Monday, October 22, 2012

Why The "Bar Mitzvah" Must Go

It is a well-known fact that many families maintain their synagogue membership only to ensure that their children will be able to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony when they come of age. This is particularly true among non-traditional or generally unaffiliated Jews; parents who are disinterested in religion per se may still feel a sense of obligation to see to it that their offspring experience this rite of passage in one form or another, and that means joining a congregation of some sort.

Without a doubt, the draw of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah provides an opportunity for the synagogue community to connect with and engage many children and adults who would otherwise have no involvement with Judaism, Jewish learning or Jewish practice. In this sense, the conventional institution of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a positive thing; at the very least, it persuades Jews who are quite distant from their religion to enter the realm of Jewish community and participate in synagogue life.

Nevertheless, it is equally well-known that many such families abruptly terminate their involvement with their chosen congregations as soon as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah obligation has been met. The event has no discernible long-term effects. Most of the time, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child, now a young man or woman, has not been inspired to continue his/her attendance at services or study of Torah.

On the contrary, it is frequently the case that the "graduate" of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah course is left with an antipathy to synagogue, is haunted by terrible memories of the stress, rote drilling and gloom associated with the demands of practice and preparation for the big day,  and is tremendously relieved to know that it is all over.

Why is it that the Jewish community routinely botches this golden opportunity to engage unaffiliated families? Why is it that we fail to inspire the youngsters in our Hebrew Schools and Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes? How come this momentous rite of passage that our children absolutely MUST experience (or endure) leaves them running away from, instead of running in pursuit of, more Judaism and more Torah?

I believe the problem is not the concept of the Bar Mitzvah, but the conventional form of the Bar Mitzvah: specifically, the notion that the student's goal should be to memorize and chant the Torah portion and Haftara and then deliver a token speech. One need not look far beyond the surface to see that the Bar Mitzvah ceremonies of today do not reflect and actually contradict many of the values that we teach and emphasize in Torah contexts. The format of the Bar Mitzvah fails us in three respects:

1. Improper Emphasis on Public Performance - Today's Bar Mitzvah is all about showbusiness and pageantry. (I am speaking of the synagogue service, not the ridiculously lavish parties, the shallowness of which speaks for itself.) The Bar Mitzvah is preparing for a well-attended public performance during which he will showcase himself. The personal growth, knowledge and character of the Bar Mitzvah are not highlighted. The focus is exclusively on the external trappings of religion, even when those superficial trappings are entirely devoid of substance.

Moreover, in Orthodox, traditional and Sephardic synagogues, this transforms the Bar Mitzvah into a ceremony of exclusion - boys have the opportunity to "shine", to do what everyone seems to think is important and worthy of effusive accolades, while girls are summarily denied that privilege. This problem has sent many Modern Orthodox in search of creative ways to allow young women to participate in synagogue services in a more public fashion; however, as I have argued previously, I do not think this is the correct approach.

2. Meaningless Preparation - I spend several hours a week preparing students for Bar Mitzvah at my synagogue, and several hours more lamenting what a waste of time it is. The process of repetition and rote memorization is boring and spiritually deadening for both student and teacher. There is no intellectual stimulation, no give-and-take, no excitement. It doesn't lead the learner to a deeper connection with Torah nor to an understanding of the significance of the portion being read. It is the ultimate example of a מצות אנשים מלומדה, a mindless regimen performed out of habit, which our Prophets continually warned us against. And it is the visceral distaste for this painful and empty routine that sends young men running from the synagogue once their Bar Mitzvah is over!

3. No Lasting Results - Teaching a youngster once a week for a year so that he can read one parasha or haftara seems like quite an accomplishment. When the resulting performance is a flawless one, lots of praise is heaped on the performer and his tutor. However, in reality, it is all a disheartening illusion. The Bar Mitzvah has gained nothing enduring from his year of study. He hasn't emerged a better person or a better Jew. He hasn't internalized any knowledge that will enrich his life, deepen his thought or inform his conduct. The skill he has spent one year acquiring will quickly evaporate from lack of practice and lack of interest. On the off chance that he shows up on the same Shabbat in subsequent years, he may be able to provide an encore performance - but even that is never quite as good as the first one, it is rusty from neglect.

