English parlance has turned the noun bar mitzvah – and bat mitzvah – into a transitive verb subject to the rules of English grammar. I’m often told by people that I “bar mitzvahed,” or even “bemitzved,” them.
The use of such language is indicative of how the traditional ceremony of admission into a worshipping congregation has become a pre-teen Jewish equivalent of the Christian baptism of infants. I know of many born Jews who erroneously assume that they’ve been removed from the fold because they’ve never celebrated their 13th birthday with Jewish trappings.
Non-Jews use similar language. Thus, for example, the December issue of Toronto Life carries an article about the Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, who tells readers that although he was born Jewish, he “was raised without religion and never bar mitzvahed.”
Behind the trivial shift in nomenclature can be discerned a substantial and ominous shift in attitude. Whereas bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are intended as community events to be celebrated with its members, the decline in the importance of synagogue affiliation has privatized and thus drastically changed the ceremony.
Tradition has been stood on its head in the guise of piety and fidelity to Judaism. Many believe that the ceremony, however trivial and vulgar, is the primary and ultimate manifestation of Jewish identity.
The trend began when bar and bat mitzvahs came to be celebrated in synagogues as private family events by invitation only. Regular worshippers, if they exist, would meet elsewhere on the premises. This is now common practice in many congregations around the world.
Those who choose not to join synagogues often arrange ceremonies, not just parties, in restaurants, hotels, “simchah palaces” or their own homes. Tuition has been reduced to learning by heart a few Bible verses in Hebrew, with scant knowledge of their meaning and little evidence of commitment to Judaism.
People who call themselves rabbis are available to conduct these private happenings according to the wishes of the family and the specifications of the caterer.
The “Zionist” version of the malpractice takes the celebrations to Israel. The Western Wall is hospitable to ceremonies that purport to be Orthodox. Others are relegated to a heap of ruins nearby. Events also take place on Masada, in the desert, on any hilltop with a good view, and sometimes even in synagogues available for hire. Many Israeli rabbis augment their salaries by officiating at such events.
Though it didn’t make me very popular when I served congregations in England and Canada, I’d insist on community celebrations in the presence of regular worshippers during Shabbat services. My colleagues and I persevered and were usually supported by lay leaders. This made it possible to teach the young at least the basics of Judaism and, no less important, to instil in them respect for their heritage and its relevance to their own lives.
I urged families to travel to Israel as often as possible, but not in order to keep children away from religious school and from celebrating this milestone in their lives in the synagogue to which they should belong. Travel agents weren’t amused.
Failure to celebrate in and with the community both reflects and contributes to the potential disintegration of the synagogue. It’s already on the verge of becoming a fee-for-service station where the customer is always right, however eccentric the demands.
“Barkmitzvahs” are a case in point. Dogs are being decked out in something that looks like a kippah and a tallit. Rituals have been invented to reflect the status of the animal as a member of the family. There are no reports as yet of canine clergy.
In this scheme of things, rabbis aren’t respected for their learning and their ability to teach but for their talents as masters of ceremonies skilled in providing customer service. Synagogue membership becomes superfluous when you can hire people to do your bidding, however idiosyncratic and contrary to traditional practice, at any location of your choice. Anarchy masquerades as spirituality.
Mercifully, it’s not like that everywhere. My family has just celebrated the bat mitzvah of my granddaughter Leone in the same London, England, synagogue where her mother, aunt and uncle marked similar events in their lives. It was a truly communal occasion, memorable for Leone no less than for her family and her congregation.
Similar opportunities are available to all who take Judaism seriously and eschew narcissism in favour of authentic Jewish togetherness.