You might not have noticed it, but Judaism in America is apparently undergoing something of a revolution.
To be precise: Within the Reform and Conservative movements of the world’s oldest monotheism, the process and, in turn, the very meaning of “bar mitzvah” has become subject to a wholesale revision—a reshuffling of priorities that advocates hope will keep the faith relevant to modern society and, more to the point, will ensure the faithful keep returning to the pews and continue to pay their annual synagogue dues.
As reported last week in the New York Times, 13 Reform congregations across the United States are spearheading an effort to dramatically overhaul the bar mitzvah process, with 67 additional congregations expressing interest as well.
From the article:
Everything is on the table: how or whether to teach Hebrew, whether to delay the ceremony until children are older, and even whether to require children to read from the Torah—now the centerpiece of most bar mitzvah ceremonies and the culmination of years of study. Parents will most likely be expected to play a larger role and emphasis will shift from prayer to social action.
The primary concern is that b’nai mitzvah, which are meant to be the beginning of one’s Jewish education, are too often treated like the grand finale—a graduation rather than an initiation.
While I am not any kind of expert on Judaism and its history, I am nonetheless an expert on the myriad b’nai mitzvah I have attended over the years, beginning with my own.
During my adolescence, my family and I belonged to a Conservative synagogue in suburban New York, where I attended religious school on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays for five years and Hebrew high school on Sundays for four years more.
Preparation for my bar mitzvah, which occurred roughly in the middle of my formal Jewish education, consisted predominantly of learning the words and melody of my haftarah, the segment of the Torah narrative that was to be recited by me, in Hebrew, on the day I was to become an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community.
To this day, I have no earthly idea what the substance of that haftarah was. I understand no Hebrew beyond the common phrases that appear in every prayer and psalm, and it was simply not a part of the bar mitzvah process in my synagogue to learn what it was that you were reciting. The point was that, for the first time in your life, you were reciting it in front of the whole congregation, and most of them didn’t know much Hebrew, either.
As noted in the Times piece, not all synagogues take such a bottom-line approach to this sacred rite of passage. At Reform congregations in particular, the emphasis is not so much on having the student memorize the Torah portion as it is on his or her understanding what the passage means in the broader context of Judaism itself.
What makes the nature of b’nai mitzvah such a vexing conundrum is that Judaism, like all religions, means different things to different people. Aside from the rather profound disagreements among the faith’s various sects—one can be forgiven for assuming a typical Orthodox congregation to be practicing an entirely different religion from a typical Reform one—those within the same denomination often find it difficult to reach common ground on matters of great import as well.
Indeed, on the question of whether to hew to tradition or bow to certain modern realities, my own synagogue did not always agree with itself.
While our bar mitzvah practices would suggest a highly limited interest in matters of Jewish history, law and ethics, my religious school experience was almost entirely the opposite.
Truth be told, the reason I stuck around for Hebrew high, which was optional and not particularly well-attended, was precisely because of the admirable extent to which our weekly discussions revolved around practical matters, with the meaning of Judaism considered in the context of the modern world. Questions regarding antisemitism, geopolitics and the State of Israel sprung up at least as often as questions regarding why the blessing over wine is said before the blessing over bread.
It mattered a great deal to me that my religious school instructors understood that Judaism was more than a book of fairy tales written in an ancient language that could only be interpreted in one way, and you had to either take it or leave it.
No, Judaism is a community. It is a living, breathing entity that is only worth as much as those who take it upon themselves to carry on its traditions, even if that means altering or abolishing some of them for the greater good of the community.
Not that all Jews agree about this, either. But then if there is one thing that the children of Abraham really do have in common, it is the hankering for a good, long argument.