Rites and wrongs

col-kennardRabbi James Kennard

A COVER headline blaring “Judge denies bar mitzvah” (AJN 09/07) creates visions of persecution and Soviet-style denials of religious freedom. But as usual, the story is more complex and less dramatic. A dispute between parents comes to court and the judge is obliged to rule on one side of an argument about the religious upbringing of the children — a tragically common occurrence and a sharp reminder of what may happen when parents do not share the same faith.

The judge’s agreement with the Catholic father that the Jewish mother could not “commit their children to the Jewish faith through their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies” until they were old enough to make their own decision is therefore an attempt to reach a practical compromise and not an anti-Jewish outrage.

But it’s still wrong. That’s not because a judge has no right to interfere in religion; in a family court a judge has a duty to interfere in any aspect of domestic arrangements that are in dispute. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Jews would welcome a judge’s religious ruling — such as a Muslim father demanding that the children he shares with a Jewish mother make a commitment to Islam, or a Catholic father’s insistence that his offspring be baptised. In such cases we would be the¬†first to cry “no coercion” and “let the children decide for themselves when they are older”, and we would claim that the fathers’ views that the children were, by their definition, Muslim or Catholic, should be disregarded by the court.

It’s wrong because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what a bar or bat mitzvah actually is.

There are at least three views current in our community on what this rite of passage represents, and two are incorrect. The first is that it’s an occasion (and a requirement) for a lavish and expensive party to mark a boy’s thirteenth birthday or a girl’s twelfth. It’s a time to tell the child what a wonderful person they are; how much their parents and grandparents love them, and to hear funny songs by their classmates which embarrass the young man or woman with inappropriate anecdotes. It’s an opportunity for youngsters to experience their initiation into teenagehood by dressing, dancing and drinking as if they were adults.

Sitting at the other extreme is the view of a bar or bat mitzvah (shared by the father and the judge in this court case) as a declaration of commitment, which confirms one’s “acceptance of the Jewish faith” without which one cannot proceed to the next stage of Jewish life. According to this understanding, Jewish responsibilities remain optional, and only become obligatory if and when they are accepted. This version of a bar or bat mitzvah is therefore ideologically akin to the “confirmation” ceremonies of various Christian denominations or some Reform Jewish groups.

In fact, a bar or bat mitzvah is neither a party nor a pledge. It is something you are and not something you have. The term simply means “one who is commanded” (and not the literal, but incorrect, translation as “son/daughter of the commandment”) and is applied to any Jew who has reached 12 or 13 — the age from which the Divine commandments apply. Even without the agreement of the judge and the father in the court case, the children of a Jewish mother will become “b’nei mitzvah” simply by having a birthday. Jewish law applies to all Jews without any need for a declaration of acceptance.

If the judge had understood that a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony and the party mark the occasion but do not constitute it, one can hope that he would have allowed the children to observe this ritual along with the other Jewish customs that have been agreed between the parents.

But nevertheless we all have something to learn from this tragic story. If a bar or bat mitzvah was important enough to the parents to go to court over, and represented such an important rite in the judge’s eyes, albeit incorrectly, maybe we should strive to understand its true significance, and especially to ensure that the young man or woman appreciate what they are celebrating.

Perhaps we should hear less about how wonderful the child is, and more about the wonder of Jewish life. Less about how much the parents and grandparents love the celebrant, and more about what lessons he or she can learn from their example. Less bar and more mitzvah.

The children in this case will indeed become bar and bat mitzvah at the appropriate ages, even without a ceremony. I hope and pray that at some time in the future they will have a chance to celebrate the milestone, even if later than usual. And that their struggle will make that moment even more special, for them and for us.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne.