Lowering the bar for bar and bat mitzvahs

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By J. Martin Rochester

The New York Times ran a front-page story last month with the headline “Repositioning Bar Mitzvahs, to End Drain,” in which it was reported that some 80 Reform congregations across the country are “launching an initiative to stop the attrition [of synagogue membership]  by reinventing the entire bar and bat mitzvah process.” There is no question that Jewish congregations are dwindling in size; aside from well-documented national statistics — The Pew Research Center’s recent national survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” shows that two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue. We have the local examples of Conservative congregations Shaare Zedek and BSKI merging into Kol Rinah, and the now suspended merger talks between Reform bodies Shaare Emeth and Temple Israel, aimed at stabilizing their brethren and budgets. However, it is debatable whether, as the Times suggests, the bar/bat mitzvah is a major source of the problem and whether the elimination or makeover of that time-honored institution offers a solution to the problem.   

Why would one want to do away with what is one of the single most beautiful coming-of-age rituals of any religion or culture in the world, where a young boy or girl is expected to expend weeks in study, preparing to read from the Torah and compose an interpretation (D’var Torah) of that section (the parsha), ultimately summoning the courage to lead the entire congregation in prayer?  Sure, of course, we have all been to bar or bat mitzvahs characterized by “Goodbye Columbus “ excess, where the party is more important than the parsha, and the D’var Torah itself seems to have been written by a parent and merely recited by the child. But for every bar/bat mitzvah that fails to live up to the ideal, there is one like the ceremony I attended recently, where a boy with a speech impediment stood on the bimah before a packed sanctuary and performed brilliantly, as he read fluently from the Torah and delivered an eloquent speech expressing his reflections on the Torah portion. There are few more impressive, confidence-building and character-building endeavors one can imagine than this long-established custom (one that Reform temples were late in adopting, only now to be experiencing second thoughts).  

The Reform rabbis behind the movement to scrap the traditional bar/bat mitzvah argue that, even if families avoid the kind of ostentatiousness captured in a recent YouTube video from Dallas of “a bar mitzvah boy hoofing  it with Vegas-style showgirls,” the institution has become a routinized assembly-line Hebrew School exit project increasingly lacking in meaning. As one professor at Hebrew Union College in L.A. puts it, “What’s the point of getting your 200 or 300 closest friends and family members together  and having your kid read a text they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand?” Moreover, it is argued that the bar/bat mitzvah practice invites the exodus of families from their congregation as many joined initially for the sole purpose of having their 13-year olds undergo that rite of passage, with the understanding they were free to leave the synagogue or temple upon completion of the spiritual odyssey.  

However, perhaps one reason so many Jews leave their congregations, or never affiliate to begin with, is precisely because they do not find true spiritual satisfaction in modern religious services. Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, has noted that church and synagogue attendance in America generally has declined as in Europe, except for “fundamentalist” groups such as Orthodox Jews, which are the only ones expanding their membership. Why, then, would one expect a “contemporary” approach, which purports to make the religious experience more “relevant,” to attract more people to a house of worship?  (There may be grounds to criticize the way in which Orthodox congregations treat bar and bat mitzvahs, but that is a different discussion altogether.)  

The Times noted that many reform-minded rabbis believe the traditional bar/bat mitzvah ceremony should be replaced by a “social action” project that would be more engaging and meaningful to a young person, such as stocking shelves at a food pantry or working at a homeless shelter.  Really?  There is nothing wrong with making tikkun olam projects a part of the bar/bat mitzvah set of expectations – many congregations already do this, which is certainly a noble idea and very worthwhile – but should this be the essence of what “the son (daughter) of the commandment” observance is all about?  Is turning the temple into a soup kitchen a more demanding, more ennobling, and more maturing transition to adulthood than leading the congregation in prayer?  And will substituting ideology for religion keep young people involved in synagogues?  

A friend of mine who I shared the Times article with had this to say: “If kids had a good Jewish education, they would understand the text and the language of the most important document in Judaism.  As a society, we venerate the cheap and easy. We no longer expect hard work and serious commitment.  Soup kitchens are terribly important, but what will distinguish this one from any other if it isn’t also part of a system that was supposed to truly be a light to the nations?”

I cannot help but think this movement is just another example of the dumbing down of education, the growing secularization of the culture, and the demise of our most sacred traditions.  The bar/bat mitzvah represents one of the most profound life cycle moments Judaism or any other faith has ever produced, and it would be a shame to see it go the way of the Dodo bird. Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail among Reform and other Jewish denominations.