 For these three reasons and more, I am calling upon the leaders of the Jewish community to abolish the format of the "Bar Mitzvah" as we know it. It will be difficult; we will likely meet with fierce resistance. The synagogue "stage parents" who have patiently awaited their children's moment in the limelight will find much to oppose in this suggestion. But if we are genuinely concerned with the future of the Jewish people and we are committed to saving the next generation of young men and women, it is incumbernt upon us to act now!

What will replace the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies? How can we merely dispense with such an important rite of passage, a signature life cycle event in our communities? I would like to suggest the following:

Instead of a performance, instead of preparing a child for twelve months so that he can read a parasha for less than an hour, let's require every Bat/Bat Mitzvah student to participate in a course of serious Torah study for one full year.

We can require the boys and girls in our communities to study - at the very minimum - their entire Bar/Bat Mitzvah parasha (or some other relevant Jewish text, as deemed appropriate) in depth, with the Rabbi or a qualified tutor, and to explore its themes, its commentaries, its difficulties, its message...How beautiful it would be were a Bar or Bat Mitzvah to have the experience of genuine one-on-one Torah study, guided by a seasoned teacher, once a week for a whole year! What a transformative process it would have the potential to be, how it would encourage intellectual exchange and the formation of close bonds between student and tutor/rabbi, and how it would engage the mind, heart and soul of the youngster with Judaism and Jewishness at a level we can hardly imagine...

This would be a worthwhile and substantial investment in the child and their relationship with Torah and would be an outstanding substitute for the enormous but ultimately futile investments we have already been making in the "Bar Mitzvah" - an event that unfortunately makes little or no contribution to the religious education or Jewish identity of the participants.

This revolutionary approach to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah would yield the following benefits:

1. The Concept of Siyum - The completion of a course of Torah study would be a true occasion for celebration. Putting all pomp, circumstance and pageantry aside, it would signify a real graduation, a new stage of growth reached in the intellectual and spiritual life of the student.

2. Relationships Formed - The Bar/Bat Mitzvah would have the opportunity to form a deep and lasting bond with his/her teacher. Rather than a simple, mechanical "tutoring" arrangement that ends with the passage of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah date, the shared experience of Torah study and the exchange of ideas would foster a relationship with the potential to withstand the test of time - the tutor is now a mentor, a confidante. The possibility that student and teacher might stay in touch for decades afterward and continue to interact with one another meaningfully is not at all far-fetched.

3. Authentic Experience - This model of Bar/Bat Mitzvah training would expose the child to the beauty of Torah and Judaism in all of its richness, with no repetitive, brain-numbing practice to carry out at home. It would open the mind and heart of the pupil to everything Judaism has to offer, in an intimate, warm, one-on-one setting.

4. Meaningful Results - The insights gained in Torah study may stay with a student for a lifetime. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah will walk away with new ideas, principles and values that he or she can apply to real-life situations inside and outside of the synagogue. And when the students experience the sheer enjoyment of Torah study and intellectual discovery, when they associate Judaism with something positive, enduring and exciting, the chance that they will return for more is increased a thousandfold.

 In fact, teaching Torah is the most effective marketing strategy we have in our arsenal - when we allow the children to see for themselves just how amazing, powerful and transformational Torah knowledge can be, there is reason to believe that they will diligently seek it rather than run from it.

5. Egalitarian - This model of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, because it is based on Torah study and not on public performance, is naturally and ideally suited to both boys and girls, even in a strictly traditional setting. The same effort and investment will be expected from both genders, and the same genuinely positive outcomes will be sought. Torah learning is the greatest equalizer as well as the greatest wellspring of nourishment and inspiration for the Jewish soul.

Simply put, the conventional "Bar Mitzvah" must go!

I realize that this proposal may seem radical to some. I am fully prepared to hear comments and constructive criticism from the readership. In fact, I encourage it and look forward to it. I am hopeful that the observations and suggestions that I have laid out here will serve as the beginning of a critical discussion about Jewish education, Jewish continuity and what steps we must take to ensure that our sacred traditions are preserved and successfully transmitted to the next generation.


Anonymous said...

