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‘Today You Are … Still a Child’: Why 13 Is Too Young For Bar/Bat Mitzvah

We learned from the cover story of the past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that there is a debate raging in developmental psychology and neuropsychology circles as to whether there is a new stage in human development called “emergent adulthood.” Some might call it “prolonged adolescence,” but apparently, a lot of people are asking a variation of the question “What Is it About 20-Somethings?”

The jury is still out as to whether the fact that so many young people in their 20s are not yet financially independent, settled on a career, or in long-term, committed romantic relationships is a definitive indication that humans are not cut out to assume the responsibilities of adulthood until they reach the age of 30.

Whether or not you completely buy the new theory, this re-thinking of the timing of the true onset of adulthood has not only biological, social and economic implications, but also religious ones. If brain imaging research has found that the human brain does not finish its major growth and hardwiring until approximately age 25, then what are we Jews doing declaring young people adults at the age of 12 or 13?

The concept of adolescence has been around for more than a century, with just about everyone in the developed world recognizing that young children do not turn into adults overnight. We haven’t thought of 13-year-olds as true adults for a very long time.

So why have we not re-thought a tradition that dates to ancient times, when we well know that what made sense to life then does not apply to our contemporary existence? OK, so we gave in to inertia, we just let things go with the traditional flow for the past century. But now that we have the evidence, it’s high time that we reconsider whether it is right and fair for us to confer Jewish adulthood on our 7th and 8th graders merely to ensure a steady stream of minyan makers.

Rather than lament the drop off of congregational and educational participation of teenagers post-b’nai mitzvah, maybe we should remind ourselves that they are just that: teenagers, and not adults. Teenagers get a kick out of doing davka (basically doing the opposite of what we want them to), so why not psych them out by not expecting them to act like adults, which we all know they aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not advocating that young Jews should never have the privilege of taking on the responsibility or the mitzvot. I’m not calling for the abolition of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. What I am suggesting, however, is that if the teenage and 20s years are all about exploring one’s identity, trying new paths, gaining experience and finding personal meaning and direction, then what is our hurry? Why not extend the Jewish educational journey for youth, and gain the benefit of not losing the momentum from making a major stop during middle school? Maybe then, when they finally do emerge as actual adults, they will really be ready to commit to living a Jewish life.

Why not re-envision this Jewish coming of age so that when a young Jew stands up at his bar mitzvah or her bat mitzvah and says, “Today, I am an adult,” he or she can really mean it and the rest of us in the congregation can really believe it?


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