Coming of Age Manual
Why bar mitzvahs?
Why do humanistic Jews have bar mitzvahs?
After all, the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony celebrates the arrival of a young man to Jewish adulthood at the age of thirteen and his eligibility to abide by all the commandments of the Torah.
Of what significance can a ceremony have which violates three fundamental principles of a reasonable and humanistic commitment?
We obviously reject, on the basis of present childhood development, the age of thirteen as the time when boys become men.
We also reject any celebration which derives from male chauvinism and which denies girls equal honor to that of boys.
We certainly accept the Torah as important Jewish literature. But we reject the validity of its worldview and the binding character of its laws.
Even classical Reform, which subscribed to only two. of these objections, dispensed with the bar mitzvah ceremony altogether and replaced it with a class confirmation.
There are several reasons why.
The bar mitzvah ceremony is an old ceremony. As in all ancient cultures, the celebration of puberty is an ancient practice. Throughout the centuries it has gone through many changes and has not remained the same for long. The first bar mitzvah ceremony had nothing at all to do with the reading from the Torah (since the Torah did not even exist at that time). It was a circumcision rite, which offered the foreskin as an appeasement to the gods, tested the boy’s ability to endure pain and prepared him for sexual activity as an adult male. The practice of calling bar mitzvah boys to do the final reading of the Sabbath Torah portion is comparatively recent. It goes back to the beginning of the fourteenth century, and started only as a local custom.
The essence of the historic bar mitzvah ceremony is not allegiance to the Torah. It is the celebration of the arrival of puberty. When the circumcision ceremony was moved to birth, a long period of no celebration intervened before alternatives emerged.
Thirteen is an important age for both boys and girls in our culture. It no longer marks the advent of adulthood. But it does indicate the arrival of adolescence. Adolescence is a recent development. In a modern industrial society, children are not able to enter the work force at thirteen. They require more training for the jobs they will choose. Adolescence is that difficult teenage period between childhood and maturity when the preparation for adult life continues. Entering the teenage years is an important turning point in a child’s life. His/her body changes. His/her school changes. His/her needs change. Reassurance from his/her community that he/she is competent and recognition from his/her family that he/she is important are psychic boosts along the way. Thirteen is a perfect time for a public ceremony — not to celebrate the approach of adulthood, but to mark the reality of adolescence.
For humanistic Jews, with a commitment to the philosophy of secular humanism, religion is not a matter of gods and worship. It is essentially the celebration of community and community bonds. Connecting with people in shared beliefs, shared emotions and shared celebrations is our religious experience. Holidays which honor ancestors and which commemorate group events are, therefore, important. Life cycle ceremonies, where significant changes in the lives of individual members are acknowledged by the community and related to the survival of the group, are also basic to fellowship. Celebrating the growth of a child is celebrating the continuity of the congregation. It is as important to the group as it is to the child.
The ceremony does not have to be male chauvinist. Both the Reconstructionists and the Reformers have been doing Bat Mitzvah for many years. It is just a matter of having the girls do what boys do. While it is difficult to turn the ceremony of phallic circumcision into a girl’s ceremony, it is easy to adjust a talking experience to accommodate female needs. In fact, there is no need to designate the celebration Bar Mitzvah (Bat Mitzvah), where women always end up inside the parentheses. One can simply name it the Mitzvah Ceremony. If you want to ‘Bar’ it, you can ‘Bar’ it. If you want to ‘Bat’ it, you can ‘Bat’ it. After all, in popular Hebrew and Yiddish, the word mitzvah means more than ‘commandment’. It also means ‘good deed’. And the ceremony is indeed a good deed for the child and the community.
Since the historic mitzvah ceremony has been changing throughout Jewish history, another radical change is not inappropriate. Obviously, a required reading from the Torah and from other parts of the Bible is inconsistent with a humanistic approach to Judaism. First of all, the Bible is essentially a theistic document. And, secondly, given the range of Jewish experience and literature, it is too narrow in its focus. Of course, there is no dearth of effective alternatives. Selecting a hero or role model from the Jewish past, researching his/her life and sharing that research with the community is one alternative. Presenting an answer to an important ethical or historic question of Jewish interest is another. Sharing a progress report on some activity of community service is still another. Whatever project is chosen should be more than nostalgia. It should celebrate the emerging talents and skills of the young adolescent. And it will provide families and humanistic congregations with bonding experiences that are more than nostalgia.
