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A Secular View of Bar Mitzva

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June 1, 1964

by Hershl Harris
Originally published in the June, 1964 issue of Jewish Currents
ONE OF THE MANY ASPECTS of Jewish education on which secularists tend to disagree is the question of bar mitzva. To some, the very idea of a bar mitzva ceremony as part of secular Jewish education is a fatal compromise with religious ritual. To others, celebration of bar mitzva (and bas mitzva for girls) is a benevolent evil, necessary in the competitive scramble among varied Jewish schools in the community, but essentially “more trouble than it’s worth.”
Still another trend of thought is found among Jewish parents whose own upbringing included no religious training, but who send their sons and daughters to the local synagogue (Conservative, usually) to be prepared for a religious bar mitzva. Is this trend simply the result of pressure by grand-parents to return to the traditions of a remote childhood, or of community conformity? While both these pressures undoubtedly play a role, they are probably secondary to the reason most of the parents themselves offer: they see bar mitzva as a means of identifying the child with his people.
That the pre-bar mitzva training and the subsequent ceremony are entirely religious both in content and in form does not, say these parents, make much difference. The child, they say, takes from the experience the essential feeling of identity, not the incidental tallis and tfillen (prayer shawl and phylacteries).

IT IS A FOURTH APPROACH, by far in the smallest minority among secular-minded Jews, that we should like to see gain greater understanding and support. This is an approach that sees bar mitzva as neither a fatal nor a “practical” compromise with formal religious practice. It recognizes the valid motives of parents who want their children to feel closer to their people but it questions the means used to reach that goal.
This approach sees bar mitzvah historically as a tradition of the Jewish people with roots far deeper than that of today’s empty, gaudy ritual. It does not, therefore, shy from restoring to this tradition some of the essential meaning it has lost. As such, it regards secular bar mitzva as no more a “compromise” than secular observance of Jewish holidays.
Similarly, this approach projects the secular observance of the bar mitzva tradition as the only means of providing meaning to an important event in a child’s life that is otherwise, at best, a matter of learning something by rote and, at worst, an occasion solely for too lavish expenditure.
Those who have now proved most successful in realizing this approach have begun with an understanding of the historical development of the bar mitzva in Jewish life.
In ancient Judea, bar mitzva was already a sophisticated ceremony of a fairly-advanced agrarian economy, bearing little resemblance to the primitive puberty rites of the nomadic Hebrews from which it was derived. Circumcision had long since been made a ritual soon after birth, instead of at puberty. Bar mitzva, during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, was a means of marking the completion of the elementary stages of education. Since learning was not divided into formal grade stages, each child attained the required degree of knowledge at a different age; therefore, there was no fixed age at which bar mitzva took place. New Testament scholars tell us that Jesus, for instance, became bar mitzva at age 10.
The tradition of age 13 as the exact time for bar mitzva a derives only from the time of the Spanish Inquisition. It was then not a mark of completion of elementary Jewish training but a signal for it to begin. Children of more tender years might innocently betray their secret schooling, while those older would be too strongly influenced by the family’s public acknowledgement of Catholicism to accept laws and precepts alien to their daily experience.
In medieval Germany and Poland, bar mitzva underwent some of the changes we have seen in midcentury America. Under the influence, perhaps, of elaborate confirmation rites of the Church, Jewish bar mitzva celebrations began to concentrate on food and fashion. In Germany, it took a rabbinic ruling to curb the practice of dressing the bar mitzva celebrant in the powdered wigs fashionable among adults. In Poland, attendance at a family feast was limited by edict of the rabbinic court to 10 persons, in an exasperated attempt to end the appearance of orgies.

UNTIL QUITE RECENTLY bar mitzva involved more stringent requirements. The 13-year-old was expected to read and expound on the weekly portion of the Torah (the law), rather than merely to get through the simpler portion of hafTorah (the prophets). The latter, in fact, was at times reserved for toddlers of five and six.
The postwar period has brought two major changes to bar mitzva in American Jewish life. One is the equality of women in the form of bas mitzva for girls; the other, much less positive, is a headlong rush for competitive ostentation.
Faced with the growing trend to converting bar and bas mitzva into a status-seeking spectacle, it is small wonder that those who seek to give it meaning often find themselves concluding that only a truly religious approach can overcome crass commercialism. And they would be right, too, if secularism were only the mere absence of religious observance.
They are wrong, though, precisely because secularism is a form of Jewish identity — a form that, many believe, offers the best means of assuring continued Jewish group identity in America. The fact is, though, that a child cannot get a sense of identity in the secular meaning by the quick-and-easy methods available for traditional bar mitzva: the memorized speech, the recorded hafTorah are of little avail.
Secular bar mitzva is (or can be) only the culmination of an educational process, in which the child learns who his people are and why he can be proud of them, not as a “chosen” people, but as a people who have contributed and continue to contribute to the forward movement of mankind, despite the many times in which some Jews have betrayed their people’s best interests for selfish ends.
The secular school is an important part of that educational process but its influence can be negated by parents who limit their children’s Jewish education to the few hours spent in that school. When parents become involved in the curriculum and functioning of the school; when they, themselves, acquire the knowledge to observe holidays at home with secular, cultural ceremonies, then the child’s research and essay-writing that is a usual part of today’s secular bar-bas mitzva become meaningful.
Then, too, bar mitzva ceases to be a dead-end to learning, as is still the case in both religious and secular schools. If Jewish education has been — before bar mitzva — cherished, rather than a chore, then such education can and does continue into adolescence and beyond. Which, of course, is the whole idea...

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