Monday, April 17, 2006

More Bar Than Mitzvah?

At times, even a Orthodox Rabbi can have trouble with tradition. In particular, I believe it’s time to change our Bar-Bat Mitzvah traditions.

Yes, we’re too rigorous in our Bar-Bat Mitzvah “traditions”. (I somehow neglected studying these “traditions” in Yeshiva.) “Tradition” states that each Bar-Bat Mitzvah must include a night affair, a game room for the teens, and expensive giveaways. In addition, the event must have the proper caterer, florist, photographer, band, D.J. and videographer. Despite my own traditional inclinations, these “traditions” make me uncomfortable. To me, these “traditions” smack of true fanaticism.

Yes, these indulgent Bar-Bat Mitzvahs are actually the products of fanaticism. George Santayana once said “a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal”. Considering this, our Bar Mitzvahs are events only a fanatic could love. Having abandoned all but the most perfunctory religious rituals, our Bar-Bat Mitzvahs have become oversized celebrations with a slightly religious veneer. The contemporary Bar-Bat Mitzvah is an empty festivity, a party that celebrates itself.

Many have remarked that our Bar-Bat Mitzvah celebrations are “more bar than mitzvah”. Indeed, there are many non-Jews who are clamoring for a Bar-Bat Mitzvah of their own (no Haftorah necessary). An article in the Wall Street Journal 2 years ago, reported on the “faux Bar Mitzvah”, a party for affluent non-Jewish teens who felt neglected because they had missed out on the big Bar-Bat mitzvah party. Of course, the very existence of the “faux Bar Mitzvah” reveals a sad truth, that even our “real” Bar-Bat Mitzvahs are pretty phony as well, much more about bars than about mitzvahs.

I know this may sound radical, but it is time to bring religion back into the Bar-Bat Mitzvah celebration. I agree that the Bar-Bat Mitzvah should follow some serious preparations; preparations where the young person has done communal volunteering, some serious Torah study, and has spent more than an obligatory three weeks coming to services. At the celebration itself, Judaism must be a priority, not an afterthought. And after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is over, the guests should have something better to talk about than the gowns and the hors d’ouerves.

At a recent Bat Mitzvah, the young woman got up to explain the theme of the night. The theme of her Bat Mitzvah was not a kitchy movie or pop musical group, but rather a quote from the Mishna: “Whoever saves one life, has saved an entire world”. She explained that this quote had inspired her to donate the gifts from her Bat Mitzvah to help buy an ambulance for the Magen David Adom. This act of remarkable charity made it a memorable Bat Mitzvah, an evening that celebrated Jewish values.

I hope this young woman’s generosity will inspire others to follow her example. It’s about time we break tradition, and make the Bar-Bat Mitzvah into a religious event again.

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