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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Coming of age

Galilee Diary #422, December 28, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

…Before this age [12 years and one day for a girl; 13 years and one day for a boy], even if they said, "we know to whom we made this vow..." their vow is not binding… but after this age, even if they say, "we don't know to whom we made this vow…" their vow is a valid vow.
Mishnah, Tractate Nidah 5:6

This past weekend I attended a group bar/bat mitzvah, in which a number of kids celebrated together in a joint service, in the context of a Reform synagogue family Israel tour. While there is something lost in the need to fit a dozen individual demonstrations of competence into a Shabbat morning service that ends at a reasonable hour, something I think was gained in the diminution of the individual focus of the standard bar/bat mitzvah – not to mention the powerful educational message transmitted by parents who decided to forego a catered affair in favor of a family educational tour to Israel. We tend to take for granted (and often say it aloud) that the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony is "your day," "your special day," a day devoted entirely to celebrating the child, often in ways that look to a slightly jaundiced observer to be educationally questionable – conveying messages of materialism, competition, status-seeking, and narcissism. Here, refreshingly, the focus was not on the individual (and parental) ego, but on the group and on the educational and spiritual experience they were having together. Of course, the usual clichés about "today I am a responsible Jewish adult" were heard from almost every kid – ignoring the fact that they all live in a setting in which that transition has very little meaning in real-life (i.e., how will their lives be different tomorrow from yesterday?); nevertheless, the collective mode and the value statement implied by where the resources were invested made a "special day" in a different way. I understood, more than I had before, some of the logic of the early Reform attempt to eliminate the individual bar/bat mitzvah in favor of group confirmation.

Here in Israel, bar/bat mitzvah has developed in a number of different directions:

· First of all, most girls do not celebrate – and if they do, it is in the form of a party or a family trip to Europe – it has no religious or educational content. For some Orthodox Jews, especially in the Zionist wing of Orthodoxy, families will hold a dinner, at which the girl and other members of the family present talks on the Torah portion. In Conservative and Reform synagogues girls are treated equally, so bat mitzvah is identical to bar mitzvah – with the celebrant being called to the Torah, chanting a Haftarah, presenting a d'var Torah, and perhaps conducting part of the service.

· For boys in Orthodox communities, there is being called to the Torah on a Monday or Thursday, with the putting on of Tefillin.

· For the majority of boys whose families and education are not connected to any religious movement, the possibilities range from a low-key visit to a local synagogue on Monday or Thursday to put on Tefillin and be called to the Torah, to a few months preparation with a competent friend or relative to enable the chanting of a Haftarah on Shabbat. Another possibility: go to the Western Wall plaza on a Monday or Thursday, where for a modest fee the local functionaries will provide a table, a Torah, and a minyan so the boy can be called for an aliyah.

· While there are certainly social circles in which expensive, elaborate parties with hundreds of guests are the norm (especially in the political world), for the most part a modest kiddush-lunch, and/or a dinner for the extended family are the extent of the celebration.

· For years, secular kibbutzim have been running bar/bat mitzvah year programs involving group experiences, mitzvah projects, personal "roots" research, and a group ceremony. This has now expanded to non-collective communities, and similar elements are part of 6th and 7th grade curricula in many public schools.

Wherever we live, I wonder if the Talmudic definition of adulthood, based on biology, is still relevant – perhaps we should be focusing on the age of independence, 18, when most "kids" leave home – truly a meaningful and potentially traumatic transition for the whole family, unrecognized in Jewish ritual.

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