Monday, December 8, 2008

Reflections on an Orthodox Bar-Mitzvah

I attended an Orthodox bar-mitzvah on Saturday. As expected (or at least as I expected), the bar-mitzvah boy did a spectacular job. Last week's parsha (vayetzei) is one of the longest is the Torah, and his leining was great. And his speech was smart, mature, and insightful.

Most bar-mitzvot I have attended have been Reform or Conservative, and I was struck in good way by the "tone" of the service. It was pretty serious as a service. Like any bar mitzvah service, there was some focus on the bar mitzvah boy: the rabbi talked about him, he gave a dvar Torah, etc. And it certainly was a happy occasion. He was happy, his family was proud (and rightfully so), and the day was his.

But the service did not revolve around him. It was not gushy or silly or showy. The focus during the davening was on the davening and the focus during the leining was on the leining. This was not a tribute ceremony or a show. This was shabbat morning service. The sense I got from the room was that this was important business for grown-ups. We do it every week, someone has to be the leader, the kid is now old enough and knowledgeable enough, and so he's in charge. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

The result was a real rite of passage. The bar-mitzvah boy did an adult thing in an adult way and did it well. And since focus of everyone was on doing the adult thing, the experience was genuine.

In too many Reform or Conservative synagogues, the bar- or bat-mitzvah is run as a performance. The kid memorizes a small part of the parsha, says a few blessings, and the parents give a speech about how the kid is the best person in the world. The adults are not there to daven or learn Torah; they are there solely to fawn over the kid. While this is objectionable by itself, it also results in gutting the meaning of the ritual. The kid is not doing an adult thing since the adults in his or her life don't regularly do these things. The kid is performing a show, and the performance itself is the coming-of-age ritual.

This is not a blanket criticism of liberal Jewish bar- and bat-mitzvot. Many are closer to the Orthodox model, and many are genuine, meaningful, and haimish. But many are not. We Conservative and Reform Jews might not copy everything from our Orthodox friends, but we certainly could learn a bit about how to do a bar-mitzvah.

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