Bar/Bat Mitzvah Essay

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The  bar  mitzvah  is a  Jewish  rite  of  passage  for boys  who  have  reached  the  age  of  13.  The  bat mitzvah  is the same ritual,  but  it is for girls—bar means  son  in  Hebrew,  and  bat  means  daughter. The full phrase means “son/daughter who has become subject to the law.” This is with reference to  the  fact  that  in Jewish  tradition, children  are not  considered  responsible  for their  actions  until they reach the age of 13 (or age 12 in some of the more conservative  Jewish traditions). In fact, children under  this age are not required  to follow the commandments  in  the  Torah,   though   naturally this  is encouraged so  that  they  begin  to  understand  what  will be expected  of them  when  they are older. Instead,  responsibility for the actions  of the child lies with the child’s parents.  The bar/bat mitzvah,  then, is observed  for two important reasons: (1) it celebrates  the entry of a child into the world  of adulthood, with all of the privileges and duties  that  this  entails,  and  (2)  it  celebrates  the freeing of the parents  from  responsibility for the deeds of their child.

In many  Jewish traditions, the bar/bat mitzvah is celebrated  both  at home  and  in the synagogue, as a part  of religious  services. In most  cases, the person being bar/bat mitzvahed is expected to read from the Torah  and recite a special blessing before the assembled  worshippers to show that  he or she is now ready to participate as an adult  in the religious community. The ceremony  is followed  by a celebration held either at the child’s home or at an entertainment venue.  In some  ways,  this  celebration echoes the secular “sweet 16” party traditionally held for girls on their 16th birthday, as well as the  quinceañera,  a  celebration for  girls  in  Latin America  as  they  turn   15  (quince  means  15  in Spanish).

Celebration

The bar/bat mitzvah  is a major  event in a Jewish family and is usually celebrated with a party, a trip, or a special meal, often  attended by the extended family. In the United States, the parties held to celebrate the bar/bat mitzvah have become increasingly  lavish   over   the   years,   with   each   family seeming to compete  against  others  in an effort  to outdo  previous  parties  by offering more and more elaborate entertainments. This trend  has been featured,  often  satirically,  in movies such as Keeping Up With  the Steins.

Because it is not  unusual  for families to spend tens of thousands of dollars  on a bar/bat mitzvah (food,   entertainment,  venue   rental,   gifts,  hotel accommodations,  etc.),   a   thriving   industry   of bar/bat mitzvah  coordinators, suppliers,  and  planners has emerged. In this respect, the b’nai mitzvah (the plural, non-gender-specific form of bar/bat mitzvah) has increasingly come to resemble the wedding  industry:  Both events are  seen as hugely important, once-in-a-lifetime  milestones  that  must be  elaborately  planned   and  flawlessly  executed. Many   bar/bat  mitzvahs   are   organized   around themes,  which  provide  both  guests and  host  with ideas for decorations, costumes, and gifts that coordinate  with  one another; themes  range  from  Rain Forest to Roaring  Twenties and even to Star Trek.

Variations

Judaism  is not  a  monolithic construct, with  the same practices  being performed in the same ways by all adherents of the faith.  Rather,  it has developed   many   different   forms,  and   each  of  these forms  attracts  followers   for  different   reasons— some  for  their  modern,   liberal  interpretation of spirituality, others  for their strict adherence  to tradition and dogma,  and many more in between. For this reason,  Jewish religious practices,  such as the b’nai mitzvah, are performed in many different ways, depending on the time, the place, and the preferences and beliefs of the local Jewish community.   For   example,   the   Orthodox  and   Hasidic Jewish communities do not  allow  women  to participate in religious ceremonies; so those aspects of the ritual are not performed in those communities, and  instead,  a party  or a special meal at home  is used to mark  the event.

Some Jewish communities have tried at various times  to  gradually  move  away  from  focusing  on the bar/bat mitzvah  as the ultimate  rite of passage. Their  reasoning   has  been  that   13  years  is  too young  an  age  for  a  person  to  be  considered  an adult   in  any   context,   even  one   that   is  solely religious and does not carry with it privileges such as driving, voting, drinking, military service, and so on.  Proponents  of  the  bar/bat mitzvah   respond that even in the pages of the Torah  it is well understood that a 13-year-old is not truly ready for adulthood, because the Torah lists other ages as the ideal  times  for  various  events  to  occur:  work  at 20, marriage at 18, and so on. Defenders of the rite also  make  the  point  that  it  is  important in  the fast-paced    modern    world—where   roles    and responsibilities shift unexpectedly, sometimes placing children in the roles of adults  and vice versa— for communities to provide rites of passage to their children as guideposts  along life’s path.

Critics of the bar/bat mitzvah point to its role in encouraging  the  proliferation of materialism and its tendency  to cause parents  to compete  with one another to see who  can spend  the most  and  who can  get the  biggest  names  among  entertainers to perform.  For some, a preferable  alternative to this circus-like atmosphere is the practice  of confirmation  at  either  age  16  or  18,  similar  to  that  performed  in many Christian denominations. Despite efforts to promote confirmation, however,  bar/bat mitzvahs  continue  to set the standard, particularly in the United States, where their extravagance fits well with the nation’s  fondness  for celebrities  and spectacles. While parents  may continue  to lament the  cost  of the  bar/bat mitzvah  in dollars  and  in aggravation, few are  willing  to  give up  the  pride and  satisfaction that  come from  making  the most of such a special day in their children’s lives.

Bibliography:

  1. Magida, Arthur  Opening the Doors  of Wonder: Reflections on Religious  Rites of Passage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  2. Oppenheimer, Mark. Thirteen  and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

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