In Defense of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Sermon given May 24, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

One Saturday morning, when I was serving a congregation in the Chicago suburbs, I walked into the sanctuary where a Bar Mitzvah was about to take place. To my surprise, all the men in the room were wearing bright red yarmulkes, which looked very much like the head coverings worn by Catholic Cardinals. Another rabbi remarked that it looked like the Pope’s birthday. Later, when we went into the Auditorium, we saw on each table a tremendous center-piece consisting of a basketball goal, several feet high off each table, featuring the logo of the Chicago Bulls. Now, we understood the reason for the bright red kipot. This Bar Mitzvah, like many at that congregation, had a theme. The theme was the Chicago Bulls, whose team color is bright red.

People who know me are aware that I am emphatically not a fan of the Chicago Bulls. However, that was not the reason for my revulsion at the Bar Mitzvah theme. My complaint, instead, was that the emphasis for this life cycle event had been turned away from the religious meaning of the occasion, away from a young man’s acceptance of the Torah, and toward his adoration of a professional basketball team. From time to time, even greater material excesses associated with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah have hit the national press. Who can forget the Bar Mitzvah party held in the Orange Bowl, complete with elephants, or the Bat Mitzvah family who rented out a cruise ship, the QEII, for the party? I was invited to that one!

Excesses like these have caused some Jewish leaders to call for the abolition of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah. If the occasion has become more about the bar, and less about the mitzvah, then synagogues should not support it.

These modern Jewish leaders are not the first to attempt to do away with Bar Mitzvah. A century ago, the founders of Reform Judaism tried to do the same. Materialism, though, was not their problem. They had other criticisms of this life cycle event.

One of their critiques was that Bar Mitzvah was exclusively for boys. Bat Mitzvah had not yet been invented. In its place, the early Reform rabbis substituted Confirmation, which would be for boys and girls together.

Another complaint was the absurdity of calling a thirteen-year-old an adult. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah purports to mark the beginning of a person’s Jewish adulthood. Physiologically, most people do become adults by about age thirteen, with the onset of puberty. However, the passages in the Torah that discuss adulthood generally seem to be talking about individuals who have reached at least age twenty. In fact, there is no mention of Bar Mitzvah in the Bible, and historians don’t believe that there ever was such a ceremony before the Middle Ages. Confirmation, therefore, was proposed as a superior replacement, since it would take place at a more advanced age, more appropriately marking adulthood at about age sixteen.

Another criticism of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah has to do with Jewish education. In many congregations, thankfully not including ours, young people tend to cease their Jewish education after Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Clearly, it’s not possible to teach certain adult Jewish concepts before kids reach the age of thirteen. Confirmation, then, was substituted in order to get Jewish young people to continue their Jewish education into their high school years.

Finally, the early Reform rabbis rejected the Bar Mitzvah because it was too individualized. The Jewish people, they said, are in a covenant with God as a whole people. When God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people accepted it as a congregation. Confirmation represents this relationship better than Bar or Bat Mitzvah, since a whole class confirms its acceptance of the Torah together.

History, of course, did not ultimately go the way of the early Reform rabbis. In the early days of Reform Judaism, Bar Mitzvah was forbidden in many temples. Where it was permitted, as in our own congregation, it was rare. Bat Mitzvah was not widely practiced in Reform congregations until the last twenty years or so. However, as time went on, as our society at large became more focused on the individual, and as increasing numbers of Jews with traditional upbringings joined Reform temples, Bar and Bat Mitzvah became quite common. In our own congregation, we still have more young people being confirmed than celebrating Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Nationally, though, Bar and Bat Mitzvah have far surpassed Confirmation as the primary rite of passage for young Jewish adults.

If I lived in a community with lavish theme Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties which diminish the sanctity of the occasion, I would argue for the abolition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

If I were a rabbi in a congregation whose B’nai Mitzvah did not continue their Jewish education through Confirmation, I would dismiss the Bar or Bat Mitzvah as a sham.

In our own congregation and community, though, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah has much to recommend it.

First, Bar/Bat Mitzvah encourages Hebrew education. True, our Midweek Hebrew program is not geared exclusively toward Bar/Bat Mitzvah. However, the reality is that few if any children attend Hebrew school unless they are planning to become B’nai Mitzvah. Thanks to Bar and Bat Mitzvah, we are producing a generation of young people who, like our own Diana, can read Hebrew prayers, can make out a few words when they travel to Israel, can recognize the Hebrew in the prayerbooks of any syngagogue in the world, and can, if they wish, pursue further Hebrew education, even to the point of being able to study the Torah itself in its original language.

Second, I would argue that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah comes exactly at the perfect age. True, thirteen year olds are not really adults. I doubt that Sandy and Malcolm expect Diana to move out of the house Sunday morning, get an apartment, and find a job. Diana, they’re not even going to let you drive the car for a few more years.

Becoming an adult is a process. It does not end at thirteen, but it may well begin at about that time. How appropriate to have a Jewish ritual to mark the onset of early adulthood, the time at which young people begin to assume greater responsibilities and make more decisions for themselves. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah teaches them that Judaism expects them to study, and to consider God’s will when they make their own choices.

Finally, one reason that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is so wonderful is because it is for the individual thirteen year old. Being a teenager is tough. One is neither a child nor an adult. Teenagers often feel assaulted by pressures that hit them from various directions. They often seek attention, sometimes in negative ways. Jewish kids who become B’nai Mitzvah have a wonderful opportunity to have a great personal success, just when the world seems to be getting them down. How blessed we are that our Bar/Bat Mitzvah program here at Temple Beth-El assures that each one of them does have a tremendous success. How blessed is each Bat Mitzvah girl and each Bar Mitzvah boy, by his or her positive moment in the spotlight, here in the presence of God and the Jewish community.

As I began with a story from a Bar Mitzvah in Illinois, I conclude with another story, this from a Temple Beth-El Bar Mitzvah just last month. There were no bright red yarmulkes or ten foot centerpieces. On Saturday afternoon, as I was leaving the Temple, the Bar Mitzvah boy’s father told me how much the service, as well as the study which had led up to it, had meant to his son and the entire family. As we parted, he said to me, “see you next week.” It was a simple farewell, and yet, it was one that many of my colleagues would not often hear from Bar or Bat Mitzvah parents.

The truth was that I did not see the dad on the following Shabbat, because I was away on a Religious School Retreat with his son. May each of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants delight in their acquisition of Hebrew learning, draw strength as they begin to be young Jewish adults, and experience great Jewish successes. And may we continue to see them studying and practicing Judaism the week after, through Confirmation, and for all the weeks and years of their lives. Amen.