RSVP to Carly's Bat Mitzvah Invitation (Not Sent)

The mailed invitation to the presumed induction of the daughter of my first cousin to Jewish adulthood read “We cordially invite you to celebrate with us on the occasion of the bat mitzvah of our daughter Carly Sarah on Saturday morning, the Twelfth of November, Two Thousand and Eleven at Nine Thirty in the morning. Congregation Adath Jeshrun…Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.” 

Apparently it’s more dignified to use no numbers and capitalize everything, as if it were 18th century. 

It’s incongruous but not surprising that the invitation uses the Christian calendar.  If they’d given the date according to the Hebrew calendar (15th of Cheshvan, 5722), nobody would know when to show up.  Another card reads: “it would be our pleasure to have you join us for a luncheon immediately following services/Philmont Country Club…Huntingdon Valley, PA.” Here is the response that I wanted to send but — in the interests of family harmony — will not:

Dear Carly,

My best wishes for a happy birthday and for many years of health and happiness. My wife and I must regretfully decline your invitation, because as a matter of deeply held principle, we do not participate in religious rituals based on lies, fantasy, and the humiliation of human beings in front of nonexistent deities. Your bat mitzvah falls into that category.

Sending this invitation in the first place represents a kind of cluelessness on the part of your parents — insensitivity to MY religious beliefs — which is understandable, since secular unbelievers like me, though we account for 16% of the population (more than Jews, more than Blacks) are conveniently ignored. We’re only a tiny percentage of all Jews.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I had not received an invite.

Carly’s bat mitzva

I am fully aware of what I am turning down.

There will be a religious service of obeisance to an invisible, mutually imagined deity (sorry to be blunt, Carly, but that’s how we unbelievers see people who pray…and how they might see themselves if they dared reflect on what they’re doing).

Your Torah reading, according to Hebcal, comes from Genesis, Chapters 18-22.  This is a big stretch of material, and a lot happens. 

In Ch. 18, Abraham offers hospitality to strangers, both milk and meat.  This was before the dietary laws went into efffect.  There’s a scary passage where Sarah fears God’s wrath at her laughing at the notion that she would have kids.  Even weirder, the text records God’s thoughts to himself.  Now how could the Torah writers have known that?

Chapter 19 is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, reflecting God’s (i.e., the Hebrew priests’) hatred of homosexuality.  Lot’s daughters have incest with him, lest his family line be discontinued, so that’s OK.

In Ch. 20, Abe pretends that Sarah is his sister when a local king wants to fuck her (he finesses it by saying she’s his step-sister).  Upon learning the truth, the king restores Sarah, gives Abe gifts, and all’s well that ends well.

In Ch. 21, Sarah bears Abe a son when she’s 100 (mazel tov to them both!).  Abe tells her to cast out Hagar, the Egyptian maid-servant whom Abe had impregnated.  Hagar encounters an angel.  Another king says Abe’s the man, he’s going to be an Abe-o-phile because God’s on Abe’s side.  They exchange gifts. 

Ch. 22 is the infamous Isaac stopry.  I have a cartoon that shows Isaac in a therapist’s office saying, “My dad’s nuts.”  That about sums it up for humanists.  This is a harsh test of loyalty imposed by an insane deity, who, vain schmuck that he is, promises to reward Abe lavishly.  It has no relevance to modern people.

It’s all primitive-shepherd stuff, of no interest to anybody today except folklorists, ethnographers, and other scholars.  You, your parents, all religious believers and semi-believers debase themselves when they make these ancient tales the center of their lives, as if they were true and had immense significance.   

That’s why, at the Birmingham Temple (founding Temple of Humanistic Judaism) and elsewhere, including Israel, the boy or girl gives a talk on an adult role model, somebody of high achievement.   Gets the kid thinking about what kind of adult he/she is going to be.

None of it happened.

So, Carly, no matter what the rabbi says, the Torah is just an ancient document – or, rather, an editing-together of several ancient documents that have little or no relevance to us.

It is not the Book of Genesis but astrophysics, cosmology, and the theory of evolution that explain how the world came to be. Similarly, the real history of the Jews can be uncovered through archaeology, anthropology, genetics, linguistics, and other sciences.

