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.