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The Bar Mitzvah, re-examined

by Rabbi David Wolpe

August 20, 2013 | 10:39 am

A still from Sam Horowitz Bar Mitzvah video

A still from Sam Horowitz Bar Mitzvah video

Last week I penned a column about a Bar Mitzvah party video that had been circulating on the Web. I was incensed not only at the video, but the currency it had achieved, making it appear that this was a paradigm of Jewish celebrations.

The article was written at white heat. A few correspondents, and particularly my friend and colleague, Rabbi William Gershon, the Horowitz’s rabbi, took me to task not for the points I made, but for appearing to insult a child and those who love him. I am truly sorry for that, and apologize to Sam and his family for anything I said that was wounding. As a Rabbi I should know better than to push “send” without calm and consideration. And I am additionally sorry for not addressing what is in some ways the greater and more pressing issue, which is not about any individual or family but about our community.

Half of my congregants are from Beverly Hills. I am acquainted with lavish celebrations and over sexualized adolescent events. Scales differ but still, in all communities — orthodox, conservative, reform, why do we believe such displays are appropriate for a sacred rite of passage?

No parent would permit such ostentation if met by disapproval from the community. It is our applause that keeps the performances going. Rabbis may thunder from the pulpit but unless there is a sense that this is a violation of sanctity, an insult to the holiness of the moment, such excesses will continue and even grow.

Repeatedly we see a child schooled in Torah, chanting, speaking, embraced by his family on the age at which he or she becomes responsible for mitzvot. And then, to mark the moment when religious obligations are now his, this same child celebrates with a party that is thoroughly inappropriate: pricey and even lewd. If we cannot feel — deeply feel — the disconnect, then something is broken in our Jewish souls.

These extravaganzas make sense if our definition of success is wealth, or a vainglorious declaration of self. But the Jewish tradition, our genuine teaching, disdains vulgarity and narcissism. We are secure in America, not arrivestes proving that we can be accepted by lighting our cigars with dollar bills. The American Jewish community is organized, wealthy and with all the problems that exist, comfortable. Modesty, humility and gratitude are Jewish values too little in evidence in many of our celebrations and synagogues.

The holidays are coming. I intend to examine my soul, understand my misdeeds and try to do better. As a community, let’s look at what we are teaching our children, and do the same.

This piece originally appeared on washingtonpost.com. Re-posted with permission.


Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author, most recently, of “Why Faith Matters.”  You can follow Rabbi Wolpe on Twitter @RabbiWolpe.

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