The Torah is not it. 

But back in ancient times, nobody knew why anything happened, so the text became endowed with magical explanatory powers.  The custom of weekly readings grew up very early, and the bar mitzvah ceremony sort of slid into that.

Evolution of the Super Bar/Bat Mitzva

Back in the day, even before my time, the bar mitzvah (emphasis on the “bar”) was for boys only. The young man would read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew, give a short interpretive talk, traditionally in Yiddish, on the passage he had just read, and everybody would have a piece of cake and a little schnapps, and go home.

What a monstrosity the bar mitzvah has become since then!

Even in my day, Jews were complaining about the super-bar mitzvah, the explosion of this simple ceremony into a gigantic, ostentatious party, totally unbefitting a 13-year-old. My party (9/23/56) was held at the Adelphia Hotel (is it still there?), with live music and a punch fountain.

My first wife’s father (a lapsed Catholic) wryly observed that in only a few decades, Jews had done to the bar mitzvah what it took Christians a century to do to Christmas. Now even some non-Jews are staging their own ostentatious 13th birthday parties.

Age and maturity

In ancient times, when life expectancy was 40 or 50 max, 13 might have made some sense as a demarcation of adulthood. Kids were married in their teens and expected to begin reproducing immediately.

Sorry, Carly, but today, there is no way a 13-year-old can be considered an adult. Neither the mind nor the body is fully formed enough to make adult decisions, and the moronic behavior of teenagers and twentysomethings illustrates this fact eloquently. 

Childhood actually seems to be getting longer: the 30s are the new 20s.  So the whole adulthood thing is a sham, a transparent excuse for a flagrant display of conspicuous consumption and adult conformity.

But yes, you actually do have the power to decide what to do from then on about Jewishness, and indeed most Jews, during their formative years, consciously or unconsciously, decide what brand of Judaism they will adopt.

Reality-based classification of Jews

Regardless of what labels are applied, Carly, Jews fall into three categories.

True Believers

First there are the True Believers. These folks believe in the literal truth of the holy texts, and their whole lives are consumed with following every one of the 600 or so “Commandments” that these ancient scribes, commentators, and rabbis arbitrarily came up with.

It’s exhausting, all-consuming (e.g., pre-tearing the toilet paper on Friday night to avoid work on the Sabbath)…and monumentally inconvenient for the practitioners and others who have to conform willy-nilly (as when Orthodox Jews bring their own food to a host’s home or on a cruise).  But it makes them feel SO special.

This category is typically associated with Orthodox Jews, although — and I recently found this out — there are people who are Orthodox on the outside but agnostic or even atheist on the inside.

These folks have a terrible time managing the conflict, as you can imagine.  To try to escape from their prison of Judaism would be very costly, alienating them from family, friends, and virtually all social connections.

The Great Wishy-Washy

The second category of Jews is a grab-bag of smorgasbord, Judaism-lite lukewarm believers (perhaps including some agnostics) whom I call The Great Wishy-Washy. This is the category into which your parents fall.

I’m just guessing, but I very much doubt that they spend a lot of time observing the rules of kosher eating, wrapping tefillin around themselves, wearing tzitzis and black hats, acting frum or praying (three times a day is what’s required, I believe).

They dutifully report to Synagogue on the High Holidays, don’t spend a lot of time preparing for the Sabbath, nor do they spend each Saturday doing absolutely nothing, as the Torah prescribes (over and over). Their Judaism is confined to whatever holidays they want to observe — and, of course, giving their children that all important 13th birthday party. I make these conjectures about your parents because they seem no different from anyone else in our family in their lukewarm lipservice approach to Judaism.

This category includes both Conservative and Reform Jews (some Conservatives may actually be True Believers and endeavor to obey the innumerable laws and commandments).

Doubters, atheists, humanists

The third category, the one to which my wife and I belong, includes doubters and outright atheists. We see Judaism as an ethnicity that does not require a belief in the supernatural. Some of my most admired people — Freud, Marx (Karl and Groucho), Einstein, Carl Sagan, many others — were secular Jews.

