August 15, 2013
Have we forgotten what Bar Mitzvahs are all about?
[UPDATE] The Bar Mitzvah, re-examined
The egregious, licentious and thoroughly awful video that is circulating ‘celebrating’ a Bar Mitzvah contains so much that is offensive that it requires restraint to hold oneself to three ways in which this display slaughters the spirit. Still, in the face of excess what could be more appropriate than abstinence? So here are only three of the worst things about this travesty:
1. To turn a ceremony of spiritual maturation into a Vegas showgirl parade teaches a child sexualization of spirit. Apparently nothing in our society militates against the narcissistic display of short skirted dancers ushering an adolescent into unearned stardom. If it is fetching, it is worthy. A beat justifies all else, and the rapt attention of an (dare I hope incredulous?) audience, is its own justification. Here is a spectacle on the order of throwing Christians to lions — that is, toss belief into the arena of appetite. Everything is fair game if the show is good enough. The usual phrase set above the ark in a synagogue is “know before whom you stand.” Perhaps it is time to change it to “Flesh Vincit Omnia.” Rockette Ruach.
2. I am leery of being too maudlin but really, our ancestors struggled and suffered and fasted and prayed so Sammy could cavort? There is an historical outrage here. The Bar Mitzvah (which is a stage a child reaches, not the name of a ceremony) is important because one becomes responsible for the mitzvot, not because one poorly approximates a pubescent Justin Timberlake. Bar Mitzvah means something and however beautiful his religious ceremony may have been, and however sincere the Judaism of his family (I don’t know and cannot judge) it is drowned out by the cymbal crash of hip grinding libertinism. I think of some of the teachers of my youth who taught that the tradition they bore was sacred and demanded reverence. When one of us did our jobs in worship the way he instructed us, Mr. Weiss would slip us a Ludens cough drop. We coveted those cough drops because they were the sign of a sacred duty done well, acknowledged by someone of genuine authority coupled with kindness. I shudder to think of what Mr. Weiss would make of Sammy, who was doubtless slipped a BMW, or perhaps (in a concession to age) a diamond studded Magen David necklace in tribute to his accomplishment.
3. Poor Sammy. I say this with no irony. What remains to him of the small triumphs of life? When he struggles with math and earns a ‘B’ when before he could never do better than a ‘C’ will they purchase an island to mark the occasion? Will he take Air Force One to his prom? This young boy been so extravagantly recompensed at 13 as to make all future victories hollow. Alexander the Great, it is said, grew depressed when he realized he had no more worlds to conquer. And since Sammy’s extravaganza would probably have been too grandiose for Alexander to entertain for the mere conquest of the Persian empire, what of Sammy’s next achievement? His marriage had best take place on Mars or it will make no impression.
Achh. I know I sound like an old curmudgeon. Watching this I thought the adjective ‘godless’ has rarely been more apt. I cannot help recalling the wise words of AJ Heschel — self-respect grows each time we are able to say ‘no’ to ourselves. This video is a “YES” to a child from all the people in his life who should be teaching him “no.” And that kind of education has consequences far beyond Sam Horowitz and his dancing Bar Mitzvah girls.
This piece originally appeared on washingtonpost.com.
Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author, most recently, of “Why Faith Matters.”