I recently received an invitation to the bar mitzvah of the son of my first cousin; this ceremony is, as you may know, the induction of the youngster into Jewish adulthood.
Bar/bat mitzvah invitations have been getting cuter, trendier, and ever more adolescent in form and content, as if we needed to be reminded that it’s all in honor of a child whom we pretend has reached some sort of milestone.
I just got a chance to see my own invitation (1956), in a photo album I salvaged from Mom’s house. Thick, hefty paper, raised lettering, that handwriting-looking font, formal language (“Mr. and Mrs. H. William Perlman request the honour [note British spelling] of your presence at the Bar Mitzvah of their son Alan Murray…”), and a handy little envelope and modest RSVP card. Now that’s an invitation! Clearly, something important is going to take place.
The invitation I received from my cousin and her husband for their son Ian’s event was so cool and with-it that I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or barf.
It was a card with a printed chat (with conversational smartphone balloons) between Ian and, I suppose, the reader: “Hi, I’m celebrating my bar mitzvah, want to come?” [The comma splice exemplifies that disregard for punctuation conventions that characterizes texting.] “Sure. When is it?” – and so on, balloons alternating until all the relevant information has been revealed.
The response is a bastardized log-in format, printed on a card the size of a smartphone. Under “Invitation from Robyn [my cousin] and Jordan to attend Ian’s Bar Mitzvah celebration” are two buttons, DECLINE and ACCEPT. Since you can’t click on a piece of cardboard, I guess you just have to go low-tech and check your selection.
Then there’s “Enter User Names.” You write in the names of the people attending, then check (I suppose) OK. There’s a CANCEL button, though I have no idea what purpose it serves. Same for the number of guests at the luncheon, followed by CANCEL or OK.
Anyway, here’s the reply I would like to send but, once again, in the interests of family harmony, will not.
My best wishes for a happy birthday and for many years of health and happiness. My wife and I (I am your mother’s first cousin) 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 bar 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.
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, Ian, 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).
Whenever I’m invited to one of these things, I check out the Torah reading, so I can feel doubly good – about missing all the boring primitive-shepherd stuff, as well as the tedious party that follows (see below).
Your Torah reading comes from Genesis 37:1-40:23, according to hebcal.com. A lot happens. There are three basic stories:
(1) Joseph earns his brothers’ enmity, with the result that they throw him into a pit. He’s captured by the Midianites and eventually turned over to the Pharaoh’s Chief of Staff (material is PG).
(2) A lot of back and forth about the sex lives of one of Joseph’s children. Involves a number of minor characters, but it’s a raunchy as the Torah gets, with sexual role-playing (prostitution ruse) and Judaism’s first reference to coitus interruptus and masturbation (NC-17).
(3) Joseph’s early success in interpreting the Pharaoh’s dreams (G).
I also note that your event is on a Saturday. The command to keep the Sabbath is flouted because your family belongs to a Reform congregation. Reform Jews want to be considered Jewish, but not if it inconveniences them unduly. Such is the case with the Sabbath, a subject on which the Orthodox are obsessive and fanatic.
But your bar mitzvah is on a Saturday! Everybody will be violating the Sabbath in innumerable ways, driving to the temple, riding elevators, operating lights, TVs, and other electric appliances, not to mention cell phones – and that’s just for starters. To an Orthodox, this entire celebration is obscene and traif (= ‘unlawful, forbidden’ – like pork).
In practical terms, Saturday is a better day for parties involving out-of-towners. Yet I wonder what rationale the Reform rabbi provides for these blatant violations of one of the most rigid and elaborate rule-sets in Judaism. The Torah prescribes death for violation, and God does indeed carry out his threat, killing a man who worked on Shabbat. In the Torah, there are MANY more commands to observe the Sabbath than not to kill or steal.
In a word, Ian, your Torah portion contains nothing of interest or use to modern people, except folklorists, ethnographers, and other scholars of antiquity. You, your parents, and all religious believers and semi-believers debase themselves when they make these ancient tales and rules the center of their lives, as if they were true and had immense significance.
None of it happened. So, Ian, 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. There is no archaeological or independent textual evidence for ANY of the events or characters in the story.
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 Mitzvah
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 youth, 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 was held in Philly, at the Adelphia Hotel, with live music and a punch fountain.
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, Ian, 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, Ian, Jews fall into three categories.
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.
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 or wrapping tefillin (phylacteries) around themselves, or wearing tzitzis (fringed undergarments) and black hats, acting frum (‘pious, proper, observant’) or praying (three times a day is what’s required, I believe).
They dutifully report to synagogue on the High Holidays. They don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the Sabbath, nor do they spend each Saturday doing absolutely nothing, as the Torah prescribes (over and over, though it refers only to “work’’; it was later that rabbis came up with 30+ categories of work).
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 lip-service approach to Judaism.
Doubters, atheists, humanists
The third category, the one to which my wife and I belong, includes doubters and outright atheists. We see Judaism as a culture and a vaguely-defined ethnicity that does not require a belief in the supernatural. Freud, Marx (Karl and Groucho), Asimov, Einstein, Carl Sagan, and many others — were secular Jews and staunch atheists.
Or you can disconnect from the whole enterprise, as I have done.
So yes, Ian, 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 mother’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. So when they put the words “under God” in the Pledge, I said to myself, “I’m not saying that” — and I never did. I was just about your age.
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. At some point the band will play a 25-minute hora medley, as middle-aged Jews push themselves to the brink of cardiac arrest 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 (PA) 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 (or maybe it was an original generic song into which the kid’s name was inserted).
Don’t tell me it’s a chance to see family. I can see them quite well, but the problem is I can’t hear them over the cacophony. Not much opportunity for interaction.
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 dinner.
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?
What’s your theme?
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.
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, Ian: Stop this whole farce right now.
Tell your parents to send out notices to all the invitees that you cannot in good conscience allow this ostentatious consumption and 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 Dec. 13, 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 man 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 December 13 — and tell them that you don’t want any part of it.
2nd Cousin Alan (you’ve never met me, and now your parents probably don’t want you anywhere near me)