Nice article in the NY Times magazine today about “Christian Bar Mitzvahs” (Yes, the correct plural would be benei mitzvah). The writer (who is a Christian) is duly worried about encroachment on Jewish heritage, and she seemed genuinely surprised to find rabbis who take a more tolerant approach to the borrowing. And there is part of me that wants to go along with the relaxed attitude. One could point out that if this is life-cycle theft, then they have stolen an improbable one. In our codes we find laws for circumcisions, weddings, divorces, and burials but there is no set of laws on how to conduct a bar mitzvah. And what many people think is the special “bar mitzvah ceremony” is something we do every week. Even the speeches. There is stuff that we don’t do that shows up in bar mitzvahs, and these things usually have little to do with Judaism. If non-Jews want to honor each other with the “traditional” puberty candle-lighting ceremony, in no sense whatsoever can they be said to be violating our sacred airspace.
As I said, I want to be relaxed. But all in all, I can’t help but think that it would be better if people had a strong conception of their own belief systems rather than a diffuse understanding of several. Christianity and Judaism each make strong claims about the nature of creation and humanity which are less impressive when they are bent into accommodation. I recognize that syncretism happens and that sometimes it is for the good. But it is not automatically good and whether it is good or bad depends on the environment. I think that one of the lessons of the last half century is that religion is less useful when the particulars are boiled away. (Who would you want to have your back in a bar-fight, a Mormon missionary or a trans-denominational theology student?). In an increasingly secular society, borderless religion is weak religion.
And part of my resistance to syncretism is personal. Given 15 million Jews and 5 billion of everyone else, there is not going to be much of us after the mix-and-match. The party that is going to be syncretized out of existence will be us. Someone might say that this is the case which proves me wrong, if Christians are doing bar mitzvahs than it must be Jews who are beating the drum. But I think that this apparent strength is illusory.
Even among Jews there is confusion whether bar mitzvah is a status or a procedure, or better, whether one has a bar mitzvah or becomes bar mitzvah. The traditional understanding is that it is a status – benei mitzah is just another term for an adult which everyone becomes if they live long enough. We celebrate a child becoming bar mitzvah to mark the increased responsibilities and prerogatives which come to all Jewish adults. It’s an occasion worthy of celebration, but the occasion itself is peripheral: one becomes a Jewish adult without the ceremony or the party. This is not widely known in some Jewish circles, as evident in the popularization of “adult bar mitzvah” classes, where even people who are already bar mitzvah want to have a bar mitzvah. This is a reflection of how we elevate the fleeting occasion over durable status.
The transformation of bar mitzvah into an ecumenical puberty-onset initiation ceremony will only cement this tendency. The entire attraction to Christians and others of the bar mitzvah is on the procedure end: Non-Jews are not speaking of becoming bar mitzvah (that would make them Jews), they are speaking of having bar mitzvahs. A rite of passage is by definition something one only does once, not once a week. But, as I said above, for us every week is the expectation. Learning and teaching Torah are things Jews are supposed to be doing all the time. If we define bar mitzvah as trial by ordeal, as a one-off superhuman effort in the name of building character, we should not be surprised that the status that is supposed to be the cause of celebration is not embraced. But when done right, the remarkable thing is just how unremarkable it is, being the inevitable result of socialization into a community which loves God and Torah.
So I do have trouble being projecting insouciance about the whole affair. Maybe it won’t be so bad, maybe it will fizzle out. Part of me hopes that if “bar mitzvah” ceremonies really catch on among non-Jews, it will lead to some introspection within our community about what is important and what isn’t. That would be a gift back to the Jews.