This post first appeared on JewishJournal.com on 2/20. It has been reposted here with permission.
Yesterday, when I first saw Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah Save the Date, it was up to about 1,400 YouTube views. When I checked back this morning it was at 60,000. Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah has gone viral, and I expect it to be over 100,000 views by the end of the day. Much has been said about the Bar Mitzvah over the past ten years. The ceremony vs. party dilemma is probably best displayed in Jeremy Piven’s Keeping Up with the Steins in which the Bar Mitzvah party becomes this extravagant moment and the ceremony plays second fiddle. Personally, I am less concerned about the crazy parties. If people want to spend money on that night to make it special, I say go for it; or as Daniel so eloquently put it, “Playas play.”
What I am more concerned about is the Bar Mitzvah — the ceremony, party, and dedication — being an end moment in a young Jew’s life. If the Bar Mitzvah is the end, or, at very least, the pinnacle of a child’s Jewish education then I agree with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who said, “If I had the power I would abolish the Bar Mitzvah ceremony in this country.”
Daniel’s Save-the-Date is actually pretty awesome. The fact is that when he wakes up this morning he will see at least 60,000 views to his video (Hey, Daniel where’s my invite?). He probably did not spend nearly the amount of money that some families spend on the actual Bar Mitzvah party (although he might if Matt Ryan makes an appearance) and he will forever have a sense of Jewish pride from the memory of the video. A transformative Jewish experience is what will make him cling to his Judaism, something the average Bar Mitzvah does not do. On the contrary, the Bar Mitzvah is often used as a way to defend one’s Jewishness. I cannot tell you how many people say to a Rabbi, “I am not that religious. I mean I had a Bar Mitzvah so I know what is going on, but that’s it.” That is not it. The Bar Mitzvah is not a standard of higher Jewish learning; it is a check point into what is hopefully a Jewish life full of commitment, learning, and longevity.
There are many who have been frustrated for a long time at the glorification of the Bar Mitzvah. There is probably very little that is more depressing, from a rabbi’s point of view, than a Bar Mitzvah child standing on the bimah with a look of total carelessness or discomfort. Rabbi Byron Sherwin writes:
“The place bar mitzvah has assumed in the social and religious life of the Jewish community in the United States is unparalleled in Jewish history. Already in 1887, a commentator on American Jewish life described the bar mitzvah as ‘the most important religious occasion amongst our Jewish brethren.’…Contrary to popular misconceptions, a child need not have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah to be Jewish. One’s status as a Jew is granted either by birth or by religious conversion.”
Sherwin is right. Why does the Bar Mitzvah receive so much attention? For parents to say at thirteen (or even twelve) that their child’s Jewish education in some way is reduced, when in reality the education of our children should truly be in its middle stages.
Next week I am attending a conference, The Jewish Futures Conference, in New York focusing on the Bar Mitzvah. I am very excited to explore potential visions for the Bar Mitzvah in the 21st century. In the 1950s, Reform Judaism tried to change the Bar Mitzvah but it failed.
“Reform Judaism, in its effort to make the practice of religion less of a routine, as well as to give it a more modern and more realistic tone, virtually abolished the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, not to supplant but to supplement the Confirmation service, coming somewhat later.”
So, I am extremely curious to know how synagogues are going to approach the Bar Mitzvah in the future, and if there is actually a way to use it to enhance our children’s, and even their family’s Judaism. Or will it remain an end point for the Jewish people even if it’s a high point (maybe highest point) for the children?
Daniel, I do intend on saving May 11th 2013 on my calendar. But you should plan on saving May 11th 2014, 2015, 2016, and so on to see if your Bar Mitzvah meant more than a YouTube video and party. Hopefully, your Bar Mitzvah is just the beginning of your Jewish learning and commitment. But regardless of your Jewish future I have to give you props for making a hysterical video and dropping those lyrics. My only other advice is trade in the Jason Heyward jersey for a Chipper Jones.
Here’s the video: