Sunday, June 1, 2008

On Bars and Mitzvahs

On Bars and Mitzvahs

"If I had the power, I would annul the bar mitzvah ceremony as it is observed in our country because it is known that this ceremony has not brought anyone closer to the Torah and the commandments - not even the boy himself, not even for one hour. On the contrary, in many places, it actually brings [participants] to desecrate the Sabbath and to commit other transgressions. . . ."

With these words, HaRav HaGaon HaRav Moshe Feinstein, who along with HaRav HaGaon HaRav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik was one of the two preeminent Torah sages of the past half century, gave expression to the deep frustration felt by so many American Jewish spiritual leaders who have watched the institution of the "Bar Mitzvah" spiral away from its historic religious moorings. Where it once existed to introduce a Jewish boy into the obligations of religious manhood, it now serves all-too-often as the youngster's exit door from further Jewish study.

The Bar Mitzvah should be a spiritually rewarding and religiously meaningful stepping-stone along the path of a Jewish Day School education. It should be a moment for formalizing Torah knowledge and religious responsibility and practice. Instead, the contemporary American bar mitzvah is the stuff of material excess and secular parody. Often, it is vile. The rabbi is lost amid the photographer, the videographer, the orchestra, the florist, and the Grand Caterer. And the boy ("bar mitzvah") or girl ("bat mitzvah") is lost even more hopelessly. The ceremony should focus on preparing the child to address the congregational community, speaking wisely about the Torah portion and about Jewish spiritual values. Instead, too many parents are satisfied merely with handing the child a tape recording of an Haftorah portion and telling the poor child to memorize chanting it with a transliterated text.

The Haftorah ultimately becomes a passing comet in the Jewish child's life that, like Haley's and other such, may reasonably be expected to pass through the Western horizon for four minutes once every several years. If one looks at the right place at the right moment, one may briefly detect it: "Uh, I think that was my bar mitzvah haftorah that just passed by. Did you see it?" But if he or she steps out for a moment, or turns the wrong way, it will have passed for another year. The Haftorah Comet.

In nearly ten years as a congregational rabbi and a yeshiva faculty member, I never met a single child who spoke fondly of the bar mitzvah party as a spiritually meaningful event. At best, it is remembered with a smile. More often, it is recalled with profound disdain, even contempt.

Why do we Jews try passing along our heritage to our children, in the first place?

For some, it is because we believe that G-d created the universe, put us here for a holy purpose, and challenged us to be worthy of His selection by living the Torah life. So we want to teach that Torah to our children, to pass on the central message of our existence. For others less religious among us, we instead seek primarily to preserve a precious culture or memories of a family history. In one way or another, we feel we have something meaningful to transmit. None of this is transmitted in the bar mitzvah party.

Rather, the bar mitzvah becomes an occasion for material excess, often garishness and ostentatious waste, and frequently a fiscal undertaking that presses a family to its financial limits. It is not about the Haftorah but about the smorgasbord, not about the Torah but about the liquor selection and the floral display. Thus, it is not about the mitzvah but about the bar. And it is not about the rabbi's role in influencing the child's spiritual evolution but about the caterer's sculpted presentation of chopped liver.

Even if we all were fantastically wealthy, we could not countenance spending obsessively and excessively on these four-hour events. However, many parents cannot in the first place afford the affairs they sponsor. To finance them, they borrow heavily. They apply for tuition scholarships from the Jewish Day Schools where their children study, hoping to win community financial assistance to help offset their efforts to equal their neighbors' affairs. The yeshiva tuition application forms typically inquire whether the family spends money on luxurious vacations, fancy cars, and expensive homes. Curiously, yeshivas do not explore the family's spending on bar mitzvahs.

I was lucky. We reared our children in modest communities where many families are more traditional and choose to skip the excessive galas, focusing instead on teaching the children the Torah portions and their rich Jewish heritage, preparing them to address the community on Bat or Bar Mitzvah Day with words of Torah. So, for our children, we invited their friends and our immediate family. We spent some money, made nice kiddush luncheons on Shabbat day. And our children felt enriched and special. None felt deprived. Several years later, for whatever issues my children may feel we could have done better as parents, none of my three daughters has expressed regret that her Bat Mitzvah was celebrated modestly.

In many ways, the contemporary Bar Mitzvah spectacle evidences a generation whose rabbis lack the courage and greatness to lay down the law. When a rabbinical body wants adherents to eat only a particular type of meat, that body knows how to inspire and enforce community discipline. They can declare kosher meat unacceptable and enforce adherence. They can convince parents to buy black fedoras for boys, and impose social stigma against the un-fedora'd. In some communities, they can create a social pressure to hang a certain rabbi's picture in living rooms and in restaurants near the cash register. Rabbinical boards can define and legislate standards of community kashrut, Sabbath observance, and so much more.

But when it comes to clamping down on the horribly disturbing material excesses of the American Bar Mitzvah Machine, there is virtually no rabbinical leadership, no greatness, no courage. Just tacit shoulder-shrugging. "I am only the rabbi here. What can I do?"

In part, rabbinical weakness lies with the nature of synagogue funding. Many congregations rely on in-house catering for significant financing. They make money off Bar Mitzvahs, much as they do off the in-house Bingo games that other religions brought to America and from dice-rolling, wheel-spinning Las Vegas Nights. It is hard to turn away a golden goose, even if the fleecing is patent.

Still, in my twenty years of community leadership, I have never once met a single young person who felt inspired by the bar mitzvah party. Even as I look back on my own bash that paralleled those of all my friends back in the 1960s, I remain grateful solely for the $250 that my parents paid Mr. Golub to teach me to chant the Torah portion in accordance with the traditional cantillation. I have put that skill to use many dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times since. By contrast, I do not remember what was served at the smorgasbord or which flowers were displayed.

I do, however, seem to remember that the color pattern was blue.

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