Can Bar/Bat Mitzvah Be Saved?

Yes, but American Jews will have to do some serious thinking about the age of that rite of passage.

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

Last week, you would have hardly known that there were peace talks happening in Jerusalem. That wasn’t the biggest Jewish news.

No, that prize goes to the viral Sam Horowitz bar mitzvah dance video.

I have spent the better part of my career thinking about bar/bat mitzvah. Ever since I wrote Putting God On The Guest List: How To Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights) I have seen how the trends in bar/bat mitzvah have evolved.

The good news: As I travel around the country, talking about bar and bat mitzvah, people tell me that unfettered glitz has become passe. Tikkun olam is now hotter than Sam Horowitz – who, let the record note, gave a nice piece of money to tzedakah. Check out The Mitzvah Project Book (Jewish Lights) to learn how to do it.

The not-so-good news: The American Jewish cult of the self has spawned the private bar/bat mitzvah industry. Rabbis and free-lance teachers hire themselves out to families. They’ll bring a Torah and do the ceremony … wherever. It could be a local restaurant, or an exotic locale, with no one there except the family and the scenery. Communal connection? Nope. Responsibility? Nope. Synagogue affiliation? Nope.

Approximately fifty per cent of our post-pubescent Jewish kids drop out after bar/bat mitzvah. And so do their families. You can practically hear the synagogue doors slamming right after Ein Keloheinu at the last child’s ceremony.

All of this leads to a heretical question: Is thirteen still the “right” age for Jewish maturity?

The Bible didn’t think so. There, the age of majority is twenty. That age doesn’t get reduced until the sages decide, as quoted in Pirkei Avot: “at thirteen, ready for mitzvot.” That age of thirteen becomes a legal category of Jewish ritual and moral responsibility.

The passage from Pirkei Avot continues: “At eighteen, ready for the huppah.” Actually, in America today, it’s “at eighteen, ready for the meal plan.” So, why cling to thirteen as the age of Jewish maturity – especially when people are living longer and adolescence now actually lasts longer than ever before? (Watch re-runs of “Girls” on HBO and you will see what I mean).

My Reform ancestors got it. They invented the group ceremony of confirmation. It was more intellectual, academic and about what Jews believe. It wasn’t about biological age; it was about being in, say, tenth grade. It was also highly social. And we have come to understand that Jewish education is far beyond the formal stuff. It’s the Jewish Holy Trinity: youth activities; camp; Israel trips.

So, my modest, even Swiftian, proposal. Move bar/bat mitzvah from thirteen to seventeen – that is, to the senior year in high school.

Introducing a new American Jewish ceremony: Ben/bat Torah, “old enough for Torah.” Same basic arrangement as bar/bat mitzvah: Torah portion, haftarah, lead service, give devar Torah. Keep it as a solo ceremony. Kids need individual rites of passage – a test, an ordeal, a moment of public wrestling.

Why move it to that age? Because, in American society today, thirteen just doesn’t matter the way it once did. What’s the real moment of passage? When you’re ready to leave home and go to college, work, the military. By then, our young people are more intellectually mature. It would be a way for the community to say: “We have educated you, nourished you, nurtured you with all the wisdom that we have at our disposal. Now, take this Torah and enter the world with it.” (You want a biblical source for seventeen? That’s how old Joseph was when he left home. True – it didn’t start that well, but it all worked out in the end).

Look at what American Judaism invented in the last century alone: bat mitzvah, baby-namings for girls in synagogues, same sex wedding ceremonies. When certain ceremonies lose their historical rationale (i.e., pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the first born), we either re-interpret it or put it in the liturgical attic. We have ceremonies and blessings for everything – and those that we don’t have, we invent.

At the very least, can we have a large communal conversation about the meaning of Jewish maturity? What Jewish hopes and expectations do we have for our children? What do we want them to experience? What do we want them to feel? (Note to self: mission statements for Jewish families. Help families create them. Think about it.)

What should they know? A Jewish way of looking at abortion, stem cell research, sexuality, torture, drones, the ethics of war, assisted suicide?

How about this: a huge number of Jewish kids are going to be having their first major conversation about Israel at around the same time they are unpacking their duffel bag in the dorm room. It’s going to come from their suite mates or from their professors. It’s going to be about Israeli “apartheid” or something like that. It will not be pretty. By the time they leave home, shouldn’t our kids have learned how to have meaningful conversations about Israel?

And, with all due respect to our thirteen year olds, it will not have happened by then. No way. It can’t.

Jewish parents of America: are we ready to articulate Jewish expectations for our children? Rabbis, cantors, educators, lay leaders: are we making sure that our programs are compelling? What kind of metrics are we prepared to use? How attentive are we to educational and societal trends? Jewish organizations like the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue: your professionals are asking all the right questions. Keep ’em coming.

You know all that time we spent discussing how a Jewish kid dances?

How about some time discussing what Jewish kids know?

Everything else is the sideshow.

Jeffrey Salkin is a noted rabbi, popular lecturer and writer. His books about Jewish religious thought have been published by Jewish Lights and the Jewish Publication Society.

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