“Bar [or Bat] Mitzvah” is not the name of a ceremony. The term means “obligated” – namely, someone old enough to be personally responsible for following the Jewish way of life. The ceremony at age 13 simply commemorates this. Hopefully, it inspires a commitment to live a good Jewish life, including much more learning and growing. Similarly, an adult who chooses to have a “Bar-” or “Bat-Mitzvah” undertakes, hopefully, not just to enact a ceremony missed as a child, but to mark a step into a more fully lived Judaism.
We want “Bar/Bat Mitzvahs” to be the “real thing” – the undertaking of responsibility and meaningful involvement in Jewish life. It should be the beginning, not the end, of someone’s committed involvement with the Jewish tradition. As a rabbi my father often told the child, “You did well this morning. But we don’t yet know whether your Bar Mitzvah was a success. We won’t know tomorrow, or next week or next month. Perhaps in five years, in ten years, we will find out if this was a successful Bar Mitzvah.” Yes – it is what follows after the ceremony is over, that this is all about.
The training of a prospective bar/bat mitzvah should reflect this goal. The goal should be not just to gain the Hebrew and technical skills to “perform” successfully, but to learn enough about prayer and other parts of Jewish living to be able to connect it to ones own personal values. Thus when I train someone, I encourage them to look into the prayer book themselves and see what speaks to them, or raises questions we can discuss together. In this way the child (or adult) finds ways to connect to the tradition in ways that he or she finds personally meaningful. Then the technical learning and practice can take on a purpose beyond simple skill mastery.
Skill mastery by itself leaves behind satisfaction for a task completed and to be looked back at. Connecting to meaning can inspire someone to do things in the future. The latter is the commitment we want “Bar/t Mitzvah” events to engender. So with either children or adults, I start by challenging them to search for meaning. Then I tie these personal connections to the substantive learning of the tradition. This can provide satisfaction long afterwards. In this way, we can turn more experiences from transient celebrations into launching pads for continued involvement.
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– How can we make my (or my child’s) this Bar/Bat Mitzvah a success?
– What do I want to learn that will enhance my connection to Judaism?
Rabbi Jonathan Zimet is founder and organizer of
Jewish Learning for Everyone.