This summer our oldest grandchild, Jasper, celebrated his bar mitzvah in Maryland, where his family maintains its membership in Machar, The Washington Congregation for Humanistic Judaism (www.machar.org).
Rabbinic Judaism and the informal folk culture defined unique roles for men and women, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. These rigid guidelines became the heart of an ethical system that remained unchanged until modern times.
The Secular Revolution, with its affirmation of personal dignity, has undermined those structures of the past. The new Jewish family, like most modern families, bears little relationship to the old paradigm. Humanistic Jews do not resist these changes. They test both the old and the new with the measuring stick of dignity. They realize that a humanistic celebration of Jewish “passages” must be able to embrace what is good in these changes.
The practice of calling a thirteen-year-old boy to read from the Torah is not prescribed in Jewish law and did not begin until the fifteenth century. Thirteen-year-old girls did not obtain this privilege until well into the twentieth century (since, in rabbinic Judaism, participation in Torah reading was reserved for males).
Just as this coming-of-age ceremony has changed through the centuries, Humanistic Judaism has adapted it to the conditions of contemporary Jewish life. Not only the ceremony but its meaning is different.
In classical Judaism, before the age of thirteen a boy was presumed to be under his parents’ control. After his thirteenth birthday, the obligation to obey the commandments of the Torah was his own. He was considered part of the adult community – a “son of the commandments.”
In modern American society, age thirteen no longer represents the beginning of adulthood. For Humanistic Jews, the bar or bat mitzvah marks the advent of adolescence, a period of searching for one’s identity and life path. Thirteen-year-olds can respond to more challenging tasks than were expected of them as children. They can demonstrate greater independence and a depth of thought, competence and commitment.
A Humanistic bar or bat mitzvah provides public encouragement and recognition of the development of these capacities on the road to maturity. It signifies a young person’s desire to become more responsible for his or her own decisions and actions, and to identify with the many previous generations of the Jewish people who have done so. For Humanistic Jews, then, bar or bat mitzvah means “son or daughter of responsibility.”
How do Humanistic Jews mark this rite of passage? One way is for the young person to choose a Torah portion (not necessarily the prescribed portion of the week) and to read it, along with an original interpretative address. A more radical departure, but one in keeping both with humanistic principles and with the meaning of the occasion, is for the child to study of the life of a humanistic or Jewish hero, or another appropriate topic. An adult tutor, sometimes the student’s parent, supervises the research and the presentation of a paper and a speech summing up its conclusions.
This preparation for a Humanistic bar or bat mitzvah gives a young person the opportunity to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually; to develop skills and self-confidence and to experience a meaningful connection to the Jewish people and to humankind. The event provides an opportunity for family and community to join in celebrating and applauding those achievements and to reaffirm their own commitments.
Whatever its form, a Humanistic mitzvah ceremony is gender-neutral. It represents a genuine expression of beliefs and values, and reinforces a link to the celebrant’s Jewish roots.
P.S. Jasper’s topic was “Jews during the Black Plague.”