Within the Jewish tradition, we mark our entry into a new stage of our lives through ceremonies using rituals that have developed over centuries. We have rituals that celebrate birth, coming of age, marriage and death. Yet, we have many stages of life that have gone uncelebrated and thus, over the last decades, we have begun to create new rituals to honor them. The Simchat Chochmah, the Celebration of Wisdom, is one: a ritual honoring aging.
Created by my dear friend, colleague and mentor, Dr. Savina Teubal in 1986 when she turned 60 along with Marty Cohn Spiegel, the Simchat Chochmah has become a ritual for many since then. As Savina stated in an article in the 1992 book, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality:
“I created a ceremony, a rite of passage from adult to elder, to establish my presence in the community as a functional and useful human being,” she wrote. “The ritual also served some personal needs: that of facing my mortality, for instance … I felt that a crone ceremony filled a significant need in our society.” (Crone is an elder woman)
The ritual celebrates the rite of passage from adulthood to elderhood, accompanied by the spiritual concept of acquiring wisdom. Rather than accepting societal messages about aging, Savina and Marty developed a ritual to sanctify a life cycle passage that symbolizes the transition into a continuing creative life; built on the acquisition of wisdom, a hallmark of aging.
Since 1986, many people, primarily women, have marked their journeys of aging by creating a ceremony that reflects their experiences. In a DVD by Miriam Chaya and Judith Montell entitled, Timbrels and Torah, three original ceremonies are documented. Many women have posted their ceremonies on Ritualwell.org, blogs and websites. Joy Krauthammer and Ariella Shira, a team in Los Angeles, offer face-to-face and virtual ceremonies that help people explore “the personal spiritual journey of transition, transcendence and transformation honoring the years from midlife to elder and sage as we become wisdom keepers & mentors.”
In continuing to recognize this creative ritual, we sing two songs, made popular by Debbie Friedman who wrote the music: L’chi Lach written with Savina Teubal for her ceremony, and the Miriam Song written for Marty Cohn Siegel for her ceremony. Both songs speak about the transformation we go through as we make transitions in our lives. In L’chi Lach, we honor the movement from uncertainty and the unknown to creating blessings and becoming blessings, following in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, the first ancestors in the Jewish tradition.
The Miriam Song celebrates the role of women, specifically as we moved through the Sea of Reeds from slavery to freedom at Passover, and generally as women emerging as strong leaders.
Other rituals can be incorporated into a Simchat Chochmah experience. Many women go to a mikvah (ritual bath) to honor their transition from one state of being to another. Many read from their Torah birth portion (especially those who didn’t or were not able to have a bat mitzvah). Many, including men, write their ceremonies with their rabbis or Jewish mentors. Whatever their age, their sexual orientation, their denomination, their status as Baby Boomers, people have found a way to celebrate this creative life cycle ritual to commemorate their spiritual journey into a meaningful elderhood, moving from what Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shlomi has labeled, from aging to saging.
In our tradition, the 70th year is treated as the end of one life span and the beginning of another. Many congregations actually celebrate “second b’nei mitzvah” ceremonies at age 83. Others have begun to celebrate the Simchat Chochmah with congregants. I invite you to consider engaging with others to mark whatever you consider to be your significant transitional moment as you age — at retirement, at a milestone age, after a significant event — to create a life-affirming Celebration of Wisdom.