Secular Jews have organized in many ways, including Humanistic Judaism. If you’re interested, I suggest you look into it.  It provides a way to be Jewish today with dignity, without prayer. It enables us to connect to our heritage, as modern people.

Your decision

So yes, Carly, despite all the adult decisions which you are not equipped to make, this is one that is within your power: what do you do about your Judaism from now on? Would you be a True Believer? Would you just conform and go through the motions? Or would you have the courage and principle to take a stand and say, “No more of this for me, thank you very much.”

It really is possible to do this. I did.

My Mother, your Mom’s Aunt Belle, would prattle on about “God’s will,” to which my Father would always reply, “What’s God got to do with it?” I inherited my skepticism from him. When they put the words “under God” in the Pledge, I said to myself, “I’m not saying that” — I never did. I was just about your age.

The party

The after-service party, of course, is where the modern super-bar/bat mitzvah really stands out.  It is as programmed as the religious part.  The band will play a 25-minute hora medley, as middle-aged Jews push themselves to the brink of cardiac arrrest romping and raising you high on a chair (one of the few times you get admired for doing nothing). 

I am so weary of these totally predictable events that I would probably decline to attend yours for the simple reason that I have better things to do with my life than to listen to one more young person spout meaningless gibberish and then go to the Philmont Country Club to gorge myself on hors d’oeuvres, drink myself into a stupor after I order my already-superfluous main course, sit and listen to deafeningly loud music for hours, and — worst of all — see a callow preadolescent lionized, even deified. I’ve actually been to a bar mitzvah where an original song was written and dedicated to the honoree and performed by live musicians.

Oh, I forgot, the pièce de résistance: the dessert cart, spectacularly wheeled in and illuminated by sparklers, bearing 50 different obscenely delectable treats of all kinds, including a make-your-own sundae. Just the thing to top off a 15,000 calorie “lunch.”

Are you going to have live music? Or will there just be a disc jockey? Will all your friends dance and boogie while the tired adults who paid for this thing watch and gamely try to pretend they’re having a good time? 

How about your theme? Everybody has to have a theme these days (not so back in 1956). Also goodie bags and party favors of all kinds. It all adds up. I would imagine that your father is laying out $15,000-$30,000 for this shindig (I just multiplied the cost of mine by an inflation factor of 10).  It’s enough to feed a whole Haitian village for a month.

I remember attending one of these events a few years ago and seeing this middle-aged guy sitting alone at one of the tables, slumped wearily in the chair while the cacophonous festivities raged on around him. Every sagging muscle of his face told me: I have been to too many of these things.

What’s the point?

So yes, lots of noise, music, food… and for what? So that your parents can show they are just as wealthy and conformist as their friends? Because that’s all it amounts to, as you will note from the two dozen or so bar/bat mitzvahs you will be attending in the coming year, as well as the dozens upon dozens you will attend in the decades to come.

Suggestion: bold move

I have a suggestion for you, Carly:

Stop this whole charade right now.

Tell your parents to send out notices to all the invitees that you cannot in good conscience allow this religious farce and ostentatious merrymaking to go on, when so many people are needy and starving in the world (charity is one of the few Torah virtues that modern people can agree with). 

Tell the invitees that you would like them to make charitable contributions in lieu of gifts. Implore your parents to pay the caterers off and donate the remainder of what they would have spent to charity and thereby truly live the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam.

If you don’t know what that means, ask the Rabbi.  With all of the meaningless drivel he is cramming into your head in preparation for your moment in the sun, perhaps he can provide you with a bit of real enlightenment.

Again, thank you for the invitation — and again, best wishes. I hope you’ll grow into a woman of great maturity, compassion, intellect, and reason.

And let’s not forget courage.  Integrity requires courage. A good first step might be to take a good hard look at what passes for religion in the lives of those around you. Then contemplate what your parents have planned for you on November 12 — and tell them that you don’t want any part of it.


