Desperately Seeking Approval: Overt and Covert Reasons for the Adult Bar Mitzvah

"As a beautiful flower that is full of hue but lacks fragrance, even so fruitless is the well-spoken word of one who does not practice it."

The Dhammapada


Informed of a former colleague’s decision to have a bar mitzvah in middle age, I can’t help but look for reasons, since the ceremony is completely optional at this point in life.

For a complex variety of reasons, many of them personal, some Jewish adults genuinely want to reconnect with their religion.  Perhaps the wishy-washy, three-days-a-year routine wasn’t doing it for them, and more religion means less fear of death, though Judaism isn’t big on heaven or hell.   My former father-in-law said that fear of death was unquestionably the #1 reason for religious observance.

Meaning of bar mitzvah

Having a bar/bat mitzvah may be the first step into ritual, fantasy, and delusion, which ought to be problems for the modern mind but are not.  More on this below.

I doubt that adult mitzvoth all become exceedingly observant – strictly keeping all 613 commandments; more likely, the ceremony is a one-off.

If it’s a one-shot deal and will not be followed by a plunge into orthodoxy…why do it?

The key drivers are all the religious/societal expectations, which are powerful.  There’s a variety of reasons, written and spoken (i.e., Hebrew school indoctrination), that religion provides for the bar mitzvah: attaining religious maturity, being able to count in a minyan (prayer quorum), assuming some special status in the Jewish community, and in more liberal denominations, preparing for adulthood, since there’s no way a 13-year-old can be considered an adult today.   

Get out of shul free

Another element was responsibility for your own degree of observance, which to liberal, wishy-washy Jews, means that after your bar mitzvah, you receive a “get out of shul [synagogue] free card”: you only have to go a very few days a year to qualify, by community consensus, as Jewish.  I have no idea what truly orthodox Hasidim would think of my three-day-a-year family, but the fact is that the two strains exist.

So the adult bar mitzvah involves a huge dose of social approval, a half-gallon of ice cream or cocaine for the psyche.  The person who undertakes this endeavor is aware of the tsunami of approbation that will follow, in return for which the person, regardless of how intelligent or well-educated, will abandon all critical faculties, speak in an extinct  language to a non-existent deity, read a portion of the Torah (which glorifies God; none of it actually happened) as the holy writ it pretends to be and then…who knows?

Social approval

Traditional bar mitzvahs involved a commentary, in Yiddish, on the Torah portion.  Kids still give stilted, rote answers to pre-fab questions about their Torah reading.  But in some humanistic congregations, the boy or girl givess a talk on his/her role model, as evidence of thinking about what kind of adult he/she wants to be.

But my guess is that this will be a traditional bar mitzvah, with some sort of talk by the celebrant, who loves to hear himself talk.  Here’s where the logic breaks down for me.  The celebrant, an exceedingly well-read amateur historian wannabe, knows damn well that nothing in the Torah happened.  Is he willing to set aside all that he knows about the ancient Jews and adopt this fake version, just for the social approval?  

Good PR

Apparently so.  And there could be some great PR, since the celebrant is a quiz-show winner who likes to promote himself.  He would be in good company: the mitzvoth of an octogenarian and a mentally challenged girl were both front-page news in the Chicago Tribune. Maybe he will be too.

So we have religious and social approval and self-promotion.  Add to that a stronger bond with the local Jews who are like-minded.   Another writer once characterized religious behavior as “too costly to fake.”  Well, maybe so, for all 613 commandments, including avoiding 36 kinds of work on the Sabbath (gotta tear your toilet paper on Friday; I am not making that up).  That’s too costly to fake.  But maybe you can fake it for a few hours, given the rewards that will follow.

Covert reason

The religious behavior of people who should know better but pretend not to…will always be a mystery to me.  I can only guess at the motivations. 

In addition to the above, let me add one more: more icing on the moldy, rotten cake of an obnoxious personality or corrupt character.   A huge wealth of evidence, centuries of individual and group misbehavior on the part of religious believers, is stark proof of how they use religious piety and ritual observance as a cover for nasty behavior.

Thus the celebrant can postpone indefinitely any inquiry into his/her character flaws.  You’ve had a bar mitzvah, burnished your image, and bonded with fellow Jews, all for a few months’ study of religious mythology followed by a few minutes of  mindless supplication to a non-existent deity.  Such a deal!

I would turn down that deal.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I had a bar mitzvah, complete with itchy pants and punch fountain, at the Adelphia Hotel in 1956 (parentally expected, required and paid for), as well as an Adult Conformation (humanist-style) at The Birmingham Temple  in my early 40s.


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Comment by Alan Perlman on July 19, 2012 at 10:13am

Thanks, Steph...I always appreciate your kind words.

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