The Bar & Bat Mitzvah Sec­tion

5 New Es­says About an Old Rit­ual

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Philip Eil, Jane Eis­ner, Rabbi Ben­jamin Gold­schmidt, Amy Oringel and Sharon Pomer­antz

Few in­sti­tu­tions rep­re­sent the Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity like the bar and bat mitzvah. It would be sur­pris­ing, given this cul­tural em­pha­sis, if this rit­ual turned out to be al­most as mod­ern as the elab­o­rate par­ties that sur­round it. And yet, this is the case. Iron­i­cally, this most iconic rit­ual has very lit­tle ba­sis in Jewish texts. Many ar­ti­cles have been writ­ten about the van­ity and ex­penses of the bar mitzvah party. But what about the rit­ual it­self?

In­ter­est­ingly, there is not one word in the To­rah that men­tions the bar mitzvah. Even in the Mishna and Tal­mud, there is ab­so­lutely no dis­cus­sion of the ac­tual cer­e­mony — in stark con­trast to the wed­ding cer­e­mony or even Pidyon Haben for the first born male son, both of which have lengthy dis­cus­sions in the Tal­mud de­voted to their ex­e­cu­tion.

Not so when it comes to bar mitzvah cel­e­bra­tions. In­stead of guide­lines for the oc­ca­sion, we have time­lines for the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­com­ing a young Jewish adult, and for how to pre­pare for these re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, an early men­tion of the bar mitzvah oc­curs in the “Ethics of Our Fa­thers,” in which Ye­hu­dah ben Teima gives a time­line of Jewish ed­u­ca­tion, and says that a young man must be­gin ob­serv­ing the com­mand­ments at 13. Or take the Tal­mud in Yoma, which dis­cusses how one should start prac­tic­ing fast­ing in ad­vance of be­com­ing an adult. The Tal­mud in Nid­dah tells us the first mitzvah a child must ob­serve is to keep vows a year be­fore be­com­ing of age, the greatest prepa­ra­tion for adult­hood be­ing the un­der­stand­ing that words are pow­er­ful and ab­so­lutely bind­ing.

But none of these men­tions the oc­ca­sion of be­com­ing a bar mitzvah (lit­er­ally, a son of mitz­vahs). In­deed, so hid­den is any men­tion of a cer­e­mony that the 16th-cen­tury rabbi of Lublin, Shlomo Luria, went look­ing for dis­cus­sion of the bar mitzvah in his mag­num opus “The Sea of Solomon.” All he could find was a tal­mu­dic dis­cus­sion about Rav Yosef, who was blind. Rav Yosef said that if he found out blind peo­ple were ob­li­gated to keep the mitzvot, he would make a yama tava ler­a­banan, a “great cel­e­bra­tion for the rab­bis.” From here we learn that the day one be­comes ob­li­gated to keep the com­mand­ments, one ought to cel­e­brate.

And that’s it — the only men­tion of Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar Jewish party in over 2,700 pages of Tal­mud.

Yet to­day, de­spite the scant tex­tual pre­text, the bar mitzvah cer­e­mony has be­come the cen­ter of the en­tire cur­ricu­lum of many He­brew schools. Since we in­sist that the chil­dren read from the To­rah, they have to learn the can­til­la­tions, and they have to have a strong back­ground in He­brew lan­guage. Some syn­a­gogues have 20-page bar/bat mitzvah hand­books, with dead­lines for pay­ment and fees; a time­line of tu­tor­ing, re­hearsals and manda­tory meet­ings; not to men­tion an op­por­tu­nity for spon­sor­ing the flow­ers on the bimah.

Just as there’s lit­tle tex­tual back­ing for the cer­e­mony, there’s none at all for read­ing from the To­rah. As a pul­pit rabbi, I have the priv­i­lege of guid­ing many chil­dren to­ward their bar and bat mitz­vahs, and I see far too many par­ents plac­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate em­pha­sis on chant­ing the To­rah read­ing. I see par­ents get frus­trated at their chil­dren for not study­ing the melody and can­til­la­tion marks se­ri­ously.

I don’t want to un­der­mine the great tra­di­tion of read­ing from the To­rah and the sense of pride it can give a child. But what hap­pens to the kids who are not mu­si­cal? Or those who are just not good with lan­guages, es­pe­cially when taught in an after-school set­ting, when they are ex­hausted? What hap­pens when the Ju­daism they are pre­sented with is pred­i­cated on skills they may not have?

