I am struck by the variety of observances, ceremonies and celebrations that go by the name ‘bar/bat mitzvah’. It seems that, as Jewish expression becomes more varied, so too do the models of b’nei mitzvah. And of course, these varied models embody differing values and assumptions about what it means to be Jewish and what we expect from and hope for our children.
But, despite the variety we see in b’nei mitzvah expressions, the current discontent about it in many sectors of the Jewish community prompts me to really look at what the bar/bat mitzvah is ultimately about. And that is, obligation. A bar/bat mitzvah is essentially about the beginning of Jewish obligation. But obligation, unless you are committed to halakha, is at best, a foreign concept or, more likely, distasteful and irrelevant.
But the truth is that obligation is a very significant thing. To HAVE to do something, to be required to behave in certain ways or commit to certain practices is, I think, very powerful. Indeed Jewish law views obligation to be of greater value than choice, so if a person performs a particular mitzvah but doesn’t have the obligation to do it, his or her action is worth less than the person who does have the obligation and does the same action without free choice. Ultimately, being obligated means that, not only is what I am doing important, but so am I. My participation is valuable, and I am needed. It matters, to the community and/or to a higher power. Rights also come with responsibilities.
This isn’t an easy approach to sell these days, I know. Obligation is not the language that we tend to use with our constituents or our students. We want them to choose freely, to opt-in willingly, and we fear (often justifiably) that if we apply pressure we may end up chasing them away. But what would happen if we returned to the notion of obligation? And created educational experiences where our young people experience, learn about, explore and internalize the value of HAVING to do something. And I am not talking necessarily only about halakhic obligation. This could equally refer to any set of value-driven behaviors that a person can choose to accept as determining his or her actions.
What might that look like? Let’s imagine an educational process where the bar or bat mitzvah starts to experience the power of obligation. This could mean volunteering on a regular basis and reflecting on what it means to have to make a commitment to others. It could mean meeting and talking with others (adults and adolescents) who have made commitments to their values (vegetarianism, making aliyah, taking on varied halakhic commitments). It could also mean experimenting with doing things because you feel you really have to (praying, giving tzedakah on a regular basis, exercising). None of this would look like a bar mitzvah that we are familiar with, but it might encourage some adolescents, and their families, to reimagine a meaningful educational experience, and celebration, that looks and feels meaningful, relevant and provides a strong and durable basis for long-term commitment to Jewish community.
A bar mitzvah that is really about being “m’tzuveh” – “commanded”? I know it isn’t fashionable, but I’d like to try it.
Clare Goldwater is a Jerusalem-based educational consultant and leadership coach, working with organizations and individuals to help them be more effective. A long-time experiential Jewish educator, she has an MA in Education from the Hebrew University and was a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Institute. At her “bat chayil”, (the version of bat mitzvah available 30 years ago in orthodox synagogues in the UK), she gave a short speech about her Hebrew name. She wishes it could have been more meaningful.