February 25, 2020

Ask the rabbi: Answers to tough B’nai Mitzvah questions

Is there a right way for a child to prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah? What kind of ceremony and celebration is appropriate for the big day? And what if your young man or woman does not believe in God?

There are so many questions facing any family preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah. In search of guidance, the Journal reached out to Rabbi Joshua Hoffman, who oversees the b’nai mitzvah program at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He spoke about everything from the various ways that people find meaning in the lifecycle event to the role that the ceremony plays in the lives of many Israelis. An abridged version of that conversation follows.

JEWISH JOURNAL: It seems like everyone gets a private tutor these days. Why?

RABBI JOSHUA HOFFMAN: The experience of a bar mitzvah ceremony in which a child is chanting from the Torah and leading the community in Hebrew prayer is an important part of demonstrating your readiness to become a Jewish adult. But it is not the only determining factor of what makes a child ready to become a bar or bat mitzvah. It’s important to demonstrate proficiency in the “language of Judaism,” but many families today determine how that language is expressed in a variety of ways. When it comes to bar mitzvah ceremonies, we’re all over the map. There is everything from the young woman giving a speech about what Judaism means to her, to a child reciting the entire portion of the week, leading the community in the entire prayer service.

JJ: Is one the lite version and one the regular version?

JH: We are in a time now when the many varieties of expression have acceptance. There is not one way to become a bar or bat mitzvah. There is not one better or worse when there are many ways. There are just different ways. I want to add one more thing to that, and that is, encouraging families to find their ways into Jewish communities is extremely important, not because they need to belong in order to have a bar mitzvah ceremony but because a child’s full identity is supported and nurtured in community.

JJ: Aren’t most kids just memorizing the Hebrew only to forget it within months of their big day?

JH: I don’t think it’s conclusive one way or the other. While the content may not always be remembered, the experience of preparing and sharing the learning with the circle of family and community, and gathering to celebrate this child, is significant and indeed memorable. If you were to say children are going through a process of memorization just so they can have a party, I don’t think a lot of families would agree with that. This is a really significant preparation and expression of Jewish identity.

JJ: But sometimes it does seem like it’s all about the party.

JH: The party is an important celebration for the child and the family. But becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is the affirmation of the Jewish child’s place in the Jewish community, and that is resonating with many people. The focus of the party has shifted. Many more families today are taking their children to Israel or using the mitzvah project as an entry point into adulthood. The value of the bar/bat mitzvah experience is the child is becoming part of something bigger than themselves. The child is becoming part of a great tradition that asks serious questions, that inspires responsibility; and in our world today, that message is more relevant than ever.

JJ: Isn’t every Jewish child automatically a bar mitzvah at 13 years old, even if they don’t go through the formal process?

JH: Yes, that’s true. A boy becomes a bar mitzvah when he reaches age 13 and a day, or 12 and a day for girls, according to Jewish law — whether or not she reads from the Torah, whether or not he gives a speech, whether or not she does a mitzvah project. Today, in our community in particular — because we believe in the egalitarian nature of Judaism — we established that this coming of age ritual is applicable to both boys and girls at age 13. When you go into more traditional communities, they will hold fast to the original teachings that a young girl will become a bat mitzvah when she is 12.

JJ: I have heard most Israelis don’t have bar and bat mitzvahs. Is this true?

JH: Yes. We actually try to celebrate Israeli families whose children are coming of age with an event we call a tekes l’bar mitzvah. Literally, it means a ceremony in the spirit of bar mitzvah. It is a group ceremony.

JJ: Why don’t Israelis pursue the familiar bar mitzvah path?

JH: For an Israeli family, Judaism is on the streets. In America, Judaism is something that has a destination. It’s within the confines of the community. For many Israelis entering into the second generation and living here all their lives, finding community and a sense of belonging is a relatively new phenomenon.

JJ: So, is the bar mitzvah an American thing?

JH: I think that bar mitzvah as a lifecycle moment has taken hold in North America in a dramatically different way than in other Jewish communities throughout the world. The role of bar mitzvah in American Jewry is significantly more important.

JJ: And the bar mitzvah as we know it is a relatively new practice?

JH: It started in the 1920s and ’30s when rabbis in the community, particularly in New York, were seeing Jewish families losing their connection to synagogue life. So the response to that concern was to mandate that, in order for a bar mitzvah to take place, that families needed to belong to a synagogue. The bar mitzvah ceremony as we have it today was not in existence before that.

JJ: Can you have a bar mitzvah if you don’t believe in God?

JH: Articulating a particular belief is important but it does not necessarily need to conform to the traditional or classical conceptions of god. When you ask me, “Does a kid need to believe in God to become a bar or bat mitzvah?” My question back is, “What do you mean by God?” If a child says to me, “The man with a big, white, flowing beard and a person who rewards you if you do good things and punishes you if you do bad things,” I would say I don’t believe in that God, either. Because, that sounds like Santa Claus to me. The benefit of going through a bar or bat mitzvah experience is being given the opportunity to define what God means to you.