How did bar mitzvah ceremony get started?
By Rabbi Ben Kamin
SAN DIEGO–A bright and lovely girl, whom I blessed at her bat mitzvah ceremony not so long ago, was wondering about the story of this landmark ritual in Jewish—and American—life. Beyond the parties (which are too often impossibly and embarrassingly lavish) and the hoopla, there remains a dead-serious chronicle that began in a trail of blood.
Pretty much every people and culture has had a rite of passage for its young people, from Native Americans to African civilizations to European Jews and countless more. At their essence, they have all been about the same thing: enjoining a still-impressionable lad or lass to learn about, adhere to, and take responsibility for the future of the “tribe” in question. It has also been a key recognition that, whether Chinese, Latin, Hindu, Muslim, or Inuit, young people are and have always been our finest resource.
Beyond the parties (which are too often impossibly and embarrassingly lavish) and the hoopla, there remains a dead-serious chronicle that began in a trail of blood.
Sadly, in some cultural corners, the rite of passage experience has been harsh, painful, or even brutal for kids. They have been asked to do ungodly things to their bodies, or commit inane acts of violence against innocent wildlife or the earth itself. It is not my purpose to dwell on this here, but the abuse of children in the name of their “spiritual development” remains an ongoing, collective crime against humanity.
For the Jews, the rite of the bar mitzvah ceremony became common in the medieval period. It began as a process of preservation—Jewish communities were systemically attacked, expelled, or just exterminated by the outside populations throughout Europe, especially in Poland, Russia, and Germany. Children were being forcefully baptized into Christianity at the unseemly behest of priests and councils. Jews were forbidden to own property or enjoy communal rights. One of the most egregious and fearsome predicaments for Jewish parents were the routine, wanton seizures of their young boys into military conscription. Many of these boys were never seen again.
As some kind of hedge against this gruesome pattern, the Jews turned to education and religious indoctrination. At the age of 13, a young man was expected to have learned enough Hebrew, Torah (scripture), and our rituals so that—no matter what—the boy would remain committed and connected to a religious community that was being systematically reduced. He would chant from, and bless a portion of the old scroll, thereby becoming “an adult” in the faith community.
The ceremony transferred over to the American scene as our numbers grew in the New World. After World War II and the unspeakable reality of the Nazi Holocaust, girls were eventually included in the process (though slowly) by all but the Orthodox Jewish denominations. Thankfully, the process of bar and bat mitzvah (literally, “son/daughter of the commandments”) has not been promoted in America by violence or forceful conversion. It remains a matter of identification and affirmation with a people determined to simply live.
Rabbi Kamin is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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