Monday, June 01, 2009

The Bar Mitzvah

A guest post by E_Fink

A rite of passage. A boy becomes a man. The Bar Mitzva.

Before I begin I have a disclaimer. Everyone has their flaws, especially me. The one area in which I was blessed is being in the spotlight. This post did not apply to me when I was Bar Mitzva. I relished every moment of the spotlight for my Bar Mitzva. I loved leining, I loved Davening Kabbalas Shabbos and Shachris for the Amud, I loved speaking 3 times over my Bar Mitzva. It was a great overall experience for me. I cannot relate first hand to what I am about to write but I have felt it too often second hand not to write.

What should be a seminal moment in a young man's transition from childhood to adulthood has become something entirely different. Bar Mitzva boys of 13 years old are expected to prepare up to 150 Psukim of foreign text with foreign cantillation notes. They are expected to be able to speak in public in front of large crowds. They are expected to embrace this "opportunity" and these experiences somehow celebrate the Bar Mitzva. All, whilst getting pelted by rock candy and boxes of Mike & Ikes.

A Bar Mitzva celebration is supposed to celebrate the young man's ability to bring Shechina closer to Hashem's people. With 9 men and a 12 year old boy the Shechina is just the same as usual. When there are 9 men and 13 year old boy, the Shechina becomes concentrated on that place and special prayers can be added to the daily services. That is what we are celebrating, more Shechina.

The Halacha is that a Bar Mitzva boy must get called up to the Torah for an Aliyah, The young man is now required to observe almost all Mitzvos, and perhaps most significantly, Teffilin. That's quite a tall order already.

Why do we heap on this poor kid and expect him to develop a difficult, ancient and practically useless skill of leining? Why should a shy boy who can't see over the podium be expected to deliver a coherent, interesting Torah thought? Worse, the bar (no pun intended) is set so high that anything less than this is a failure. The parents and certainly the grandparents are bound to be disappointed by this subpar effort, not to mention the usual shul mumblers and kvetchers. "What, he only leined 4 aliyos? A Shanda", "I couldn't hear a thing that boy said in this speech".]

Wouldn't this time in the boy's life be better spent working on his understanding of mitzva observance? Let the kid be a kid! Let him have fun! All this stress and tension is BAD for Judasim. A child's entry into adult life should be full of happiness and excitement, not dread, fear, stress and failure. If your experience leading the Torah reading or Davening was bad at 13 you are likely to be "turned off" from these types of Jewish experiences. That cannot be good. I think it is terrible.

I know it is a wonderful experience for some, like for me. but I can't help but think the expectations are way too high. It's not as if there is any true necessity for a 13 year boy to lein and give a dvar torah! No one would miss it. For the boys who thrive and revel in the spotlight, the Bar Mitzva is a great opportunity for them to hone those skills, which will likely be very useful to those boys. But to force all the "square" boys into this "round" hole is irresponsible.

Not to mention two other huge issues with Bar Mitzva celebrations.

First, the incredible amounts of money spent on lavish parties and weekends of revelry is becoming wasteful. Times are tough, the standards must be lowered for Bar Mitzva celebrations.

Second, and perhaps this deserves an entirely independent post, is the message we send our daughters. It's as if their puny little Bas Mitzva "sleepover" is a "bone" we throw at them because their entry into the world of Mitzva observance is not so important. Before we get all excited here, there is a fundamental difference between a boy entering a status by which he can bring Shechina to a place. A young woman, as special and important as her Mitzva observance can be, does have different (not inferior, just different) halachic status. Yes, that is true, but the women growing up in our Torah system already have an inferiority complex, this chasm between the Bar and Bas Mitzva only exacerbates the problem.

Both celebrations need to be toned down and brought back to their roots. What do you think?

Search for more information about the Bar Mitzvah at

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