December 10, 2018

Lehavdil? Distinctiveness and Fluidity in Personal Status Change

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

One of my favorite aspects of Jewish tradition is its recognition of diverse experience. Judaism differentiates between Sabbath and weekday—lehavdil bein kodesh lekhol, and even between Sabbath and holiday levels of holiness—lehavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. Judaism also differentiates between different kinds of personal status—single, married, engaged, etc.

Sylvia Barack Fishman

Jews, like other societal groups, create memorable ceremonies to mark an individual’s passage from one kind of personal status to another—circumcisions, bar and bat mitzvahs, mikvah immersions, weddings, divorces, mourning rituals.

Human beings do seem to benefit from ceremonies demarcating personal status. Ceremonies ratify profound transitions, whether joyous or sorrowful.  Where such a ceremony does not exist—for example the lack of a Jewish ceremony to celebrate the birth of a child—many complain about its absence.

But there is a downside to personal status categories and demarcation ceremonies. Personal experience may be much more fluid and less defined than the lehavdil categories imply.

Gendered traditions that separate men’s and women’s status in traditional Judaism, for example, have become more fluid in recent decades. Jews studying sacred texts—once a gendered role confined almost exclusively to males—now include girls and woman as well. Jewish communal and religious leadership and public prayer include females in many congregations. In these and other instances, the fluidity of the human experience rather than categorical distinctions between people is the compelling principle.

The personal status transition uppermost in my mind today is the move from full-time employment to a status of “retirement.”

My years both as the Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) and as the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department (NEJS) at Brandeis have been years of intense privilege. I use that term not as it is commonly used today—a kind of pejorative aimed at persons obliviously enjoying unearned entitlements—but rather in its traditional Jewish understanding. The Hebrew word for privilege, z’chut, as it is used in classical Jewish texts is not just being fortunate in obtaining something of value. Z’chut also implies having responsibility for something; it is connected to the doing of good deeds as well as to receiving benefits beyond what one’s own good deeds would entitle one to.

It was a privilege to work with Prof. Shulamit Reinharz in the creation of what came to be known as the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI). I am grateful to Shula for her generosity, warmth, energy, and vision, and I treasure our work together. It makes me happy to think of HBI thriving now in the capable hands and dynamic vision of Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe and an amazing staff. The wonderful Board of HBI has guided us well. Diane Troderman was our first HBI Board Chair, traveling from the Berkshires to attend weekly HBI staff meetings. Our board chairs and board members have been central to our development, including our current devoted chair, Dr. Phyllis Hammer. I look forward to seeing HBI’s new accomplishments unfold.

Similarly, from the start of my NEJS career, I have been privileged to work with colleagues who were excellent role models as well as true helpmeets, enablers and partners. I learned sociology of American Jews from the master, Prof. Marshall Sklare of blessed memory. Jonathan Sarna was NEJS departmental chair and my mentor in my critical early years. My Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) colleague Prof. Len Saxe generously helped me strategize logistics and scientific complexities. The current NEJS department chair, Jonathan Decter, is an exemplary scholar, administrator, and colleague. I have great confidence in him and our generations of young NEJS scholars going forward. My HBI and NEJS colleagues are an astonishingly nice, menschlech, and interesting group of people. It has been a z’chut, a privilege, to work with them.

I was privileged to work with outside colleagues on a series of compelling research projects on Jewish communal life. The first of those associations was with the American Jewish Committee’s Drs. David Singer and Steven Bayme, a relationship of more than three decades beginning with my intermarriage project, in which I analyzed interviews with 254 Jewish and non-Jewish men and women in intermarried, inmarried, and conversionary marriages. I was privileged to write articles and chapters with my cherished and much-missed Israeli colleague Charles Liebman, of blessed memory, with the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Jack Wertheimer (may he live long and prosper), and with the prolific scholar Steven M. Cohen. All my co-authors and research associates have been energetic and fearless; they don’t mind writing about challenging findings. Those relationships have added much richness and dimension to our lives. Not least, it was a privilege to work with my students, helping them find subjects that ignite their passions, helping them develop critical skills, to launch and develop their careers.

My colleagues at NEJS and HBI created a lovely, elegant—and very much appreciated–celebration to mark my change of status from full-time Brandeis employee to Emerita NEJS Professor and HBI Co-Director.

That change of status, however, falls into the category of a fluid, rather than sharply distinguished lehavdil. I look forward to continuing with both the compelling and meaningful work and the deep friendships that made my years at Brandeis such a privileged environment. I hope to continue writing about American Jewish sociology, life, culture and literature. I have already begun to spend more time painting—a lifelong passion that was largely confined to the summer months during the decades of my academic career. I expect that I will also continue teaching. This fall I’ll be initiating an adult education class for HBI and Me’ah Select: “Herstories: Changing Portrayals of Women in Jewish Literature.”

Thus, employment versus retirement status is not a lehavdil bein kodesh lekhol situation. I am not leaving my Brandeis interests behind. Instead for me (and many others) retirement is a condition of fluidity, far closer to the distinction implied by lehavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. As Emerita, I hope to be privileged to transition from one holy space and time to another.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Emerita Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Judaic Studies
and the former Co-Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Comments

  1. Ruth Nemzoff says:

    Sylvia ,thank u for this beautiful vision of retirement and placing it in the wisdom of Judiasm. I post with utmost respect for all your past contributions and I look forward to many more!

  2. reinharz says:

    Hi Sylvia, I welcome your distinction between a change of perhaps immutability and a change of fluidity. I, too have been thinking a lot about m own retirement. True, I don’t have a packed schedule of obligations, but I also appreciate not working within the context of a large organization. Setting my own schedule, while doing much of the work I used to do, symbolizes retirement for me. On days when I feel too busy, I ask myself – when will my retirement start. Very fondly, Shula

  3. Shulamit Reinharz says:

    Hi Sylvia, Thanks for your blog and for the distinction between the two types of differentiation.
    Ever since I have retired, I realize that I am the same person I always was, but now I have a different relation to time. Time now seems to belong to me, rather than being a frequently confining framework of schedules, appointments, etc. This year I told Yali that I would give her my summer, so she can continue doing her work up in Maine, while the children are under my care. Giving people time is perhaps the ultimate gift. I predict that the meaning of retirement will continue to change, and that we can be part of steering that change. Fondly, Shula

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