Is President Biden too old to be president?

(RNS) — “An elderly man with poor memory.”


“Too old to be president,” which the overwhelming majority of Americans think.

Those are examples of current thinking about President Joe Biden’s age (81 years old), and whether he is too old to run for another term as president.

(A little perspective here: Mick Jagger is only six months younger.)

Which begs the question: Is Donald Trump, at 78 years old, any “better?”

True, Trump presents a more robust figure and image.

But, his cognitive functions have also declined. He has made more than his fair share of gaffs. He fell asleep at his criminal trial. At times, his verbal presentations are word salads, making absolutely no sense whatsoever. The other day, he challenged President Biden to take a cognitive test, only to confuse the name of the doctor who administered the test.

In fact, a quarter of American voters think neither candidate has the mental acuity to be president.

It was also true about President Ronald Reagan. I shall always remember how he announced his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease to the American public:

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease…

In closing let me thank you, the American people for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.

You need not have been a fan of President Reagan to have appreciated the dignity and even the poetry of that announcement.

Let me, therefore, be apolitical.

This is not about who should be president. Let us leave that decision to the voters.

Neither is it about their cognitive abilities. Let us leave those diagnoses to the medical experts.

Let us, rather, focus on how Judaism frames the fading of cognitive ability.

I teach this — not only to bring something into the conversation about the aging of two presidential candidates, but to offer some comfort and context to those who have loved ones who are making that sunset journey.

I share two stories from the Jewish tradition.

The first: the Golden Calf.

The Israelites, impatient for Moses to return to them, look to Aaron and they demand a new god. He gives in to their wishes, with terrible results. Upon seeing the calf, Moses loses it and smashes the tablets. Moses and God then have to “renegotiate” the Covenant, and Moses gets a new set of tablets — which he helps create.

What happened to the fragments of the first set of tablets?

I offer this teaching from the Jerusalem Talmud:

Two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken Tablets, would come and go with them.

From this, we learn that the broken pieces of the tablets were also holy — that we could not discard them, and that they made the journey with us as well.

But, the sages go further. For them, the broken pieces of the tablets are not just shattered pieces of stone. They represent something deeper and holier.

I offer this teaching from the Talmud, Berachot 8b:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said to his children: Take care to respect an old man who through unavoidable circumstances has forgotten what he knew, for Scripture says that both the whole Tablets and the shattered Tablets were placed in the Ark.

It is one of the most moving images in rabbinic literature. The sages compare an elderly person, struggling with cognitive decline, to the broken Tablets. Both are still holy.

Years ago, I was at a rabbinical convention. An esteemed, elderly rabbi gave the final benediction to those assembled at the gathering. He was in his 90s. The old rabbi started strongly, but minutes later, he was already meandering incoherently.

How long did he speak? It probably was not that long, but it felt like 20 minutes. At first, we all stood there, listening respectfully. Soon, that respect became snickers. Then, giggles. Then, some rabbis sat down. Others simply walked out.

I was probably starting to giggle, as well. But, one of my colleagues put his hand on my arm, and he said to me: “Jeff, Jeff: the shattered tablets traveled in the same ark as the intact tablets.”

He was absolutely right.

A second story about how we treat the frail elderly.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) contains a story about an important person named Dama ben Netinah. He lived in the city of Ashkelon, sometime in the first century CE, where he served as the city council president.

Dama son of Netinah was once wearing a gold embroidered silken cloak and sitting among Roman nobles, when his mother came, tore it off from him, struck him on the head, and spat in his face, yet he did not shame her.

The story goes further. In a midrash (Devarim Rabbah 1:15), we read:

Rabbi Eliezer the Great was asked by his disciples: “Can you give an example of real honoring of parents?” He replied: “Go and see what Dama the son of Netinah of Ashkelon did. His mother was mentally afflicted and she used to slap him in the presence of his colleagues, and all that he would say was: “Mother, it is enough (dayeich immi)!”

It is a story so poignant that everyone can relate to it. It is a story that is timeless in its ability to transcend the generations and to speak to our inner lives.    

We can understand Dama’s pain and frustration. His mother has humiliated him in the presence of his colleagues.

But, she is choseret daat, “mentally afflicted,” literally “lacking in knowledge.” She is suffering from some kind of cognitive impairment. Dama realizes she has humiliated herself more — and it wasn’t her fault.

We can imagine Dama’s suffering. We can imagine him saying to himself: “This woman who is abusing me — she used to be my mother. She used to be a beautiful woman who nurtured me and cared for me. She has hit me. My dignity will heal itself within a few seconds. But, this illness has come and utterly and permanently robbed her of her dignity.”

But all that he would say was: “Mother, it is enough.” Dayeich. “Enough.”

What did that mean — “enough”? That she had humiliated him “enough?” That she had suffered “enough?”

Even now — especially now — many are saying of Biden’s candidacy: Dayeicha. Enough.

Others would say the same thing about Donald Trump — that his cognitive abilities have also diminished.

Note, once again, I am deliberately veering away from a political discussion. Frankly, and for many reasons, I wish there were different candidates for the position of the most powerful person in the world. Ultimately, though, the voters will decide.

I am here to speak up for chesed, love.

I am here to speak up for rachmanut, compassion.

I am here to speak up for the dignity of those who make this final journey, and to speak up for, and to, those who love them.

May you enjoy God’s richest blessings — knowing the intact pieces of the tablets, and the broken pieces — travel with us through life.

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