Bar Mitzvah: A Religious (and Moral) Passage

Ceremony ushering Jewish children into age of responsibility crosses the generations

My father took the Torah from the rabbi and proudly passed it to my brother, Edward. Hefting the great scrolls onto his shoulder, my brother then turned and handed them to his son, Zev, my nephew.

“Yasher koach,” I whispered, smiling. May you have strength.

It was Zev’s bar mitzvah. It was a passage in more ways than one.

The ceremonial passing of the Torah — literally, the “teaching” — represents the transmission of tradition and Jewish law, from one generation to the next.

“I’m related to the slaves that Moses freed from Egypt,” Zev said before the ceremony, during which he would lead the Congregation Rodef Sholom, of San Rafael, California, in prayer. “I’m helping to carry on a tradition that my ancestors have carried on for 3,000 years.”

In addition to generational, it is a moral passage for Zev. At age 13, he is passing from an age of childhood innocence to one of greater responsibility.

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“In the Jewish faith, a person is considered to have an adult consciousness of right and wrong when they reach the age of 13,” said Rabbi Judith HaLevy, my rabbi at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

“This morning I ended up teaching about the yetzer hatov and yetzer hara,” she told LifeZette. “The first is the good inclination and the latter is the evil inclination. According to many Jewish texts, children are not born as good innocents, but with an inclination yetzer hara, which is a drive to satisfy one’s physical needs.

“Only around age 13 does the yetzer hatov, the good inclination, comes into play. This is when you look at the world where you are not the center of it, where you are obligated to take care of your fellow human beings, where you are obligated to take care of the mitzvot, the ethical obligations of society.”

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Play seemed to be the order of the day after Zev aced his reading of the Torah. His younger brothers, Solomon and Leo, played tag in the paved courtyard of the temple. Adults brunched on a simple buffet of lox and bagels — far simpler than many of the black tie bar mitzvah galas I remember from my youth. Then, disco balls, DJs, and diamonds were de rigueur.

Hard economic times, a return to religious values, and even a resurgence of anti-Semitism and the scrutiny it brings may have all contributed to the shift away from such showy celebrations. There is less focus on the bling and more on the blessing — not a bad thing.

“We regard this rite of passage as a time for great celebration, but kids also need to be reminded that it doesn’t come with car keys,” HaLevy said. “In other words, in our 21st century world they are not really adults, but we expect a greater sense of responsibility in the world.”

Even back in 1982, as my brother Edward stood before the Wailing Wall of Israel’s Temple Mount, that message was clear. Wearing the yarmulke, the tallit (the traditional) prayer shawl, and even the tefillin (the small black boxes worn with straps), he joined other men at the site of Jewish destruction — and of rebirth.

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Our father’s bar mitzvah, at Brooklyn’s Union Temple back in 1953, was a much more secular affair. Indeed, it was the first and last time my father, William Grossman, ever remembered seeing his own father, Lester Grossman, in a temple. He would only find out how much the ceremony signified during visits to his dying father’s bedside in 1969.

“Son, who will say the prayers for me after I die?”

After my dad expressed his surprise at the question, his ailing father dropped the question. “And yet at the very next visit, he’d bring it up again,” William remembered.

In this way, he knew it was important. Even though William had married my mother, a Catholic, and his first child (me) was baptized in the church, he made a commitment that his son, and someday, his son’s son, would be bar mitzvahed in the Jewish tradition.

This evolving and maturing parent-child relationship — from one in which the parent gives and the child receives, to one in which the child bears responsibilities toward the parent — is both central to the Jewish bar mitzvah and shared within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

“I’m more responsible now,” said my nephew, Zev. “If I get into trouble now, it’s my problem, not just my parents’ problem.”

Parents of all faiths everywhere will certainly say “amen” to that.

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