The New Meaning of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah
We humans are resistant to change. It unsettles us. Causes us discomfort. And anxiety. And yet, as first articulated by the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, change is the only constant. Whether or not we like it, things do change. What is in our control is how we choose to handle it. Do we deny its inevitability and cling to the waning status quo? Do we embrace the opportunity to evolve and enhance the experience?
This January, I will chant my Torah portion in honor of my 30th anniversary of becoming a bat mitzvah. It is an annual tradition and is a lasting gift from a one-time event that occurred as I teetered on the precipice between childhood and adulthood. Thirty years after the fact, I can so clearly recall the hours of practicing for my service. Digging into commentaries with my mom in order to write my d’var torah. Spending hours, learning with the rabbi, until I was able to make the text my own. When I stood on the bimah and received the Torah from the hands of my parents and grandparents, I was keenly aware that I was taking my place in a chain of tradition.
My bat mitzvah experience, however, was not the norm. Unlike most, I actually loved attending Hebrew School. My mother holds a degree in Hebrew from UCLA and my father is a rabbi. I was reared in a home where Judaism was a living, breathing, celebrated essence of who we were and how we lived. I, too, am a rabbi and I strive to create a home modeled after the one in which I was so blessed to grow up. So my experience, both personal and professional, borders on unique.
The current conversation about bar and bat Mitzvahs is an important one. And one that, understandably, is filled with tension. Like so many challenges in Jewish life, there is not one “right” answer. At least, there is not one answer that will satisfy everyone. Nor, I would suggest, has there ever been one.
While we like to romanticize the Jewish community of past eras, we would be remiss in thinking that we have ever been a homogenous people. From our outset, we have rarely agreed on how best to live a Jewish life. The Talmud is rife with disagreements among our Sages. What we learn by their example, however, is not only that there are different approaches to any concern but that we must respect those who hold varied opinions.
Jewish Law holds that one reaches the age of commandment at 13 (for boys) and 12 (for girls). Just as American citizens reach the age of majority upon the 18th birthday, nothing else is required for an individual to be considered ritually responsible than reaching the requisite age.
But bar (or bat) mitzvah has come to mean something else. Rather than becoming a bar mitzvah, the focus is on having a bar mitzvah: being called to Torah, chanting the Haftarah, leading part or all of the service, and delivering a drasha or speech as the culmination of years of study and preparation and in the presence of one’s community. There can be something inherently powerful about a young person on the cusp of adulthood being empowered to serve as the service leader as well as a teacher of Torah. There have been far too many times, though, that I have sat through a service and questioned the value of what was essentially a phonetic recitation. And wondered about community at services that were not held at the normal worship times. Or the desire for a Havdallah service when it is clear that no one in the family was familiar with the actual ritual that concludes Shabbat.
Some synagogue cultures take this focus to the extreme. In addition to turning the entire worship experience over to the celebrant and his or her family, some synagogues encourage a number of speeches to be delivered about the bar or bat mitzvah. I have attended services that included speeches by two Hebrew School classmates, the B’nai Mitzvah tutor, the Board of Trustees representative, the rabbi and both parents. Extolling the achievements and bestowing accolades that seem far more appropriate for a candidate on the path towards beatification and rather hyperbolic when describing the average 13-year-old.
If the focus is not on the service-leading aspect, it might be seen as a tribal rite of passage that indicates the emergence of one now ritually responsible for his or her actions. If we expect our students to count towards a minyan, we must teach them the Mourner’s Kaddish. If we expect them to count towards a mezuman, we must teach them Birkat Hamazon. Let’s make certain that our efforts are in concert with our expectations.
To say that there is only one valid way to become a bar or bat mitzvah is to deny the current religious climate. It would behoove us, as a people, to recognize that there are various ways to enter into adult Jewish life.