During the summer, tradition assigns a chapter of Pirkey Avot, the Sayings of the Fathers, to each week. This week features Chapter 5 of this most popular tractate. One Mishna in this chapter seems particularly timely now, in view of recent published statements by both the author of the latest survey of the Jewish population, and the new president of the Union of Reform Judaism.
First, here is the Mishna: At 5 years, learn Scripture; 10 for Mishna; 13 for Mitzvot (fulfilling the commandments, in other words Bar Mitzva); 15 for Talmud; 18 for marriage; 20 to earn a living; 30 for full strength; 40 for understanding; 50 to give counsel; 60 for old age; 70 for a hoary head; 80 for special strength; 90 to meditate; 100 as if dead; and any further just passing away from the world. For the first century or so of life, this is a remarkably positive outline, especially when compared to Shakespeares cynical list in Act II scene 7 of As You Like It. Check that out, for kicks.
Now how does this Mishna apply to the statements about todays American Jewish community? Quoted in the Forward newspaper, Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, says that increasing numbers of families have weaker commitments to remain in Reform synagogues after they have bar-mitzvahed their youngest child. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of URJ, agrees, noting that a staggering percentage of our bnai mitzvah are eyeing the door by the time they reach Eyn Keloheynu. What applies to Reform Jews applies equally to Conservative and some Orthodox folks as well.
Apparently the Mishnaic timetable for age 13 still holds. What about the rest of the traditional ages of man? Does the young Jews education still include just Scripture, Mishna and Talmud? Does he still marry at 18? And presumably live with his in-laws for 2 years before going out to earn a livelihood? Does he refrain from giving advice until age 50? And is he considered old at 60?
Clearly, we consider most of the other ages differently now. Why the fixation on 13 for Bar Mitzvah for boys, and on either 12 or 13 for a girls Bat Mitzvah, depending on the custom of your particular community? True, there was a time when Reform congregations eliminated the Bar Mitzvah ceremony altogether, in favor of a class Confirmation program which most often took place at around age 16. But more than half a century ago Reform leaders acquiesced to pressure from the people and reintroduced first Bar Mitzvah and later Bat Mitzvah. Why do we love it so much?
I recall doing something at age 12+ that Im sure many other boys did as we prepared for this life-cycle event. I asked my father what his Bar Mitzvah was like. My father of blessed memory was a rabbi and a teacher of rabbis, so I expected to hear that his Bar Mitzvah was something great. To my surprise, he answered that it didnt amount to much.
I was in the Yeshiva then, he said. My family was in the village, 7 viorsts (Russian miles) away. My father couldnt even be there. On a Thursday morning they called me to the Torah, I made my brocha, and that was it.
That was it. No Haftorah, no speech, no party, no presents. Did that make my father a bad Jew? Not a chance. He was the best Jew I ever knew. But certainly my Bar Mitzvah and those of my sons and grandsons, as well as the Bat Mitzvah celebrations of my daughters, were more fun. Not only more fun, but more significant in our lives. They dramatized our new sense of responsibility.
The American Bar Mitzvah keeps its hold on us for good reasons. This is the only time in your young life to stand up before a whole community not as a member of a class, not as a member of a team, but just as yourself and show what you can do. You wont get another chance like this until your mid-twenties, if then. Its a great experience, and not only for the new young adult. The community potentially gains a needed and valuable member, one whose own children will be able to have this same great experience.
What Jewish leaders strive to inject into this experience is the reason and the desire to go further, to take those new responsibilities and use them to activate a mature and intelligent Jewish life. That requires the family to remain in the community, because the family and the community need each others support in the ongoing effort to build the Jewish future.
Think about it.