The Right Rite of Passage

According to Rabbinic Jewish tradition, there is ceremony held for a boy on his thirteenth birthday commemorating when this boy becomes a “bar mitzvah” or “son of the commandments.” A similar ceremony is held for girls at the age of twelve; after which they are refered to as a “bat mitzvah” or “daughter of the commandments.” Though a bar or bat mitzvah is the term for the individual and not the ceremony, this is an occasion in which the young boy or girl proves that they are ready to take on the responsibility of keeping all of the commandments of the Torah that apply to them. After this point, they are ceremoniously deemed adults even while according to the land of the land, they are still very much minors if not children.  

Because I wasn’t into Torah or anything remotely Jewish until I was already 18 years old doesn’t mean I wasn’t familiar with the philosophy behind the bar mitzvah ceremony. Raised in a very conservative branch of the Lutheran church from the time I was born until I was about 17, I went through an extensive “bar mitzvah” program that Catholics and Lutherans refer to as “confirmation.” Since both sects baptize their members as infants before the child has the ability to decide whether or not to take hold of the faith, starting around the fifth or sixth grade, the children enter a much more rigorous religious educational system in which they study the Bible and the Biblical interpretations from famous Christian theologians of their particular sect. After a couple years of study under a clerical figure and pass somewhat of an examination (nowadays more ceremonial than academic) of their knowledge of the Bible and the writings of Church Fathers, they are invited confirm their baptism and are granted “adult” member status in their church. Some additional perks include being able to receive communion and voting on issues at church committee meetings. 

Believe it or not, I have very fond memories of my days in confirmation classes. Studying directly under the Pastor and Vicar of the church in my hometown was very rewarding for a young kid who wanted a deeper relationship with God. Though most of what we learned was Christian tradition rather than Holy Scripture and the issues of the Bible we did learn were just in the form of motivational stories, my religious study gave me comfort as my inquisitive mind was constantly on the quest for answers to questions that were just now becoming more and more heavy. I was getting to the point where God was no longer like Santa Claus and more like the God I have a relationship with today. I excelled in my studies and members of the clergy recommended to my parents that I consider becoming a pastor. For years leading up to my coming out of the Christian church, I actually was heading down the path to Christian seminary. 

Though my confirmation day was momentous for me and I actually confirmed my faith in God to a room jam-packed with friends and family members, some traveling to my Oklahoma hometown from as far away as New Jersey just for the event, I didn’t feel the same feeling was shared by some of my fellow confirmant peers. Many were kids who had been forced by their parents week-in, week-out to attend Bible classes and “get confirmed” in the church so that their family could remain in good standing with the religious community. I feel the same is probably taking place in many synagogues around the country, if not the world, as the bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are less about claiming adult responsibility in keeping Torah and more just a coming of age ceremony like a graduation from childhood. When one researches personal transformation in more detail, the age factor becomes a complete non-issue; just like it should be today. 

Taking on more of a Karaite Jewish interpretation of Torah instead of a Rabbinic Jewish interpretation, I tend to favor a more pragmatic side to Torah observance and less of the traditional. In the Torah, there is no commanded coming-of-age ceremony in which a boy becomes a man or a girl become a woman overnight. There is no point in which a member of Am Yisrael is not expected to keep all the Torah and then suddenly are expected to. Actually, according to Torah, men are not eligible for military service until they are 20 years old; well into the age of child-rearing. This does not mean that they were not considered men, but simply that there is a shift between the Torah and traditional rites of passage. 

Though there is no place in Torah that talks about a bar mitzvah ceremony, there is Torah support for being a bar mitzvah, or literally “son of the commandments.” Throughout Mishle, the Book of Proverbs, Melech Shlomo (King Solomon) imparts wisdom to the reader like a father teaches his son:

בני תורתי אל־תשכח ומצותי יצר לבך
“My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments.” 
– Proverbs 3:1

All those who have come into covenant with the God of Israel and dedicated themselves to upholding the commands of Torah can be referred to as a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah; son or daughter of the commandments. Traditionally, this personal transformation toward keeping the commandments is done around the age of twelve or thirteen, around the time the child can better understand the weight of what it means to keep the Torah. There is no problem with this traditional celebration and I actually encourage people to celebrate becoming a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, but every bit of celebration, every song sung, every bit of food offered, and every “mazel tov!” proclaimed is all for n
aught unless that personal transformation towards truly being a son or daughter of the commandments has occurred. 
At age 40, actor David Arquette proves that you’re never too old to become a bar mitzvah.