In fact, in very re­li­gious cir­cles, many avoid hav­ing the bar mitzvah boy read the To­rah, feel­ing it is a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion: If the boy mis­reads the por­tion, the com­mu­nity will have not heard a proper read­ing, plus it will have to pub­licly cor­rect a ter­ri­fied 13-year old. If he does pre­pare well in ad­vance, the con­cern is he will read from his mem­ory, which is also prob­lem­atic ac­cord­ing to the laws of To­rah read­ing (it is not read­ing, but recit­ing by heart). There­fore, many choose to have their chil­dren chant only haf­tarah, the weekly prophetic por­tion, while some will opt out and choose to have their chil­dren not read at all.

Not so in more mod­er­ate cir­cles. I once sug­gested to the par­ents of a bar mitzvah that per­haps the boy read only the last few verses of the read­ing known as the Maftir. The boy’s fa­ther looked at me as though I had sug­gested his son read the Qu­ran in a Lutheran church. “Rabbi, you can’t be se­ri­ous, right?” he de­manded. “My dad made me do the whole par­sha, and so will my son!”

Con­trast this with my class­mate Nati, whose bar mitzvah struck me as par­tic­u­larly en­vi­able — and par­tic­u­larly mean­ing­ful. The year after my bar mitzvah, I started study­ing at the flag­ship Haredi Pon­evezh Yeshiva high school in Bnei Brak. There I met Nati, who came from an il­lus­tri­ous Haredi fam­ily; his fa­ther had writ­ten a To­rah com­men­tary that you can find in al­most ev­ery beit midrash, or Jewish study hall, around the world. When I asked Nati, a smart, gen­tle stu­dent, what he and his fam­ily were do­ing for his bar mitzvah, he told me, sim­ply, later that night, after the af­ter­noon study ses­sion, he would go home for a small fam­ily din­ner, at which he would share some thoughts he had pre­pared on the To­rah. That was it.

Too of­ten, a bar mitzvah be­comes an end goal, a check­list item, for a fam­ily. Once the party is over, the child won’t re­turn to sy­n­a­gogue for

The ques­tion we need to ask is not how well did the bar or bat mitzvah read. In­stead, it should be how much do you love Ju­daism.

years. When a bar mitzvah stu­dent doesn’t come back after he’s done, it’s like a groom and bride go­ing their sep­a­rate ways after the wed­ding is over.

When we speak of stu­dents for whom bar mitzvah prepa­ra­tion is their only for­mal Jewish ed­u­ca­tion, it breaks my heart to see, in the broader com­mu­nity, chil­dren mem­o­riz­ing a lengthy To­rah por­tion, painstak­ingly study­ing the melodies, while they re­main to­tally ig­no­rant of the very ba­sics of Ju­daism. Too many Amer­i­can bar mitzvah stu­dents can­not an­swer sim­ple ques­tions about our tra­di­tion: Who is Sarah? Who is Joseph? Who is Mai­monides? What did King Solomon build? What is the mean­ing of the Shema prayer?

Don’t get me wrong — I am not one for re­plac­ing a To­rah read­ing with a “mitzvah project” or a speech alone. A bar or bat mitzvah ex­pe­ri­ence must be built around deep study of the To­rah, and pos­i­tive Jewish ex­pe­ri­ences. And as for the child who is up to read­ing it — that’s great. There’s great value in the abil­ity to stand be­fore one’s com­mu­nity and lead the ser­vice or read­ing.

But the ques­tion we need to ask is not how well did the bar or bat mitzvah read. In­stead, it should be how much do you love Ju­daism. How many mitzvot do you con­nect to and think you could im­ple­ment in your daily life? When is the next time you will want to come back to sy­n­a­gogue? And most im­por­tant, what are the mem­o­ries you will take with you for life? Will there be pride? At­tach­ment? Cu­rios­ity to open a page of the Tal­mud? Will that in­spire you to be in­volved in a com­mu­nity and be­come a mem­ber? Will you want to start your day with Modeh Ani and fin­ish it with the Shema?

In other words, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on how well the child can read from the To­rah, we should be fo­cus­ing on teach­ing the child to learn it, to love it, and then to live it.

And per­haps then, if we fo­cus first on teach­ing our chil­dren the very foun­da­tions of Ju­daism and Jewish his­tory, rather than tor­tur­ing them with the study of a for­eign lan­guage and melody, maybe then they’ll come back to sy­n­a­gogue after the bar mitzvah, too.

I have a con­fes­sion to make: I have not read from the To­rah since my bar mitzvah. Al­most two decades past my bar mitzvah, mul­ti­ple rab­binic or­di­na­tions, and six years of full-time rab­binic ex­pe­ri­ence — and I still do not read from the To­rah.

To all those chil­dren who can’t get the melody right, or struggle with lan­guages, I tell them we have enough good chanters; we just need more good Jews.

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