Torah and Yad

What is the point of Bar or Bat Mitzvah anyway?

Torah and Yad
Torah and Yad

From time to time I like to recall my own Bar Mitzvah, which took place in Peoria, Illinois. You might think -Oh, the Rabbi- He had to have been perfect when he was 13!

Guess again.

I remember so well I was required to memorize my Bar Mitzvah speech, which had been ghostwritten for me by my Bar Mitzvah tutor, Mr. Goldberg. And I remember -I’ll never forget- I was so nervous that somehow I got stuck on one section and actually repeated it twice. The worst part was that nobody seemed to notice . . . not even Mr. Goldberg.

The amazing thing was that, despite the fact that my Hebrew was far from perfect, my chanting at that time was non-existent, and still is, and my speech was -shall we say -redundant- something magical happened- because that was the day when I first realized that I truly wanted to become a rabbi.

Perhaps because my own Bar Mitzvah was such a turning point in my life, I have always had a special appreciation for what I know this experience at its best can achieve. That is why I am so deeply pained by its frequent abuse. Not much in this Temple, thank God, but just about every place else. And my feelings of pain and disappointment are not unique to me, by any means. In fact, throughout the country there is a growing realization, especially among rabbis, cantors, and educators that things have spun very much out of control.

Rabbi Moses Feinstein, now deceased, but once the leading Orthodox rabbi of the United States even stated: If he had the power he would abolish Bar Mitzvah altogether! This is an Orthodox rabbi speaking; an incredibly strong statement. A well-known Reform rabbi of our Chicago area, Rabbi Herbert Bronstein of Glencoe, went so far 10 years ago as to compare Bar Mitzvah extravagance to the sin of idolatry. This sermon received wide distribution all over the United States, but I don’t think too much has changed on the North Shore (or anywhere else), I’m sorry to say.

I am not ready to abolish Bar Mitzvah but I do believe that our Jewish community is in great need of reclaiming its spiritual significance—of what this day is intended to be—which has gotten lost amid the social whirl. Sinai’s philosophy and style, I don’t have to tell you, stands out as being virtually unique in the Bar and Bat Mitzvah scene, something of which I am very proud. This, incidentally, had a lot to do with why I was attracted to this congregation seven years ago.

No matter how spiritually elevating a religious service may be, it cannot possibly counterbalance the effect of the often elaborate celebrations that we hear so much about and which many of us have attended. And I must confess to you that in my previous congregation in San Diego where there were about 70 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs a year, it was definitely out of control and I felt ill equipped to do much about it to change it, though I spoke on the subject repeatedly. Here we’ve had the opportunity to start over again since it wasn’t that many years ago that we had only one or two Bar Mitzvahs a year. We’re being very careful, by the way, in the ways in which we’re stepping up what we’re doing from year to year.

But let’s go back to the more commonplace Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Contrary to inculcating the Jewish love for learning and of doing mitzvot, these often glitzy adult events convey an unmistakable endorsement of conspicuous consumption and material extravagance. That’s a serious problem.

Through Bar and Bat Mitzvahs we should be motivating young people to seek something higher and better in their own lives than the materialistic values which our society so openly embraces, namely money, ostentation, and social status, but I’m afraid that doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

These are precisely the values -money and materialism- which are so often projected, as if to say: “Forget what you just read about in the synagogue, kids. This party is what it really means to us to be Jewish!” This message comes across loud and clear, not only to “the guest of honor,” but also to every single person in attendance, child and adult, Jew and non-Jew alike, something we should not fail to recognize.

I can’t begin to tell you how often in speaking to various Christian groups about Judaism, many are utterly astonished to learn from me that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah actually is a religious service. Many of them believe that it is basically just a big coming out party when a young person reaches the age of 13, and we do these over-the-top events to celebrate their so called coming of age.

According to our Jewish heritage I should point out that there is absolutely nothing wrong with an exuberant celebration of our sacred events. We are not Puritans and I wouldn’t pretend that we are. Nobody is suggesting that it is inappropriate to celebrate, or even to splurge a little bit. Quite the contrary. In fact, among the huge epic events in the life of the first Jew, Abraham, the Torah notes that Abraham and Sarah made a great feast for their son, Isaac. And the Midrash tells us that this was actually Isaac’s Bar Mitzvah. Of course, this is nonsense, but they’re entitled to say that anyway.

