Christy's Bat Mitzvah is a monumental event for her entire family. The synagogue is full; out-of-towners from New York, San Francisco and Raleigh, North Carolina. It is the first time that many of them have been in a synagogue. While Christy is nervous that she might make a mistake in front of so many people whose expectations must be so high, her mother's family is also apprehensive about the uncharted waters in which they find themselves--a foreign environment of Torah, tallits (prayer shawls), and Hebrew prayers.
For Christy, this day had been envisaged for many years. When her parents were married, they made a mutual decision to raise their children in the Jewish faith. Both parents agreed that Judaism would add the security of values and the warmth of rituals to their family home.
I spend countless hours preparing for these days with students and their parents. We spend most of our time in discussion of Jewish holidays, ethics, traditions, and of course, the prayers and readings of the Shabbat service. Whether the student is of a single faith or interfaith family, my goal in Bar and Bat Mitzvah preparation is to share an experience of Jewish life that is rooted in meaning and relevance and not simply a robotic adherence to ritual.
For many families, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah exists as a singular Jewish experience in an otherwise secular American life. Often parents choose to have their children's spiritual passports stamped with the experience of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah out of respect for a previous generation. For others, the impetus comes of realizing that Mitzvah ceremonies have the capacity to enrich their children's lives--that religion's purpose is to elevate the act of living. What better gift can they give their children?
Traditional Judaism holds that we inherit our religious identity from our mothers. While Conservative and Orthodox rabbis hold that a child born of a non-Jewish mother must convert in order to fully participate in Jewish life (not the case in all eras of our history), others, like myself, base the identification on the individual rather than the issue in the abstract. [Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis accept a child as Jewish if either the father or mother is Jewish, as long as the child is brought up as a Jew, and Secular Humanistic Jews accept anyone as Jewish who chooses to identify as such.]
While I fully respect the more conservative point of view, I choose to honor a child who is willing to spend a year of intensive study (the same requirement exists for Reform conversions) and who has the intention of living as a Jew. The responsibility of providing that child with a comprehensive Jewish curriculum becomes that of the educator. To my mind, the experience of the learning process preceding the Mitzvah celebration and the ceremony itself can awaken a teen's passion for his or her Jewish identity. It can also provide a non-Jewish parent with insight into his or her child's religious values and a greater investment in the Jewish experience. The doing can certainly create the feeling.
Commandment and Context
In a religion of commanded law, discretion can seem unnecessary. In fact, Jewish tradition demands that we marry our hearts to our minds and not simply obey in blind faith. Every commandment requires examination and the consideration of context. Every person's circumstances must be viewed in relation to ancient law and present conditions. A beautiful illustration is found in a Jewish tale.
A wealthy woman approaches the village rabbi and asks if the slightly imperfect chicken in her arms is kosher for her Shabbat table. The rabbi examines the bird and replies that according to halakhah, Torah law, the bird is blemished and is therefore unsuitable for her family's consumption. A poor woman approaches the rabbi with the very same chicken and asks if it is kosher. The rabbi examines the chicken, and looking into the woman's eyes, he replies, “Yes.”
Christy's Bat Mitzvah is a blessing. As the Torah is about to pass from arm to arm--one generation to the next, until it arrives in Christy's arms, I invite her mother to join the sacred chain. She deserves our honor for her decision to make this ancient doctrine her daughter's inheritance. As I watch dad and mom pass the Torah into Christy's arms, I see commitment, sacrifice, love and enormous pride in both of their eyes and in their tears. I realize that kvelling (feeling proud) is a Jewish word but a wholly universal experience.