Reply to Matthew's Bar Mitzvah Invitation (not sent)

I recently received an invitation to the bar mitzvah of the grandson of my first cousin; this ceremony is, as you may know, the induction of the youngster into Jewish adulthood. 

The invitation itself was colorful and cheery, produced, no doubt, with invitation-creation software and thus exhibiting neither coherence nor originality but just an electronic mad mix of fonts, patterns, and such, chosen from among an infinity of alternatives.

Strangely, the trifold invitation had a circular graphic of a phonograph record at the edge, like a seal (but with no adhesive).  And the response card was another representation of an old 33 1/3 LP. 

WTF??  Has any of these kids even SEEN a record?  Is that the best symbol for “music” that they could some up with?  There’s a reason why “I sound like a broken record” no longer means anything to large numbers of young people.

Anyway, here’s the reply I would like to send but, once again, in the interests of family harmony, will not.

Dear Matthew,

My best wishes for a happy birthday and for many years of health and happiness. My wife and I (I am your grandmother Brenda’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.

Matthew’s bar 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, Matt, 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 Leviticus 25:1-26:2, according to  As soon as I saw “Leviticus,” I expected a bunch of rules and regs, because this book is full of them, and your Torah portion does not disappoint.

First, there’s the command to observe, every seventh year, “a year of complete rest for the land” and every 50th year, a year of jubilee.  The meaning of “jubilee” is unclear; it comes from the Hebrew word for “ram’s horn.”  All kinds of moral meaning have been attributed to these passages.  The ancient Jews were environmentalists!   They respected the earth!  Actually, the text gives no explicit reason for these agricultural practices.

L25:10 orders the people to “proclaim release” throughout the land.  Another obscure directive: it could also mean “proclaim freedom,” though the modern Western concept of freedom was unknown to these people, and indeed, L25:44 and subsequent verses provide rules for the sale and possession of slaves.

L25:17 admonishes people not to wrong each other and, in the same sentence to “fear your God.”  The message is clear: morality comes not from any general principles or human motives, but from fear of God.

L25:25-28 deals with the legalities of recovering land sold to cover debts, as well as special procedures for the jubilee year.

There are also rules for the fair treatment of impoverished relatives, e.g., don’t make a slave of your kinsman just because he’s in dire circumstances.  Pretty obvious.

Chapter 25 concludes with the legalities regarding the redemption of one’s kinsman who comes under the authority of a “resident alien among you.”  Just what I need to know. 

The first verse of Ch. 26 admonishes us not to make idols (a commandment that seems to be violated by all the reverence shown the Torah scroll – rising when the Ark is opened, kissing the scroll with your prayer shawl as it is grandly carried around the sanctuary) …and to “keep God’s Sabbath and venerate his sanctuary.”

The command to keep the Sabbath is particularly ironic in the present case 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.  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.

No interest or relevance

In a word, Matt, 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, Matt, 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 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 in Philly, 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, Matt, 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, Matt, 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 or wrapping tefillin around themselves, or 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.  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 Jews who came up with the 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.

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.  Freud, Marx (Karl and Groucho), Einstein, Carl Sagan, and many others — were secular Jews and staunch atheists.

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 you to connect to your heritage, as a modern person.

Your decision

So yes, Matt, 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” — and 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.  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 Reading (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.

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 raucous festivities raged on around him. Every sagging muscle of his face told me: I have been to too many of these things.

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, Matt: 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 May 4th, 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 May 4th — 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)


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Comment by Alan Perlman on March 18, 2013 at 6:50pm

Reply to Lillie (your comment didn't make it to the post)...Thanks for kind words. I absolutely did feel better after venting here at A/N.

Your suggestion is a good one -- and plausible, since I've known his dad for years, both of us interested in jazz piano.  Unfortunately, it is not at all certain that either Mathew or Dad will abandon their Judaism Lite.



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