But, at the same time, none of the 613 commandments of the Torah is more emphatic than the commandment which forbids excessive waste and conspicuous consumption for the display of wealth or of social prominence.

The Talmud specifically teaches that we are to avoid any undue material hardships in any matter associated with religious observances. Unfortunately, as I’ve seen it, all too often, people who can scarcely afford such things feel the pressure to emulate their neighbors, creating strains and anxieties for them which are directly contrary to the joy one should have at celebrating such a happy time. In fact, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have heard after a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is over remarks, usually from the mom saying, “Well, it was a great simcha but boy am I glad it’s over!” And I know what she means because the stress associated with the event and the expense often supercede the magic of the event itself.

I don’t think I have to tell you that once again we are entering rather difficult economic times. We are in a recession. In just the last few days there was the closing of several Ford Motor Company plants. It is clear that there are tough times ahead, possibly for some time to come. Many people are or will be struggling. There are many who are losing their jobs, many in our own Temple. There are large numbers of people who are unemployed or on welfare or are having their life’s savings wiped out. And I must tell you that, given the nature of the times in which we are finding ourselves, Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations on the grand scale ought to be deemed inappropriate, a slap “in the face” of people who are having all too tough times just making ends meet.

And I must also say for every comfortable, so-called “intact” family which still can afford to put on an elaborate celebration, there are many others who cannot possibly hope to compete. I am speaking of single parent families, of those of lesser means, and many others for whom the perceived Bar and Bat Mitzvah expectations are simply grossly unfair. The excessive style of celebrating Bar/Bat Mitzvahs is not only contrary to the ethical teachings of our Jewish religion, it is also clearly an affront to those who are having a hard time just making ends meet. Even though perhaps most in this Temple are not in the category of struggling quite as much as those in other places, I believe that the affluent minority has a responsibility to create a standard in which others are able to participate without going in debt. It doesn’t matter that you can afford it. What matters is to lower the bar so that others do not feel they are in an inferior status because they cannot meet that other supposed standard.

We all have had first hand experiences of the various elaborate theme parties, or we’ve heard about them. They are notorious, written up in magazines such as People Magazine to great embarrassment so I don’t have to go into details and recite the horror stories. You will not hear any Bar Mitzvah safari stories from me this morning. But some of the themes and entertainment I hear about really make me wonder how we ever got to where we are today.

I happen to agree that every Bar and Bat Mitzvah should definitely have a theme! I will take it even further—each Bar/Bat Mitzvah demands a theme. But I am not talking about sports, or movie stars, or the Olympics, or one’s favorite places to shop. The themes I have in mind are Judaism, Torah, mitzvot, social responsibility. These are the appropriate themes of any Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Ignore these themes and we take the very heart out of Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Ignore these themes and we take the very heart out of the Jewish religion, period.
We are left with no more than an empty shell of what was once a really wonderful idea.

I am sure there are some who may be saying to themselves right now: “Look, our Bar/Bat Mitzvah is our own private affair. We’ll do with it what we want. We’ll spend our money the way we want to.”

I’m sorry to say I do not agree.

Bar or Bat Mitzvah, as privatized as it may seem to be, is a Jewish communal religious observance which is directly related to the aspirations of the entire Jewish people. For better or for worse, a Bar or Bat/Mitzvah is that which can often make or break a person’s Jewish identify—sometimes even for life. I am here to tell you that that is the case in my life in a positive sense, but am certain that there are other stories that are far more negative.

I personally believe that the Jewish community at large is doing more harm with Bar and Bat Mitzvah than good. It may very well be that many young people, looking back upon their own Bar/Bat Mitzvah over-the-top celebrations, are concluding that Judaism, as they experienced it when they were 13, is not much more than an excuse to have a party or to show off; certainly nothing to be taken all that seriously.

If we are going to put in all the time and effort and expense of these events, then our sons and our daughters and our grandchildren ought to be deriving a much greater benefit than the momentary high of having a fun filled weekend. The purpose of Bar/Bat Mitzvah must be to inculcate in our children the life-long commitments:

. Of living a Jewish life,
. Of conducting themselves with kindness, integrity and humility,
. Of supporting Jewish causes and other philanthropic endeavors throughout the land and of raising their own children as members of our faith community.
. We must always remember this and we have to underscore these ideals as often and as dramatically as we possibly can.

There are some hopeful signs, especially here at Sinai, and as I have said, I am determined to keep it that way. There are some families -many here- who are leading the way by taking steps to do things differently than what is being done in the general Jewish community.

