Yesterday, my son turned thirteen. We are still working on a format for his Coming of Age ritual: interfaith children may take longer to reach a point where they want to stand up in front of a community and talk about their religious identity and commitments. Anyway, I do not believe, and Judaism does not dictate, that such a ritual has to occur precisely at the stroke of thirteen. But I admit that a little alarm went off somewhere deep in my Jewish consciousness: Thirteen! Bar Mitzvah! Thirteen! Bar Mitzvah!
In our interfaith families community, seventh and eighth graders spend two years going through our Coming of Age curriculum. Each student chooses a mentor and a project that involves a community service component. The program culminates in a group Coming of Age ceremony, where each student talks about their project and the community recognizes that they have reached physical maturity, passed through our interfaith education program, and reached an age when they must draw on the ethical principals they have learned to take responsibility for their own actions.
For many families, the group ceremony meets their needs. But for some families, this community process, more akin to Christian (or Jewish) confirmation than it is to a Bar Mitzvah, is not enough. Some families want an individual ceremony. We want to be able to host extended family and friends from outside our interfaith community: to create a family event on a par with a wedding, to give elderly relatives something to look forward to, especially grandparents who might not be around for the weddings of their grandchildren. We want our children to have the experience of crafting and leading an entire ceremony, to meet a rigorous challenge that both draws on and instills confidence.
In our community, an individual Coming of Age ceremony may or may not involve a Torah reading, and the young person leading the ceremony may or may not read in Hebrew from the Torah. The family may or may not choose to label the ceremony as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Historically, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony evolved in recent centuries: it is not required by Jewish law. In fact, traditionally, all Jews automatically become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (daughter or son of the commandments) at the age of 13 (twelve for girls), whether or not they perform any specific ritual. Reaching this age entitles them to lead services, obligates them to follow the Jewish commandments, and officially relieves their parents of responsibility for the child!
In its most essential form, the Bar Mitzvah ritual involves being invited to make an aliyah for the first time—which means going up to the bimah (pulpit) and saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading. Over time, and in different denominations, the tradition has expanded to involve reading the Torah portion itself, reading the haftarah, giving a speech (a D’var Torah) about the Torah portion, and leading many of the Shabbat prayers. But the requirements vary from congregation to congregation, and our family has been to secular humanist Bar Mitzvahs where the Torah was not even present.
When my daughter was thirteen, she chose to have a Coming of Age ceremony in which she chanted the blessings over the Torah in Hebrew—and then read the Torah portion in English. I thought this was a wise decision because she will hear Hebrew blessings throughout her lifetime in every Shabbat service she attends. A Torah portion memorized in Hebrew, while it is a formidable feat, is rarely used again later in life. And for my daughter’s extended family, three-quarters of whom are Christian, the reading of the Torah portion in English had far greater meaning.
So was this a Bat Mitzvah? My daughter and I do not presume to refer to it as such, though my feisty (Jewish?) side tells me she could. My own Bat Mitzvah was entirely “by the book”—Torah portion chanted in Hebrew, haftarah, D’var Torah, all the Shabbat prayers. Often, when people challenge my right to a Jewish identity, I use the fact that I learned to read Hebrew and had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony as Jewish credentials. The Reform movement has encouraged, and even required, that interfaith children accomplish such rituals in order to call ourselves Jews.
In the end, there are an awful lot of loopholes. What constitutes a Bar Mitzvah? And then, inevitably, who is a Jew?
And yet, despite the ambiguities, the essence of the Bar Mitzvah tradition has power, and I claim that power for my children. I stand up and speak to them about who they are, our pride in them, their role in the world. They stand up and learn that they can be poised and articulate in front of our community. They see that their family, their Jewish family and their Christian family, will go to great lengths to be with them at important moments in their lives. They connect to the ancient traditions of Judaism (and by definition, Christianity) and feel the continuity of the generations flow through them. And they learn, they know, that they can claim all this, and experience the beauty of such a ceremony, no matter what we label it, and no matter what others might say or think about it all.