Who believes that the 13-year-old standing before the congregation is really a man or woman?
The bar/bat mitzvah ushers a child into the responsibilities of adulthood. It is not intended to magically transform a child into an adult. It is not about being a man or woman; it is about becoming one.
Judging by the way some families celebrate this simcha (joy), it does not succeed in transforming the parents into adults either. The sobriety, responsibility and seriousness of bearing the message of Torah into the world is, to say the least, incompatible with a girl wearing a gold crown and sitting astride a bejeweled horse while being led onto the yacht club’s strobe-lit dance floor.
At its best the bar or bat mitzvah is an assumption of the threefold-cord that binds our tradition: God, Torah and Israel.
This moment is the first free acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God. The tradition takes that responsibility seriously; if a child has been converted before b’nai mitzvah age, he or she can renounce the conversion at this age. For now the choice is fully understood.
This acknowledgment of God should be a powerful and humbling moment. God may be the same everywhere, but human beings are not. A bar mitzvah stands before creation and Creator, acknowledging that ultimate authority lies beyond the individual. The world is not random and pointless; a bar mitzvah is an assertion of the meaningfulness of God’s world and our place in it.
Being called up to the Torah is an implicit commitment to a lifetime of learning. The Torah is a book of the desert; the message is that in this unredeemed world, we all live in the wilderness. Everyone will encounter pain, loss, challenge and trial. If we assume that painlessness and lavishness are the birthright of our children, we lie to ourselves and to them about the world they will inherit. The Torah is wiser and truer. It is our map through the wilderness.
Finally, the bar or bat mitzvah comes before a community. The student steps into a line much larger than himself, his family, larger even than the Jewish world. She stands in the same trajectory as countless others before her, sharing a covenant of both history and destiny.
That sounds monumental for a 13-year-old. Yet the task is not too great. Rather we have sadly diminished our concept of what a human being at that age can be and achieve. With all the celebratory excess, we forget that the measure of a person’s worth is reflected not in what we give them but what we ask of them.
So each bar and bat mitzvah should be like every other. The desire to make one unique is a betrayal of its purpose. The point is to stand in a known place, a place reserved for Jews throughout history. This is the line of continuity. There is no line if each person stands aslant the other.
If we ask ourselves why in the modern world we still celebrate a bar mitzvah at 13, the tradition’s answer is clear. Everything has changed since the time of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Ruth — language, dress, technology — everything except human nature.
The student is not a grown-up. For many reasons the entrance to marriage and the workplace are later than they once were. But biologically a child of this age is beginning the processes of growing up, just as children did in the time of the Bible and Talmud. Since Judaism honors culture, but is not enslaved to it, it makes sense to have our ceremony tied to something enduring — the way God made us, not the way society right now would have us be.
A child stands before the congregation not when he or she is an adult. We bring them before the congregation when they are on the portal of adulthood. If we are wise, we show them a vision of responsibility and possibility.
We celebrate what they might become. With joy but also trembling we hand them a sacred, cherished and ancient legacy. Then we embrace our child, tears in our eyes, conscious of the beautiful and painful passing of time, and we pray.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple (sinaitemple.org), a Conservative congregation in West Los Angeles.