Rite of passage is not a free pass

About a year ago, I received a call from a motion picture marketing executive who asked me to preview the soon-to-be-released “Keeping Up With the Steins,” a
“commentary” on b’nai mitzvah as they are celebrated in North America.

My interest was piqued: A mainstream movie about the commercialization of b’nai mitzvah. Perhaps this would engender a “teachable moment,” particularly in light of these propositions, which experience has shown increasingly to be true:

  • Adults are spending too much of their disposable income on b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
  • B’nai mitzvah children internalize the message that the religious ceremony is less meaningful than the party that follows.
  • Families believe that bar and bat mitzvah represent the end of formal Jewish education.
  • Parents are living vicariously through their children and, consequently, creating celebrations that are more for adults than for middle school students.
  • American Judaism has assimilated values that are more consonant with America than with Judaism.

While I defer to the judgment of others, I left the movie feeling profoundly underwhelmed but hopeful that viewers would be moved to converse with family members and friends about just how much, in this particular case, art imitates life. We have turned a rite of passage into a right of passage; the responsibility of attaining religious status into the entitlement of social status.

“Keeping Up With the Steins” is an unlikely candidate for an Academy Award, but it has served a purpose if it causes us to pause and consider the cultural phenomenon that prompted its production and distribution.

According to Avot de Rabbi Natan (Chapter 16), at the age of 13, the yetzer tov (good impulse) is born, and with it our capacity for conscious pro-social, empathic and compassionate behavior. B’nai mitzvah are intended to catalyze a character-building process that lasts a lifetime. It is therefore painfully ironic that we may be party (pun intended) to the yetzer hara (evil impulse) running amok at precisely the moment when the yetzer tov first sees the light of day.

I realize that I am skating on thin ice — or treading on sacred ground — by criticizing the manner in which b’nai mitzvah are being celebrated by America’s Jewish families, many, if not most, of whom have yet to embrace the idea that a bar or bat mitzvah is a simcha that marks the beginning of a choice to lead a Jewish life.

Arguably, the greatest challenge we face in Jewish education inheres to the perception that a bar or bat mitzvah represents an end point. We successfully have created an artificial bubble of Jewish learning between grades three and seven by mandating minimum expectations for becoming bar or bat mitzvah. The bar or bat mitzvah party for the youngest child in the family too often celebrates the end of synagogue affiliation.

“Mitoch lo lishma ba lishma” — Out of an ulterior motive (might) come a pure motive. This principle adduced in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:5) epitomizes our assignment as Jewish educators. We have three or four years in which to teach families who came for a service that they really came for a covenant. We will not always win, but I hope we never will give up. Some of us who are now teachers of Torah may have arrested temporarily our Jewish study at age 13.

I realize that cultural change is a complex, foreboding process and that urging families to infuse their children’s b’nai mitzvah with religious meaning and significance designed to last a lifetime is akin to pointing a hose at a tidal wave. However, the hose we are using draws water from sacred sources that regenerate, so I choose to believe that we are reaching one extreme that is destined to moderate and, thus, achieve a dynamic equilibrium.

As we live longer, it becomes less reasonable that one’s Jewish life should reach its apex at age 13. Instead, we can help to place bar and bat mitzvah in the perspective of lifelong Jewish learning and living-an acceptance of communal responsibility, a beginning of conscious commitment and a promise to make a meaningful contribution to the people of Israel in covenant with the God of Israel. A rich Jewish life does not have to be expensive — at least it should not have to be expensive.

We are already b’nai mitzvah. Our children, on the other hand, are just in the process of becoming. Bar and bat mitzvah is a process and a status that regrettably has devolved too often into a product and an event.

It is our collective challenge to take a population of episodic Jews and help them live continual Jewish lives, so that life’s celebrations and tribulations will be seamless parts of their Jewish identities, rather than an interruption in their “normal” lives.

Rabbi Jan Katzew is the director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s department of lifelong Jewish learning.