I have reached the age when most of my rabbi and professor friends are retiring. Unlike mail carriers, lawyers, electricians, and pretty much everyone else, however, they are being renamed emeriti. At university commencement exercises just this past week, I observed a cohort of newly designated professors emeriti being ceremoniously awarded their new title as if it were a promotion rather than just a euphemism for “retiree.”
What does it mean, I wondered, to be named emeritus (emerita, for women) — a title that is anything but a study in innocence. From the Latin, ex meritum, it might, with a stretch, be taken as implying the condition of no longer being in a state of merit – no small matter, after all. Affording myself some homiletical license, let me pursue this line of thought a little.
Practically speaking, professors or clergy emeriti are simply people who no longer merit their normal salary and emoluments: their offices, perhaps, or support staff, and pulpit or library privileges. But psychologically, the condition of ex meritum can seem to mean being “out of merit,” like “out of gas,” stranded on the highway of life with no capacity to continue the journey? When you are “out of merit,” what exactly are you out of?
The issue of “merit” runs deep in western culture, where 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian theology have argued over what constitutes ultimate human merit – “justification” before God, in Christian terminology. Jews typically have argued that we are “justified by works” – that our merit consists in performing the good deeds that God wants. By contrast, classical Christian thought has held that human beings are irreparably born into a state of sin so that no amount of good works can save them. They are “justified” only by “faith” in the grace of God, “grace” being God’s determination to love us even though we are emeritus (“without merit”).
Either way, the matter of human “merit” has exercised western culture for two millennia. I am reminded of it, perhaps, because my newest book (Naming God, Jewish Lights Publishing, June, 2015) examines Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King,” a favorite Jewish prayer whose best-known line approaches the Christian position by pleading for God to show us grace “because we have no good deeds” – because we are, that is to say, emeritus, “out of merit.”
It may be more than accidental that we generally reserve the term emeritus for clergy and teachers. Teaching, in western culture, was once the province of the church, after all, and being a “churchman” was a “calling” to do God’s work. Official theology aside, it was popularly thought that preaching the gospel in pulpit or classroom was about as meritorious an activity as one might find. The day you stopped, you were emeritus, “out of merit” — just like everyone else, that is.
Secularism has eroded such medieval metaphysics by now, but not altogether for the better. Our secular society has done away with divine “calling” but replaced it with “professions” – a term that still has religious connotations of “professing higher truths” and that demarcates doctors, lawyers, and accountants, say, as more worthwhile than plumbers, farmers, and mere money-makers, let alone volunteers and unpaid parents. We ought to counter that secular bias by maintaining that we are all called to serve God in our own distinctive ways, whether by parenting, teaching, or blacksmithing; through our professions, our crafts, our businesses, or our artistry; through just being kind and good and helpful, if we cannot or do not work for profit.
God calls all of us, then, not just some of us; and not just to work (as meriti) until we retire (as emeriti). Ultimate “merit,” we should say, is not just what we do for a living. Retirement may be the opportunity of a lifetime to replace dependence on what human institutions decide to reward for what God would have us be.
“What God wants” said the biblical prophet Micah, some 2,700 years ago is for us “to practice justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Divine.” Here is the only calling that all of us can practice, independent of our age, our health, and the accidents that befall us. It is the only calling we carry to the grave and the calling from which we can never be declared emeriti.