In your proposal, why structure the Torah study around the parsha as opposed to guiding it based on areas of interest to the child, guided by the experience of the rabbi?

arijess said...

i have always felt that the shul bar mitzva prepared young men to participate in the rituals of the minyan and prepare them to daven and layn for the tzibbur. as far as i know, almost every man that has been bar mitzva knows his bar mitzva parsha and has some attachment to it.

i have been hired a few times to tutor girls for their bat mitzvas and usually we learn torah that is meaningful to them in some way.

thanks for the guidelines. you gave me something to think about.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

That may be true in some communities and for some individuals, but the reality is that only a limited number of people regularly lead services and/or read the Torah for the tsibbur.

It sounds like you have the right idea in working with the girls!

Dan said...

Well put Rabbi. The Bar-Mitzva ritual must go. I was a victim of it myself. My Bar-Mitzva ritual was so meaningless that I actually don't even remember which haftora I read! If only I could have spent a year learning something meaningful as you have suggested. Best wishes in carrying this plan through.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


I suggested the parasha based on the advice of an educator whom I respect and who recommended this based on his experience. But I am not wedded to that detail, so I changed the text of the post to accommodate different possibilities.

Dani said...

Love this idea. While I still remember how to layn most of my parsha 17 yrs later, the experience was basically meaningless and I don't feel any wiser for it.

Will implement this with my son in 10 years!

Anonymous said...

Both my dad and uncle described training for their bar mitvohs as ordeals, which is why they are not really observant.

Anonymous said...

Women I know (and I) did not have a Bat Mitzvah. For us, our daughters will be the first to have this right of passage in our family.

I honestly do not know what is involved/required for a girl to prepare for her bat mitzvah in your community. Could you share the current process, and compare that with your vision for the future?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


In the past, it has depended on circumstances. Most have just delivered speeches/divrei Torah. Some have read additional prayers at the end of the service, such as the prayer for the State of Israel or the Shema. Some have learned the taame hamiqra/trup/cantillation and have read selections from the haftara (after the service is over and without berakhot/blessings, of course).

A couple of girls have learned to lead a service that it is permitted for girls to lead according to Sephardic practice, such as havdala.

So it has varied greatly, but the common denominator has been what I am arguing against in this post - a focus on public performance that is superficial and misguided.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for explaining the current process. Could you compare that with your vision for the future? I am interested in your insight and recommendations/suggestions on how to change the focus on public performance that is superficial and misguided.

My hope is that my children will be moved by the experience, and will have a life long positive memory of such an important occasion.

Jacob said...

R' Maroof:

Your arguments are certainly compelling. However, I do take exception to your points #2 & #3 - that preparing the bar mitzvah to read the parasha is pointless and brings no meaningful lasting results. A couple points in response:

1) As a Sephardic father of a recent bar mitzvah, I endorse the traditional Sephardic approach of mastery over miqra, and have thus used my son's preparation of the perasha as a springboard to have him prepare other readings on a regular basis. His training during his bar mitzvah preparation has undoubtedly given him the skills to become a regular Torah reader, where he is on his way to being able to independently prepare readings on his own. This probably could not have been accomplished (at least not nearly as easily) if his reading preparation was replaced by Torah study sessions.

2) It is a well established fact that children who learn texts, particularly through the means of a mnemonic tune, will retain familiarity of those texts throughout adulthood much more effectively than adults who learn the same material. It's true that not everyone is cut out to be a Torah scholar. But for those who do not have capacity to cull the depths of the Ramban or Ibn Ezra's commentary, let them at least gain a familiarity with the basic text of the pesuqim. Go to any Sephardic synagogue and you will find some old-timers who are not particularly learned, who nevertheless have a good working knowledge of the Humash text.

3) One of the most difficult obligations that a father is required to train his teenage son to do is the requirement of shenayim miqra ve'ehad mi'targum. This requirement kicks in at 13 + 1 day, but how many of us can say that we have successfully trained our 13 year-olds to do this? (I know I can't). It true that not every child will grow to become a Torah reader, but everyone is still in the same boat when it comes to Shenayim Miqra. I feel that the preparation for a bar mitzvah to read his parasha is at least a first step toward breaking the mystique and apprehension of fulfilling his requirement to read thru the entire weekly parasha. A series of standard Torah study sessions, though important, would offer no such benefit.

Again, as I said, you raise some valid points and I don't have all the answers. Perhaps there should be a combination of but reading preparation and Torah study. My only point is that we can't minimize the importance of training our sons to read the Torah.

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