The Jewish Humanist, January 1982
It deserves a celebration.
Most cultures arrange for one. A new adult is a useful addition to a traditional family. He is a promising asset to a struggling community.
Even in a modern industrial urban society growing up is important to more than the individual. Every society needs the talents and skills of its young people. They are the promise of the future.
Judaism arranged to celebrate this experience in a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah. It was for boys alone. And it was fairly uniform. Reading from the Torah or some other book of the Bible became the ritual, since the Torah was the constitution, it represented adult responsibility.
Now we in the Birmingham Temple, as proponents of Humanistic Judaism, find growing up to be a significant experience. But we find the traditional way of celebrating it to be less than adequate.
A good Jewish 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 future of this important celebration. Above all, at a moment when a child is reviewing his idealism and testing his commitments, sincerity should be a minimal requirement.
A good ceremony should provide inspiration. The adolescent should be able to focus on his interests and his 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 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 has real roots in the Jewish past. He may not be able to identify with his grandfathers’ dietary habits. But he can identify with his 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 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 thirteen to celebrate the beginning of adolescence and a mitzvah (confirmation) at a later age (16 or beyond) to mark the entrance into adulthood.
These seven criteria have guided the development of our own growing up ritual. They define our goals. In the years to come our procedures may change. But our moral requirements will continue to direct change to valid alternatives.