There are subjects one cannot afford to write about right away, things that need some time and reflection, cooling down, perhaps a change of circumstances like not having a pulpit anymore. So there you go, let’s talk about bene mitzvah (that’s the plural of bar / bat mitzvah), the quintessential rite of passage we all love to hate.
On my way to work, and given the season, I pass in front of a neighbor’s yard, scarcely decorated for the holidays, where a lawn sign reminds passers-by that it is time to “keep Christ in Christmas.” To me Christmas is overwhelming: the crowds going crazy at the malls, season’s songs pumping from loudspeakers since shortly after Halloween, and the overall commercialization of the event. I imagine that if Jesus’ birth were central to my faith, this pageant of consumerism would be almost insulting. My neighbor’s message is clear: celebrating Christmas is all good and well if you believe, but do not take away the real meaning of the holiday.
I believe we have done pretty much the same with bene mitzvah (from now on, BM), a name that means “sons or daughters of the precept.” We have just taken the mitzvah away and made it all about sons and daughters, introducing in it a serious devirtualization. This rite of passage –rather new in our cultural history– marks the moment where Jews are considered adults, and thus responsible for the observance of the commandments, a new status they mark by getting the honor of being called to the Torah and counted for minyan for the first time, an action often accompanied by another adulthood responsibility, leading the prayers. Therefore, let’s ask ourselves what should BM be and what have they become instead.
1. BMs are not passive sacraments. In spite of the common usage, the passive participle barmitzvaed does not exist. Kids reach the age of BM or celebrate their BM, but the ritual is not sacramental, that is, not an hocus-pocus that makes you Jewish. What is more, it will happen anyway, at age 13, ready or not, ceremony or not: you will be an adult in Jewish terms. You may skip your birthday cake the day you turn 18, but you will still be an adult and have the right to vote.
2. BMs are a community celebration, not a family affair. The congregation receives a new member with full rights by giving him or her a role in the service. Instead, it has become a day where families exert full pressure on ritual committees imposing their demands, and everybody accepts it thinking that it’s a “family function” and not a kehilah function. I have seen parents requesting that for their BM the whole congregation should use a children’s siddur, or that all aliyot should be given to family members, or that they want a minchah BM so that only family and friends attend and the kid doesn’t feel intimidated. So much for a kehilah affair.
3. BMs are a beginning of a life of learning and mitzvot, not a graduation from Judaism. Let’s face it: as soon as the last of their kids is “barmitzvaed” most families leave the synagogue. Parents can’t wait for Hebrew school obligations to finish and they shamelessly verbalize it. What is worse, rabbis, cantors and ritual committees buy into it without sounding the alarm. After all, the kid will come back when they have children of their own in order to repeat the circle of non-sense.
4. BMs are a challenge to make kids competent and proud of their achievement, not a watered down version for show off. Some kids are really prepared and take it seriously, but for most of them it is all about memorizing 3 Torah verses without understanding a word, and reading a transliterated haftarah in a Hebrew so poorly pronounced that no Hebrew speaker can follow. But G-d forbid we dare to delay their BM: the magic rite has to happen at the right time. And who will ask the parents to go through another year of the agony of participating in Jewish life? By the way, unless you consistently pronounce Ashkenazi Hebrew, please try to pronounce it “haf-tah-RAH,” less people go around thinking they learned their Torah and their half-Torah.
5. BMs should be meaningful, not superficial. This should be obvious, until you encounter frivolities like a shopping themed bat mitzvah, with the bimah adorned with huge palm trees in giant shopping paper bags, and parents’ speeches praising the kid’s high fashion taste and complaining about shopping sprees on their American Express. Yes, this was the main message, and no, I am not making this out.
6. BMs should be culturally reaffirming and deeply Jewish. It is all right to borrow from other cultures: Jews have done it successfully throughout history. Even some Christian weddings borrow from us and use a flower-adorned huppah. However we should know what are we borrowing and why. This is the case of beginning the BM banquet by lighting 6 or 7 candles, a ritual borrowed from Hispanic quinceañera celebrations You call your family and friends by turns to light a candle in memory of a deceased relative or for celebration. The problem is that you just became obligated by the mitzvot and the first thing you do is to transgress Shabbat by inviting people –including your hazzan– to make a fire on Shabbat. Yes it is cute. Now, can it wait until sundown?
7. A BM should be an opportunity for non-practicing Jews to experience vibrant Judaism, not to overtake and kidnap the service. This can be a great family opportunity to learn: anybody can learn aliyot, compose poems, learn how to raise the scroll, etc. This should be carefully planned. Do not assume people know what they are supposed to do (remember they often left the synagogue as soon as they turned 13!). Otherwise you end up with your cousin looking totally puzzled when asked to open the ark, as if it were the first time he sees an ark in his whole life. Later he will probably greet the rabbi and make excuses such as that he belongs to another Jewish denomination and that’s why he didn’t know what to do. By the way, disaffected relatives are an interesting phenomenon in itself. How can you tell a non-Jew from a disaffected BM relative? The non-Jew wears kippah and stands and sits with the congregation out of respect. The disaffected relative sits there with a blank stare, not opening the siddur or reading in English, looking at the rabbi in the eye as if saying: “I don’t buy into this and I will let you know with my attitude.”
8. BMs should be reaffirmations of identity, not insurances of identity. We do not extend tribal certificates, and yet people will argue that they are indeed Jewish because they were “batmitzvaed and all” or tell you they are very bad Jews because they even didn’t “get barmitzvaed.” In our days, progressive parents would rather skip circumcision than BM. And yet, BM is not sacramental, nor magically imbues the person with Jewish identity. Rather, it makes kids stand in the crowd and proclaim their Jewishness, even in spite of being part of mixed families. We should focus on this reaffirmation of identity.
9. Most kids are not operatic singers. They are there to act as shelihe tzibur. The rest of us is not there to admire their often cracking voice, but to participate in the prayers he or she is leading. Why should we stop saying the Shema so that we can hear a kid mumble through it?
10. A BM is not about kids, it’s about newly minted adults being welcomed to the kehilah. We should be moving on from pediatric Judaism. In fact, it is time to evaluate what pediatric Judaism has brought us: BM mills, school-centered versus mitzvah and limud-centered synagogues, dumbing down and loss of richness. A good example of it is using Shabbat morning melodies all the time, from Friday night to Yom Kippur, just “because that’s what kids learn at Hebrew school.” There are plenty of examples more, such as sanitized divre torah; model seders as the only seder the family will attend this year; school Sukkot parties as the only Sukkot; the total disappearance of Shavuot simply because it falls outside of Hebrew school calendar, etc.
11. Finally, BM celebrations should be socially mindful and not wasteful. What is the value we are teaching the youngsters when a BM becomes a crazy mini wedding? Welcoming a kid to the community and celebrating it should be an equalizing event, not a display of the economic cliff between the haves and the have-nots. Let us plan real mitzvah projects that teach kids and adults that we live in a broken world but that we can do a lot to fix it. Placing a couple of empty boxes at the entry of the synagogue so that other people can bring cans of food, or spending two afternoons at the animal shelter playing with puppies may give the kid a check-out of a mitzvah project, but will hardly teach her anything about responsibility towards humanity
As a maturity rite of passage, it is perfectly ok to delay a BM. Some of the best BM I have seen are celebrations involving adults and older children. So let’s bring the mitzvah back where it belongs.