Bar/Bat Mitzvah – A Postmodern Coming-of-Age Guide

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin (Assouline, $24.95)

When a book on bar mitzvah opens with a poem by Rudyard Kipling and a quote from French ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it’s clearly not your usual bar mitzvah book, of which there are many.

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin is thoughtful, poetic, challenging, mystical, sometimes puzzling, stylishly designed — maybe the first postmodern book on the subject. It could be a model for how to write an introductory work: A French philosopher and a rabbi, Ouaknin assumes a certain sophistication on the part of readers and gently raises them up, rather than talking down, and at the same time, provides perspectives that will enlighten readers at all levels.

Young men and women approaching bar and bat mitzvah, their parents and those who teach them will find much of interest. In addition, readers seeking a portal to understanding Judaism and a fine teacher will also be drawn to this work, which covers Jewish identity, prayer, tallit, tefillin, reading from the Torah, the speech and more — each subject opening up to wider issues — with brief notes on the party and bar mitzvah celebrations around the world. Ouaknin opens each section with a quote drawn from philosophers, poets and Chasidic masters.

Ouaknin’s field is the ethics of interpretation. His previous books include “The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud” (1995), “Mysteries of the Kabbalah” (2000) and “Symbols of Judaism” (1996). He divides his time between Jerusalem and Paris, where he directs the Aleph Center for Jewish Studies in Paris. In Israel, he teaches comparative studies at Bar Ilan University.

In a telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem, where he spends three weeks per month, he apologizes repeatedly for his French-accented English, which needs no apologies. To speak with him is to experience the depth and playfulness of his mind, and the width of his vision.

For Ouaknin, the principal act of the bar mitzvah, the essence of Judaism, is not putting on tefillin or a tallit, but reading the Torah — and not simply reading but interpreting. He speaks of a dialectic between text and interpretation, that to grow involves understanding and reading and creating, following tradition but not repeating the ways and words of one’s parents.

“To innovate, to create, is to be free,” he said.

“After reading this book, I hope the child will be open to Talmud, Midrash, kabbalah, philosophy and literature, and to make the book a friend — to understand or feel when seeing a book that he’s also receiving a smile, not just the letters,” he said.

But he cautions against being enclosed with books.

“The most important thing in life is to meet the other,” he said. “I have said that love is the meeting between two questions. The man is for the book, the book is for the man. The link is the true aim — to meet the other, and also to meet God, to be able to enter in the way of transcendence, to be better and higher.”

Born in 1957, the author grew up in Paris, the son of a rabbi and a professor. His father’s family is from Morocco; his mother’s from Alsace and Luxembourg. He says that these two different traditions, Africa and Europe, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, inform the way he thinks and lives. His father still serves as a rabbi, and his mother is a professor. That work is more of a passion than a job is something he inherited from them.

Ouaknin studied at yeshivas in France and spent two years in Gateshead Yeshiva in England, where he thought he would pick up English, but instead learned Yiddish and tennis. He went to medical school for two years before shifting to the study of philosophy at the Sorbonne while attending rabbinical school.

In the section on prayer, he discusses structure, time of prayer, the siddur, how prayers are gathered as they rise from human lips, prayer as an outpouring of the heart, prayer and meditation, prayer and psychoanalysis. He quotes Kafka, whom he teaches at Bar Ilan: “Art, like prayer, is a hand stretched out in to the dark, seeking to catch something from grace in order to transform itself into a giving hand.”

In writing about tefillin and tallit, he draws on kabbalistic and other teachings. He explains that the fringes on the tallit “compose a text made by the knotting of the threads, by a process of weaving and twisting which cannot fail to evoke a form of intelligence not satisfied simply to perceive, understand, and analyze things, but which must connect, weave and twist them together, to offer a complex texture of thought.”

The idea that this French philosopher would turn his attention to the subject of bar mitzvah was initiated by Prosper and Martine Assouline, the husband-and-wife team who run the French publishing company, known for their finely designed illustrated books, with offices in New York and Paris. Prosper Assouline was grappling with questions of how to transmit ethics, values and meaning, as his own son, Alexandre, was approaching his bar mitzvah. The book, intended as a gift for the young man, was to be a heavily illustrated volume in the publisher’s “Symbols” series. But as Ouaknin began the project, he realized that the subject required a more text-centered approach. And, he felt that he didn’t want to draw only on the world of books, but wanted to have direct contact with teenagers.

He then began working on the book with Francoise Anne Menager, a history and literature teacher in a vocational high school with whom he had worked on projects related to the culture of the written word and its transmission. When he had spoken earlier about Jewish literature at her school, to a group of girls mostly of Muslim and African backgrounds, he experienced true encounter, the essence of literature.

After the manuscript was complete, he would meet with Alexandre Assouline to discuss the work and measure its pertinence, and they’d engage in sincere dialogues about theological and psychological questions. As Ouaknin, the father of two sons and two daughters who all read Torah at their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, writes in the book’s preface: “I was no longer writing a book about bar mitzvah, I was actually experiencing the responsibility of passing on, not words, but a power which gives the other the possibility of growing.”