and thinks that they face them all alone.

Now, if I can just get someone to fill out this paperwork!

Choosing Life, Part 2

The shofar calls, but…

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

The second half of September sees the global Jewish community assembled to welcome the New Year of 5770. It is a time of introspection and contemplation. It is also a time for renewal and re-visioning.

One of the most powerful symbols of the New Year period is the ram’s horn, or shofar. A series of powerful blasts highlight the New Year celebration of Rosh Hoshonnah, and a long, slow sound brings the 10-day period to a close as the sun sets on Yom Kippur. This is a season when we are called upon to literally assess who we are, to put our spiritual lives in order, and to reflect on what we wish for the coming year. The prayers of the services are powerful, and the music is stirring. The readings from the Torah are designed to raise significant questions about life and our relationships to God and our fellow human beings. All in all, it is a season that calls on us to again, choose life!

But do we listen?

Here is a little prayer-wish for all of us on this season. I include myself, for this season finds me at my own spiritual crossroads. As the New Year begins, I, along with many of my generation, am quite aware that things are changing. We are gradually accepting, or at least acknowledging, our aging. We are at a stage when we are trying to figure out, really, what these next years will be, what they will mean, and how we will make sense of them and our place in them. This year, the shofar will call us to awaken our souls, and we wonder, to what?

One of my favorite readings during the season is from the book of Deuteronomy. This is the last of the five books that make up the Torah. The reading comes from the 29th and 30th chapter of the book and contains the phrase that is the basis of much of Jewish theology and civilization: “Choose life.”

This often-quoted phrase is the message for us. The shofar will call us to worship and remind us of the infinite possibilities for life that rests within each of us. This is a key message for us this year, and indeed every year. Choose to celebrate and enjoy the life we have been given. There is no more precious gift. Do not wait. Do not put off what you wish to do. Seize life, celebrate it, embrace it, wrestle with it. It is there for our living.

The reality check for this is also within the liturgy. One of the themes that runs through the prayers on these holidays is that, despite our wishes, we do not control much of life. The randomness of our own existence is always present, and its impact grows on us as we age. Thus, says the Torah reading, in the face of the randomness of so much of life, choose to live it. There is an old Yiddish expression that translates as “Man plans and God laughs.” You can make the argument that this expression correctly sums up one of the major themes of the holidays. It is as if the tradition is reminding us that plan as we might, so much happens that we do not and cannot control, we must remember to celebrate and enjoy the life we have.

A new year is now dawning. May it be a year of peace and joy, happiness and health for you and all who you care for and who care for and about you. And most of all, my prayer for you and me, is that we have the courage to choose life.

Choosing Life, Part 1

Talking with each other about sacred choices

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

Unless you have been totally absorbed in the pennant races (go Phillies!), you may have seen or heard the “debate” on issues involving health care. I hesitate to use the word “debate,” as most of the conversation has less to do with you and me and more to do with politics and power (and so what else is new!).

Part of what seems to be organized scare tactics has to do with the nonsense about end-of-life counseling. Let me say up front that Judaism is all in favor of this, and just about every strand of Judaism has produced materials to assist in these discussions. Many congregations have developed ongoing educational programs that teach people how to make sacred decisions as life ends. I know, because part of what I do for the Reform movement is to help set up and create these programs and resources.

Having people talk about what they want and how they want it is empowering and, on a moral and ethical level, good. These discussions allow for all concerned to have their say and to let individuals and families know wishes and provide opportunities for conversations about very serious and sacred issues. Are these conversations easy? No. But many of you reading this have had these conversations. They help reduce anxiety for all concerned and set out parameters of action that respect the people involved. Having a conversation about an advanced directive or health care proxy, or doing a “pre-need” meeting with the funeral director can be sacred moments. Studies, like one recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also showed that patients who were dying from cancer benefited greatly from having the chance to talk about their own wishes, families, and lives.

Medical technology has given us the gift of longevity. This is blessing. Yet, that same technology has made it possible for some to exist in various states of limbo. What to do, what would “they” want? These are the questions being asked right now by people all over our country. A recent op-ed in the Washington Times recounted the author’s discussion with her mom over a so-called living will: “Such discussions and signings with older parents had become commonplace among my friends of a certain age. . . . These were not morbid tasks, merely the latest reality bequeathed by technology that can keep a body physically alive while those parts we think of as constituting our humanity have flown away.”

I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to have these conversations. I know from the work I do for the Reform Jewish movement, setting up these programs and producing resources and materials for individuals and congregations in this area, that providing nonstressful opportunities for open, honest conversation and education about traditions, customs, personal beliefs, and wishes can be empowering.

These discussions are tough. Obviously, few people want to sit down and discuss the possibility of death, be it their own or their loved ones’. This is basic fear buried in the deep recesses of the souls of so many who protest any attempt to create opportunities for these conversations. The silliness of government-controlled end-of-life mandates has gotten out of hand. The cries of “no government interference in my health care” are outrageous, unless those same people are willing to forgo their Medicare and Social Security.

Choosing life is a theme of the upcoming holiday season. It urges us to make sacred choices. One of those choices we now have, in light of medical technology and longevity, is to ensure that conversations about end-of-life wishes are had in every home, religious institution, continuing care or assisted living facility, doctor’s office, and coffee shop. Wherever it is best, seize the chance. In doing so, you have the chance to dignify and sanctify life.


Health, Spirituality, and Looking Forward

Searching for deeper truths

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

With the discussion of health care reform so present in the press and news cycles, I thought it a good time to examine some of the implications of health and spirituality. It seems that the two, not surprisingly, may be related and may impact our longevity as well as our sense of meaning and purpose.

Some of you may be aware that this subject has gotten a lot more attention in the academic world in recent years, undoubtedly because many of those doing the research are themselves aging, and (pardon the cynicism) there are dollars to be had for research. In 2002, in the journal The Gerontologist, a series of scholars reviewed a famous study in successful aging that was done by the MacArthur Foundation.

The group urged that future studies include an aspect of what they called positive spirituality, which they defined as a person “developing an internalized personal relation with the sacred or transcendent that is not bound by race, ethnicity, or class and promotes the wellness and welfare of self and others.” It is interesting to note that this definition is personal. Positive spirituality, it seems, does not need an organized community. This is one of the great developments of the baby boom generation and how we view our aging and our sense of spirituality.

In the surveys that I used to help create the Reform movement’s program on Sacred Aging, we found a strong sense of positive spirituality. Indeed, there was a division between the boomer generation and those respondents who were in their 70s and above. For the latter, there was a closer connection between one’s religion and one’s spirituality. For many of the boomers, however, there was a division. Many boomers who remain members of synagogues had no trouble identifying the fact that were searching for some deeper spiritual truth and were comfortable looking outside of their own congregations to find it. I think this has manifest itself in normative church-synagogue communities in the development of smaller, more personal gatherings.

I know within the Jewish community in which I work and travel, this unease or search among many of the boomer generation is palpable and expressed more openly than ever. Part of this is, I am convinced, the need for serious and sacred relationships. Our world is intensely privatized and, in many ways, anti-communal. Almost every pop culture symbol that we have speaks of a private world. Ride any airplane or train or subway or bus and observe (across generational lines) how many people are in their own private world of sight and sound. How many of us work in cubicles? How many of us are addicted to the virtual community of cyberspace and feel naked without a Blackberry?

All of this, I think, makes the need for personal relationships more important and of even greater value as we age.