Some are showing great imagination and creativity in making Bar and Bat Mitzvahs authentically spiritual occasions. I see an increasing number of our families effectively connecting their celebrations to meaningful acts of tzedakah, of charity. In fact, there is a wonderful little book, which I recommend to all Bar and Bat Mitzvah families, which contains many appropriate suggestions, entitled appropriately: Putting God on Your Guest List, (by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin).

One small example is the centerpieces, which some families are choosing to put on their tables instead of the usual floral decorations. In fact, we had one such Bar Mitzvah reception just yesterday in our Temple and it was terrific. I have seen artfully arranged foodstuffs, used as the table decorations, which later are distributed to the homeless. Or books for the Temple library. Or school supplies for a school for the learning disabled. And instead of the usual party favors and goodie bags, which mostly are trashed when they come home and are left behind, guests are sometimes presented with a certificate or a little note saying that a tree has been planted in Israel or a charitable donation has been made on behalf of the guest, and to underscore the importance of the occasion.

I am very serious about making a difference on the matter of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I believe that our Temple in its own small way can make a contribution by showing what the possibilities are by remaining focused on what this is all about, by “keeping our eye on the ball.” But I really need the support and the cooperation of all of you and of others far beyond this sanctuary today. Through conversations with friends, family, with our children and grandchildren, we need to begin to encourage one another to do things differently. The pattern has to be broken. It has to start someplace so why not (among other places) with us?

So often Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties appear more to fulfill the social and business obligations of the parents than to be real celebrations for young people. And since the pattern has been established, it is no wonder that children naturally exert pressure on one another. And that’s a problem. I don’t blame them for wanting to have parties that are like the other kids’. That’s just natural. But I do wonder about parents who so readily acquiesce to their children’s peer-pressure induced wishes, without seriously discussing what the real meaning of the occasion is because, after all, that is the role of being a parent—to show our kids that they don’t have to go along with the crowd all the time.

We need to encourage one another to celebrate our simchas in ways that are child and family oriented, instead of these adult centered cocktail parties and dinner dances. Kids’ parties do not have to be opulent in order to be fun or memorable. And we need to remember this. Essentially what we have to do, as Dr. Mann said a very long time ago, is take the “Bar” out . . . and put the “Mitzvah” back in.

We need to affirm, first and foremost, this day marks the beginning of one’s religious responsibilities. No Bar/Bat Mitzvah should be considered complete unless that young person and his or her family include within their observance a significant element of charity and of service to others. Otherwise, I would say what is the point of it all?

Consider the matter of gifts for a moment. Presents, I believe, should have a significant relationship to the meaning of the event itself. When you are invited to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I hope that you will remember this little note, which was recently passed on to me, and I quote:

Dear Joseph (the Bar Mitzvah),

Congratulations on your Bar Mitzvah. Many aspects of the Bar Mitzvah are symbolic and therefore our gifts to you on this occasion are also intended to have symbolism. The enclosed check is for you to spend now on whatever you like. Be good to yourself and at the same time learn the meaning of discretion. The check that is not made out payable to anyone represents charity. Jews traditionally are generous and benevolent. Therefore, please direct this money to a worthy cause of your choice in honor of your Bar Mitzvah.

Now that is a great Bar Mitzvah idea, one that I hope you’ll consider. The next time the occasion presents itself, I hope that you might follow this marvelous example. I would also love for every young person to select a favorite cause and perhaps even to indicate that choice on the invitation.

We all need to work together to reclaim the spiritual meaning of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I am talking about a lot more than what constitutes good taste. I am talking about the future of the Jewish religion itself.

We must keep reminding ourselves, over and over again, that what we are celebrating is a sacred Jewish observance. That is why we must resist what Rabbi Bronstein so aptly called “the relentless commercial colonization of our sacred events.” This is a religious occasion. It is not intended to be like a Mardi Gras, or an evening at a nightclub, or a secular New Year’s Eve party. It should be a joy but the very reason for the celebration must be clear, namely that this is the day when a young person has made a sincere commitment to living a Jewish life. That’s what makes it a simcha!!!

Speaking of commitment, I would be remiss if I did not include one very much related issue. Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not a culminating event, it is a motivating event to go on with the mitzvah of Jewish study. For parents to allow their children simply to walk away from their pledge to continue their religious education, makes . . . I have to say it, friends . . . a mockery of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah no matter how elaborately it may be celebrated.