Just about a week ago, one of our parents asked me to explain the purpose of a bar or bat mitzvah. Her email came at an interesting time. Just days earlier, I had posted an entry on my blog, Adrenaline Drash, about that very question. Here’s the link to that piece, entitled: “Teaching is Believing.”
At game night, the parent told me that my email was helpful – so helpful that she thought I should send it to all of you. So here it is: A short answer to the question: What is the purpose of a bar or bat mitzvah?
Let me begin with a true story.
Last night, Bryston Spivock and I spent an hour on his bar mitzvah study of a small community of Chinese Jews in Kaifeng. That community was approached in the 17th century, and later, by Christian missionaries and Jesuits who were very interested in acquiring their Torah scrolls. The Jews held out in the 17th century. But in the mid-1800’s, the community sold their scrolls.
I asked Bryston: What does the Torah mean to him? Why does he value, even venerate an object he can’t read and wouldn’t understand when it is read aloud? Why does the thought of losing this object upset him? Then we asked why this little Chinese Jewish community could hold on to their scrolls in 1660 but not two hundred years later.
How did they survive with so little? What did the Torah mean to them? What is Torah in the first place? B’nai mitzvah study is about taking years of study the children have behind them and integrating them in an in-depth learning experience with their rabbi for this reason: To look at big questions around who they are and what their Jewish identity means to them.
What is the nature of God? What does it mean to be Jewish? Why do we pray and to what purpose? How do we work with challenging texts in prayer services? Why do we revere something the vast majority of us can’t read and don’t know the contents of (even in translation)? What is community? What are Jewish values and ethics?
Each young person does this kind of work with me for six to nine months no matter which track they choose (see b’nai mitzvah guidelines or my blog for a refresher on the choices available). It’s wonderfully intense and close and, in my experience, gives each child an experience with their rabbi that they will not forget — one I don’t, either. We ask the big questions, we study what it means when we say we are living Jewishly (a very individual thing, too!). We learn who we are.
I am thankful for the fact that that goes for them AND for me (see my blog entry).
With many blessings,
Dear TOO members: All of this work is part and parcel of adult bar and bat mitzvah training, too. Stay tuned for an awesome experience this next year when our first class of adult women will hold their bat mitzvah ceremony!