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Literature, Poetry, Theory/
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
What Should Not Be Celebrated for a Bar Mitzvah?

Avi Zaira

One should and there is a need to destroy a synagogue in order to build a new synagogue in its place . C.N. Bialik


Tal, my firstborn son, in Iyar this year it will be 13 years since you were born. I am happy to say it will not be marked in synagogue and by going up to the Torah. Instead, I suggested to him (and he agreed, even quite happily I think) to have a tour in Israel following in our family’s footsteps and the sites with Jewish and Zionist significance. In order to understand how we reached this solution, I will share with you my thoughts about this ceremony – the Bar Mitzvah.

Bar Mitzvah, like all the other celebratory festivals, is rooted in an ancient world. This means, before “the big bang” of modern times. Like any other ceremony or cultural symbol, it is a result of the conditions of the environment and the awareness of its time (back then some two thousand years ago). From various sources we know that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony is the result of a decision by the adult world (a rabbi or parents or a community) whereby the timing of the Bar Mitzvah boy (and in some of the sources we also see considerable attention turned to the daughter) was very significant for them. In the ancient world, not only the Jewish world, there was great significance to the social functioning of every member of the community or the extended family, mainly around 2 decisive questions of existence: bearing the burden of financial existence and the ability or the authorization to bring children into the world. In the ancient world, these affirmative answers were proposed due to one differentiation, the end of a shorter life expectancy when the child was obligated to enter the adult world with all its heavy responsibilities (which is known today in the Jewish language as the burden of commandments).

The Bar Mitzvah, if so, is what is known in sociology as “a transition ceremony” to differentiate from “a festival” (and therefore, a cyclic world). The transition ceremony attempts to draw its validity from the timing of when it takes place. The social role in culture that marks for the celebrant and the rest of the participants is that he enters with a certain identity and comes out, at the end of the ceremony, with another identity, a completely new one.

In this way, it can be understood why other transition ceremonies such as birth and funerals, continue also in our times (and it would seem forever more, for as long as there will be human society) to experience significant and obligatory life ceremonies: the living becomes dead, the newborn becomes a baby, and thereafter, conversely, one can understand why the status of the engagement and/or wedding ceremonies have decreased, as to differentiate from the past, there is no real significance to life after the ceremony when the reality does not change from the time before the transition ceremony to the time after it; the first thing injured by this is the transition ceremony itself which has lost its validity and its necessity.

Let’s return to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony:

In the ancient world there was, firstly, the social reality of financial, familial, legal, bodily and psychological roles. Thereafter, culture arrived and created a ceremony that would give a symbolic and cultural official stamp. Starting from the 18th century, with the creation of the modern labour market, with the discovery of human and individual rights, with the opening of schools and with the lengthening of the life span of the individual, a new period started in human life, that is “adolescence”.  Within only several generations the culture started to discover that another important link had been added to the early stages of the growth of an the individual in the previous generations, when it did not exist at all (apart from during a short intermediate period in preparation for the final and decisive test of adulthood like the trek in the forest for the Native Americans or going up to the Torah for the Jews). Like the disconnection process of the continents since they were created as one large block of land, we are witnesses to the journey of distancing of some 200 years according to which the cultural continent is disconnecting from the reality continent:  the Bar Mitzvah ceremony has been maintained meticulously and conservatively, although it has no grasp in the social reality of today. Its only validity comes from the past and not from the present (as as it has been claimed here, it is the only validity for the transition ceremony). The boy or the girl who move from age 12 to age 13, has no significance in the eyes of the adult society: the State has not legislated any specific law for this age (the Minors Law is imposed from the age of 16), the parents will continue to be amazed/disappointed by the continued non-readiness of their children to continue to be spoilt and to take responsibility for any dimension of their lives and thus too the community around them will not ask itself whether that same neighbour’s child is now a “young man” or an “adult”. This picture is correct throughout the western world and even amongst orthodox groups, there is a huge decrease in regard to concepts of responsibility and independence of their adolescents and for them too, for the most part, there is no fundamental difference between the lives of the adolescents before the ceremony and after it.