There is no reason why a developing child should have only one development ceremony. While the mitzvah celebration marks the entry into adolescence, another celebration should be available to mark the beginning of adulthood (the original purpose of the bar mitzvah festivity). In many respects, the Confirmation ceremony developed by the Reform movement is a precedent for such an event. During the past fifty years, the age of Confirmation has been moved forward to fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. The drawback of the arrangement has been the exclusive use of class graduations, and the avoidance of individual celebrations. As a result, Confirmation has never been able to equal the power of the bar/bat mitzvah event. A group ceremony cannot provide the ego satisfaction that an individual celebration confers.
As an experiment, the original Confirmation was a creative alternative. But it needs considerable reshaping. It needs to be an individual ceremony. It needs to be identified with a personal birthday. It needs to be linked directly with adulthood. Given our present culture and legal system, the eighteenth birthday anniversary seems an appropriate time. However, it is tied up with departure from high school and entry into college. There are too many distractions to allow the student to prepare properly for a significant celebration. Sixteen is less ‘adultish’. But it is an age which popular culture has associated with growing up parties and the right to drive. It is also the beginning of the child’s emergence from adolescence.
Confirmation (and the word, borrowed from the Lutherans, may not be the best word we can use), is for us an entrance into adulthood ceremony. It is individual. It occurs near the student’s sixteenth birthday. It allows the student to demonstrate his intellectual and emotional skills as an emerging adult by encouraging him to present his research to the community on a subject of historic or ethical concern. It is distinct from the mitzvah celebration and requires different preparation.
Mitzvah and Confirmation do for us what the old bar mitzvah tried to do for our ancestors. In an age that invented adolescence, we need more than one ceremony.
The danger is that many humanistic Jews will assume that the mitzvah experience means more than it does — that it pretentiously suggests manhood and womanhood. Therefore, it is important to remember that Mitzvah without Confirmation is incomplete — and that, of the two ceremonies, Confirmation is obviously the more important.
A good Jewish growing up ceremony should satisfy the following criteria.
It should provide for equality. It should be available to both boys and girls. Bar mitzvah should be complemented by bat mitzvah. In fact, calling it simply the mitzvah ceremony avoids the hassle. The Hebrew word mitzvah means ‘commandment’ and suggests that the celebrant is now eligible to be responsible for the requirements of his own life.
It should provide integrity. The symbols and words should honestly express what the celebrant believes and what the community stands for. If the Torah is only a famous book and no longer the constitution of humanistic Jews, it should not be the central feature of this important celebration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his/her idealism and testing his/her commitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.
A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his/her interests and his/her talents and find connection with those who share them. An arbitrary Biblical reading is too impersonal to be meaningful. Choosing a ‘heroic’ figure out of the Jewish past or present who can serve as a role model to the boy or girl and who captures the enthusiasm of the student, makes a lot more sense.
A good ceremony should provide a sense of competence, a feeling of achievement. The student should believe that he/she is now able to do something well that adults normally do. Presenting a competent lecture to an adult audience may be only one of many options. (On the secular kibbutzim in Israel, community service is stressed.) But it is certainly an effective one.
A good ceremony should reinforce a sense of roots. Jewish roots from the humanistic perspective, are not only religious roots. They are secular ones also. Music, dance, humor, science and business are as much a part of Jewish culture as worship.
It is very important that the student feel that he/she has real roots in the Jewish past. He/she may not be able to identify with his/her grandparents’ dietary habits. But he/she can identify with their love of family.
A good ceremony should allow the community to experience its own ideals and its own commitments. The celebration is not only for the child. It is especially for the assembly of adults who need periodic opportunities to affirm their own beliefs. A young adult is an important symbol to a congregation. He/she is an expression of hope.
A good ceremony, above all, should occur at the right age. In a modern urban culture, thirteen is hardly the entrance to adulthood. It barely makes adolescence. However, it is a time of important physical and mental changes. The most creative alternative is to have two optional ceremonies — the mitzvah at thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adolescence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.
Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation ceremonies are special opportunities to reinforce Jewish identity, humanistic behavior and community solidarity. We need them — and we need to mold them to our integrity.