January 20, 2019

Reflections on an Impossible Age

Thirteen is a difficult age. I know this as a parent, and I also know it as a rabbi who interacts with lots of 13-year-olds. I know this as well as a student of Torah. And now I know it as a moviegoer.

Every parent should see the movie “Thirteen.” If you are the parent of an adolescent, you should see it with your child. The movie is based on the true story of Nikki Reed, a 13-year-old girl at my daughter’s middle school who fell in with the wrong crowd.

The pressures our children live with are extraordinary, and the response of this one insecure 13-year-old is heartbreaking — and true. We want to believe that this couldn’t happen in our families, but it could, and it does. We just don’t talk about it.

Our tradition, though, doesn’t shy away from confronting the challenges of age 13.

In the book of Deuteronomy, parents of a “wayward and defiant” son are instructed to bring him before the town elders. “Thereupon the men of the town shall stone him to death…” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

Strange law, isn’t it? It is even stranger when you know what the Talmud says about it: “The stoning of a son who is wayward and defiant never happened and never will.” Then why was this law put in the Torah, the Talmud asks?

The rabbis answer: It was put in the story simply so we could study it and receive reward for our learning.

But then one rabbi speaks up and says: “You are wrong. It did happen once!”

The Talmud continues: When is a son too young to be considered stubborn and a rebel? The answer is: until his bar mitzvah. And when is a son too old? When he is all grown up.

So what is the window here — the time this law might apply? It begins at age 13.

We study this law about stoning the wayward and defiant son not because it ever happened, but because it puts us on notice that 13 is a difficult age. It is a vulnerable time for young people, a time of separation and experimentation, of testing new ideas and exploring independence.

But our tradition gives us some help in reframing for our 13-year-olds what it means to be a young adult. It’s called a bar or bat mitzvah. Through the ritual we try to teach our young people that to be an adult means to be part of something bigger than yourself, a tradition that calls on us to make a difference in the world, where we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, where what we do in the world really matters. What is important, says the bar mitzvah ritual, is not how trendy you are, but how you treat other people. Adulthood is not measured by freedom to engage in excessive behavior, but in mastering an ancient text and teaching it to your community. Being an adult means that you have obligations as well as privileges.

The whole community has a stake in our young people becoming adults; that’s why the bar mitzvah ritual takes place within the context of a synagogue, a caring congregation. The kind of isolation that led to Nikki Reed’s descent into hell in the movie “Thirteen” could have been prevented if she were part of a loving, intergenerational community.

Not all b’nai mitzvah convey these values. In fact, some of the excessive celebrations connected to b’nai mitzvah convey the opposite message. So I am not saying that a bar or bat mitzvah will keep a teenager safe. But I am saying that an ongoing connection to a caring community rooted in spiritual values can. That’s why we want our kids to continue their connection with the temple after bar mitzvah, to be part of our madrichim (leaders) program, to join the youth group, to study for Confirmation, to join the junior choir or to participate as a board member of our teen endowment tzedakah foundation. What teenagers do at temple doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they are staying connected.

Consider again the Talmud. You recall the majority opinion: “The stoning of a son who is stubborn and a rebel never happened and never will.” But remember the ominous minority opinion? “You are wrong. It did happen once.”

The one time it might have happened, suggests the Talmud, was before the child reached 13. In other words, our tradition seems to be saying to all of our 13-year-olds, if we haven’t executed you before your bar or bat mitzvah, it means we don’t see you as wayward and defiant. It means that we, your parents, your rabbis, your congregation, the whole Jewish community, in fact, have faith in you.

It means that we believe that you will be strong enough to stand up to the kind of peer pressure that Nikki Reed succumbed to, the seduction of the materialism that is all around us, and the nihilism so prevalent in popular culture. It also means that we will stand by you and help you make good choices, and be there to support you when times get tough. It means that you never have to feel alone.

Laura Geller is rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.