Cousin Alan (you’ve never met me, and now your parents probably don’t want you anywhere near me)

POST-EVENT ADDENDUM:  Mom prounounced it beautiful and tasteful.  This means that a lot of money was spent, but not too much, in conferring on this girl the mantle of Jewish adulthood (hah! double hah! I know Jewish girls who stil haven’t grown up).  There was indeed a disc jockey. 

I listen in weary patience.  The only thing that caught my attention was her estimate of the number of kids — 100, half the crowd.

How can I tell Mom my contempt for the whole shindig, on so many levels?  In addition to the socially sanctioned blather about imaginary people and deities, plus the nauseating overconsumption and ostentation…now there is no doubt (if there ever has been) that it really is all about the kids.  No Jewish 13-year-old has done anything to deserve this idolization except be alive for 13 years and memorize a lot of drivel.

There still remains the post mortem with my brother, a doctor, a man of science and reason, who puts on a jacket and tie, listens to the gibberish and then spends hours making small talk at the top of his lungs, at an arbitrarily assigned table assembled from long-lost relatives and semi-strangers. 

I dared not ask him if he felt God’s presence during the service, if he thought that God actually listened to the rabbi’s prayers for the girl (like He wasn’t planning to bless her anyway), if he believed any of the Bible stories actually happened, if the rabbi’s spinning of ancient non-events wasn’t a bit off-putting, whether the spectacle of mature adults talking and praying to nobody wasn’t a bit irrational, nauseating, and humiliating. 

If I tried to have that kind of religious discussion, making my brother confront the stupefying superficiality of his religous observance….well, I wouldn’t have much of a relationship with my brother.  It’s not only the Orthodox who reject the unbeliever.  The wishy-washies also do, maybe more, because the unbeliever represents a credible challenge to their already weak religion.

PS.  Event report from my brother: “It was OK.   It was a bat mitzvah.”  Translation: totally predictable.  He too emphasized how much of a kids’ party it is, with many glittering gifties for the kiddies.

A telling anecdote: His daughter’s family was unavoidably late, causing their 5-year-old to ask if they were going to miss “the boring part.”  Yes, Simon, you will miss it, but this will be one of the rare occasions when you do. 

Becoming an adult means going along with the lie that a religious service is an appropriate activity for mature adults in the 21st century.  Becoming an adult means learning to grow wool, go “baa” when the rabbi says to, and enduring, to the end of your days, the boring parts. 

I still don’t get why the prayers have to be said in Hebrew.  Is it because the English is too embarrassing?


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Comment by Alan Perlman on June 22, 2012 at 11:04am

LOL!  My feelings about religious ritual have evolved slowly, over many years, from "might as well put up with it" to "why am I tolerating this?" to "I'm outta here."  I'm just grateful my family's not Orthodox - the price of apostasy would be very high inded.

Comment by Tammy S on June 22, 2012 at 10:46am

You know with all that we've been through with our families regarding our disbelief and their lack of reason, with all the time I've wasted on the rituals feeling like a hypocrite the entire time, never knowing what to say or 'how' to fit in... I always come back to that saying, you  can choose your friends...  because only a complete glutton for punishment would choose some of my family members! I'm sure the same can be said for the cousins of the Son of Sam and The Zodiac Killer....

Comment by Alan Perlman on June 22, 2012 at 10:04am

Part of realizing who I am is not participating in mindless conformity to meaningless, farcical rituals of obeisance, gluttony, and kid-worship.  On a practical level, I never see these people anyway.  But the sincere connections I've made with MANY other humanists more than make up for having no contact with family members who don't much care about me and would find my beliefs exceedingly off-putting.   

I appreciate your wedding epiphany.  Is religion meant to serve people - or the other way around?

Comment by James Yount on June 22, 2012 at 2:15am

This whole thing is funny to me. The thought that I wasn't able to eat the food at my friend Ryan's wedding because it wasn't kosher hurt me so deeply that it was the point at which I first started to really question my faith. Not that the food was so good, but that my faith was causing me to separate myself from the joy of that wonderful celebration.  When I shed my faith, I was symbolically saying yes to the joys of life and unity. I finally elevated my fellow man above the invisible dictator.

So it is very funny to me that you would use freedom from religion as a means to isolate yourself when it means the opposite to me.



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