The importance of symbols is reinforced specifically when there is a disconnection or a revolution or time changes. For example, one can explain why the kibbutzim fought during the time of the Zionist revolution, for the preservation of the festivals, welcoming the Sabbath, circumcision and funeral ceremonies. This is the way of modern man to experience and tell himself that he is continuing the past of his people, although in the present lives are so different from those of his forefathers. This continuation of the past, passed through the need to correlate the contents of the symbol to the new values, however not to renounce the presence, that is to say the timing (the Shavuot festival and the parade of tractors of the Ein Harod kibbutzim ensured to celebrate on the 6th Nissan, that is to say on the festival itself, in which, as is known, work is prohibited). While the festivals in the calendar are indifferent to the lives of man and therefore, they receive validity from nature or history or God, the transition ceremonies are derived and obligate a precise stage for which there is one individual. The transition ceremony must be like an accurate watch, otherwise if you miss the date it will be the time for someone else (another child, who celebrated the same ceremony in the 12th century for example).

So we have to decide: Should we adhere to the symbol or to the time?

Those adhering to the symbol, that is the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, illustrates Jewish culture outside of life. Even if we renew the words of the Haftara and the child gives a great homily, even if it is held in a reform synagogue and not in “an ultra orthodox” one, even if they take away the commandments and add 13 assignments in the kibbutz, even if they are called up to the Torah at the Western Wall, or pay a fortune for a party with fireworks (and let’s not forget the famous sentence: “and thank you to my parents for getting me to this place today”) for the decisive majority the ceremony will have no validity or significance on the following day, apart from the photographs on the computer and the promised trip overseas. In the long term this ceremony will be within the realm of another visit to a Jewish museum, and commemoration of a culture that is dead and buried. It is no wonder that for many of us, secular Jews, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony becomes the last time that we encounter something called “Judaism”, which is the exact opposite of the traditional intent according to which the Bar Mitzvah serves as an entry into the world of Judaism. Both for the (various types) of religious Jews and for the (anti and open minded) secular Jews, the Bar Mitzvah serves as a detached and not a living, symbol as such that it does not talk in any way about their lives but rather about the lives of millions of Jews who lived prior to the modern era, which for whom, this ceremony did serve, as a living and accurate symbol of their lives. Precisely because I am not prepared for my Judaism to become Yiddishkeit, to something that has to be “because everyone does it”, I want to create a genuine ceremony of transition, living, relevant. That is to say, the problem is the not the ceremony and its wording but rather its context. There is no important to “how?” but rather to “when?”

To start with I suggest to all those who aspire to reconnect with the “continent of Judaism” and the “continent of Jews” to design a new Jewish ceremony, which will be based in our sources, which will move us and raise us to the ceremonial celebration, which in another hundred years will be considered as the essence of Judaism and one of its most important ceremonies, and not the recruitment to the IDF. It will be a binding ceremony, which answers all the criteria which our forefathers offered to the question of what is a life transition ceremony: 1. That the one entering it, comes out with a totally new identity, 2. That all the participants – the celebrant, the parents, the community and the State – acknowledge the reality of his new life, 3. That he has a genuine status in the test of entering adulthood such as: responsibility for the other, a driving licence, to exist more independently regarding time spent at home and more, 4. And most importantly – that he experiences values and a lifestyle that we believe in whole heartedly, in all the rest of the days of the year. In this sense, we will repair the Bar Mitzvah symbol from its detachment, and we will reinforce our Jewish lives here in our country.

(And I have still not said anything about the desire of many secular Jews to do a Bar Mitzvah “as it should be done”, to dress up as religious Jews, go to synagogue and go up to the Torah. Until we, as secular Jews, do not succeed in carrying out all our holy moments, our revolution will not be over. But that is for another time……).

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