March 13, 2008
Advertise joys of Judaism to others during simcha
Bar mitzvah audiences are no longer what they used to be. No more the simple Saturday morning minyan -- a tight cluster of worshippers -- who halfway through the service are thinking of the pickled herring and egg salad to follow. Today in many synagogues, the ceremony has all the excitement of the UCLA-USC football game, followed by a groaning banquet table. And the religious demographics are closer to UCLA-USC than Hebrew U.-Brandeis.
It is an interfaith moment, so to speak: A wonderful opportunity to display our theological wares. Today, by the time the frenzied parents have satisfied their social obligations, they've included beside relatives, co-workers, the child's friends and family members -- some of whom worship on Sunday, not Saturday.
Given the condition of Judaism in 2008, a bar mitzvah is an ecumenical stew. It's not only the non-Jews who wonder about the significance and meaning of the ceremony, but even some of our fellow Israelites stare with wonder and, sometimes, awe.
That's why a booklet of origins, explanations and exegesis is useful. Not only does it highlight the mechanics of the ceremony, but with a touch of subtlety, as well as modesty, it allows us to point out the contributions of Judaism to the overwhelming Christian culture in which we live -- a contribution unknown to most of our fellow Jews as well as their non-Jewish friends.
From the world of entertainment to Nobel Prize-winners and from Hollywood to MIT, disproportionately you find the Jew. It is one of history's puzzling enigmas -- there are more Brazilians than Jews, but Brazilians rarely make the headlines.
Although the bar mitzvah booklet cannot explain this mystery, it can, via a description of the ceremony and history, educate and advertise the joys of Judaism, an opportunity we shouldn't miss. It helps to remind the world that for better or worse, politically correct or not, God has chosen us to carry the light out of Zion.
In addition to a brief history of the Jews, the booklet should go something like this:
The ceremony that we will witness today marks the passage of a Jewish girl or boy from childhood into adulthood. From this day on, he is ethically, morally responsible for his behavior -- literally, a son or daughter of the commandments. Contrary to the common wisdom, our Bible is jammed with 603 commandments, in addition to the familiar 10.
The youth undertakes a heavy obligation: These commandments, dealing with every aspect of behavior, make the point that Judaism is a creed of deeds that are more important than faith, more important than prayer.
We realize that some of our friends, both Jewish and Christian, may never have attended a bar mitzvah ceremony, therefore we offer this guide to the morning's activities. It's full of tradition and still the foundation of our Judeo-Christian culture.
The bar mitzvah ceremony usually takes place within the setting of the normal Saturday morning Shabbat service, which consists of traditional prayers that go back centuries. The highlight of the Saturday ceremony -- the highlight of every service where the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is read -- is the removal of the sacred scroll from its draped alcove.
The Torah is carried by the rabbi or a congregation member around the aisles of the synagogue as the worshippers sing a joyful song of praise and thanksgiving. Congregants crowd around "The Law" to kiss it, to touch it with their prayer shawl or their prayer book. This exuberant procession is also a sign that the bar or bat mitzvah, who has thus far been in the wings, is ready for the spotlight.
After the appropriate blessings, the honoree will read directly from the Torah scroll. Not a simple task even to a student of Hebrew, because the ancient lettering has no vowels.
Besides the Torah chanting, the child -- after a blessing -- sings a passage from the haftarah, the prophetic section of the Bible. The haftarah is the home of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos and company, who spoke for justice and care for the downtrodden before it was politically popular. After all, it was an era where swords beat love at every encounter.
The bar mitzvah child follows his haftarah performance with yet another tuneful blessing. The challenge of the day, you see, is musical as well as scholarly.
Then finally, after deciphering and reciting passages from a 3,500-year-old language and delivering the equivalent of three arias from "Il Trovatore," you'd think our young student could take a bow. Not yet.
He must then present an exegesis on the Torah and haftarah he has just chanted.
When he completes this final task, there's no applause, but everybody grins and relaxes. Once the bar mitzvah child finishes his speech, the normal services are resumed.
Luckily, we live in the United States, where Judaism flourishes because of freedom. We don't have to whisper our haftarah. We don't need a sentry by the synagogue door on the lookout for the mob and the hoodlums.
The bar mitzvah boys that preceded this one in Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia and other dark times studied in stealth and recited their lessons in fear. But our honoree can shout to the heavens.
Our Passover haggadah tells us: "Now we are slaves in Egypt; next year may we be free men." Well, today we are free -- free to sing the Torah and haftarah with passion, like David the sweet singer of Israel.
Dimly surrounding our honoree are the less fortunate bar mitzvah children of other lands and other times. He sings for them, too.
Ted Roberts, a longtime b'nai mitzvah teacher, is also a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Disney Magazine and Hadassah.