Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



The word “old” is an epithet in the English language. This is so because the United States was once a pioneer country which accommodated the young immigrants who went west with a gun in one hand and a plow in the other. Until the end of the frontier era in 1890, America was not very attractive to the old, who had difficulty dealing with the heat and the cold and the rough terrain and native attacks and lack of medical care. Therefore, America became the land of the young and strong.

Today, years after the population has changed and become much older than ever before, culture lag continues to hold the old in contempt as incapable, demented, disabled, confused, and in need of incarceration in a nursing home.

Consequently, almost all Americans do not hesitate to confront those deemed “old” with all kinds of prejudices and demeaning comments. Even as racism and sexism have been largely defeated in American life, the third of the triumvirate of bigotry, ageism or gerontophobia, is practiced incessantly and without restraint. The “old” are treated to questions and comments such as: “What? You are still here?”  “Why aren’t you retired?” “ Your pension is larger than your salary,” “Boy, do you look old,” etc.

Judaism as traditionally practiced rejects the demeaning of the old. In fact, Vayikro or Leviticus 19:32 (Kedoshim) has been translated: “You shall rise before the grey head and honor the face of the old man (and woman) and you shall be afraid of your God: I Am The Lord.”

This admonition directly contradicts the most popular beliefs of Americans. Therefore it has lost its meaning to most Americans of Jewish descent as well. The reasons are easily discerned. A recent opinion poll asked Americans of several ethnic and religious groups whether or not they believed in God. Indeed, about 20% of the general public answered that they considered themselves atheists. Not agnostics (gnosis = knowledge), but atheists. Fifty-one percent of Jews answered that they were atheists. Therefore it is not unreasonable to consider that this majority of ethnic Jews know nothing of the Torah or its laws. Instead of Judaism, the preponderance of Jews have converted to a religion known as “liberal,” which evidently is opposed to the teachings of the Jewish tradition even as it becomes more and more evident that “liberals” don’t like the Bill of Rights included in our constitution. Liberals don’t like freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Liberals certainly find religion an obnoxious remnant of medieval superstition, even as they consider themselves enlightened scientific thinkers who “know” the facts.

It is therefore of interest that Albert Einstein, surely a man who knew science and particularly physics, said among other pronouncements: “I wish to discover the mind of God” and “God does not play dice with the universe,” etc. This must seem incongruous to all the scientific minds among us. How is it possible that the most amazing scientist of any age was not an atheist when every schoolboy “knows” that religion is bunk and God does not exist. How do so many Jewish youngsters know that? Well, their parents told them so.

This, then, explains why Jews have adopted ageism and gerontophobia as their own. If everybody else practices these bigotries, surely Jews cannot be left behind and reject denunciation of the old.

The old are not at all what is believed, although many old people play the role assigned to them by bigotry. The old are far better drivers than the young. Insurance statistics tell us that. Yet, many an “old” person has given up driving because his adult children told him so. The “old” are said to be unproductive. Yet, many an octogenarian writes books, paints pictures, composes music, runs a business, etc. Seeing these “exceptions,” the bigots claim that the exception only proves the rule. Yet, the “old” are by no means demented nor incapable of maintaining their independence unless their adult children tell them so.

Anyone who frequents our synagogues will find that ageism has also conquered “Kedoshim.” We segregate the old. At the occasion of a shivah, it is common that the widow is ignored while the shivah guests talk loudly with one another and enjoy a joke or two. Ageism in action.

It may well be that somewhere, in some Jewish community, Leviticus 19:32 is still observed. If so, Judaism still lives despite the monumental effort to sink us all into a sea of commonplace superstitions and foolish intellectualism reminiscent of adolescents suffering from retarded moral development.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Assassination, Anarchy, & Terrorism (2012).

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