Loneliness – A Jewish Question
When we consider the problems of our later years, we are always accompanied by conscious and subconscious memories and feelings of years gone by. Our earliest memories are sometimes key to opening the doors of our souls, our psyches. In Jewish tradition the soul / neshama / breath is a gift from the Creator of all life. Each one of us, from the moment of birth to the end of our natural life, is embarking upon a journey. The roadmap, like all maps, keeps on adjusting and readjusting. It is impossible to say, at any time, the map that I know is the final map of my life.
Some authorities, when speaking of this map, use the Hebrew word, halacha (halakha), which means journey. A person who knows him or herself as a Jew, guided by his or her map, may experience modifications during his or her life. Some of us who feel guided by this map believe that being Jewish involves meeting the following requirements:
First, an active agent, better known as the Creator or God, presented us with a map for our lives. No matter what you may or may not be doing, Jews will label that you are bashert – you are being destined. Instead of bashert, some will call it your mazel.
The word mazel means constellation. When our ancestors lived in Babylon, they encountered Zoroastrians, and accepted their beliefs. In Jewish scriptures, the glory of El (God) is told in the heavens. And how can we know the messages of the heavens? Through reading the mazalot, the constellation of the stars. These mazelot will provide the direction of your personal life.
Assuming this to be true and correct, are we then still left with free will? Are we responsible for anything that happens to us? Can we choose? Do we have the freedom to say yes and no about things and events? The Jewish sages say, yes, for there is hashem. God has power over the mazalot; and if you turn to hashem, God will respond and free you from the clutches of the mazalot. Part of being Jewish is acknowledging that hashem is the God above all gods.
Secondly, the word we translate as journey has been known for centuries as an eternal code. We have the tradition of the Ten Commandments given to us at Mt. Sinai. Observing these commandments as well as the many traditional rules and regulations (613 of them) has been considered the Jewish norm until recent times
Since the time of Napoleon, various groups have sprung up within the Jewish ethos and culture focusing on one part of the traditional halacha or another. Many claimed that it is impossible to live by the 613 commandments. Some make sense, others do not; some apply to our times, others do not; some are sexist, others are not; some are discriminatory, others are egalitarian. You can always stir the pot, bring something to the surface by saying, “That’s it! That part makes me a Jew. The rest I choose not to observe.”
Our tradition cannot make up its mind. There has never been a moment in Jewish history when every single Jew belonged to only one party. Some live within certain boundaries. Others live without boundaries while still claiming their right of being considered Jews.
A recognized value in Judaism is the ability to interpret Biblical texts through contemporary as well as historical prisms. These prisms unite the needs of the collective and individual perspectives with traditional as well as new meanings. Berlin and Brettler (Jewish Publication Society, 2004) elaborate as follows:
The tradition of Biblical interpretation has been a constant conversation, at times an argument, among its participants; at no period has the text been interpreted in a monolithic fashion. If anything marks Jewish biblical interpretation it is the diversity of approaches employed and the multiplicity of meanings produced. (p. ix)
Berlin and Brettler also add that just as there is no one Jewish interpretation, “there is no authorized Jewish translation of the Bible into English” (p. x) or into any other language. That is why “each generation must, as it were, stand again at Sinai finding new layers of significant and understanding in the text” (Shapiro, 1999, p. 13). Consequently, personal and communal interpretations of Judaism differ.
Jews in their senior years will review their lives and prepare to leave it, they will cling to their belief and program of Jewishness. To each one of them we say, “Don’t worry about the rest of the Jewish world. You made the choice for yourself.” That to us is the ultimate answer. If you can accept yourself and live by that acceptance, then the rest of the world is of very little consequence.
The only thing to remember, no matter what group you belong to, no matter what definition of halacha you assume, is that Jewishness is whatever assures life. Whoever judges and chooses, whoever includes some and excludes others, is not one of us. We do not ever say, “for this you go to heaven, for that you go to hell.” We do speak of “a world to come” in which every soul will return to the all-soul from which it has been separated.
This philosophical explanation and exercise was placed here to help one understand that there is always choice within Judaism, as there is within life. Seen through this Jewish prism, even loneliness can be considered a personal choice.
And what about a communal choice?
In this chapter, we explored the idea of loneliness through Jewish halakha, interpretations, and personal choices. In the next chapter, we will look at communal concerns.