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  • Chief Rabbi Goldstein

Q&A : Bar and Bat Mitzvah – May 2009 – “Jewish Life” magazine

Bar/Bat Mitzvah – what’s all the fuss?

Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a very important milestone because it is the transition ‘into the mitzvot’. It is when a child becomes an adult, fully responsible.

Can one be responsible at such a young age?

In the secular world, one would say that at twelve or thirteen, you are just becoming a teenager. But in Judaism, we view them as adults because we believe that human beings are capable of much greater things than we give ourselves credit for.

Like what?

Judaism sees that a person finds the greatest fulfilment in doing worthwhile things. Human beings by definition want to live a life that is worthwhile, because we have a soul from G-d. And that brings a great sense of inner joy.

So it is not about age, but rather about growing up?

One of the problems affecting the world is that childhood is becoming extended. People get married later, have children later, start working later – the carefree attitude of childhood remains and responsibility come later. But growing up and assuming responsibility is the same thing. In the secular world, you grow up and you become free. In Judaism, you grow up and become responsible.  That is why the term for adulthood is Bar/Bat Mitzvah which means ‘son/daughter of the mitzvah’.

So what is the responsibility they are coming into?

The responsibility to be a good Jew.

Is it multi faceted?

The responsibility to be a good Jew is multi faceted because there is no part of life that is untouched by G-d’s Torah. It sanctifies and uplifts all of our relationships, and the Torah is the full breadth of what responsibility is about.

Isn’t it about laws and restrictions?

Yes, but it is not a responsibility that burdens us. Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the great rabbinical authorities of the 20th century, said one poplar Yiddish phrase actually did enormous damage – that ‘it is difficult to be a Jew’.

But it is difficult – who else in the world has to grow up so quickly!

That we have G-d’s wisdom as a guide on how to live our lives in the best way possible is an enormous privilege, and at Bar/Bat Mitzvah we embrace that legacy.

Understandably, this milestone makes us want to celebrate – but are we losing the focus to over-the-top parties?

The celebration of the simcha has to be appropriate for the child and their family. People cannot afford to go into debt just to have a lavish party. This is short-sighted and foolish. But even for those who can afford it, we must ask ourselves what is the purpose of this celebration?

What is the purpose of celebrating?

The purpose of this celebration is that this child is coming into the mitzvot. It is a celebration of being an inheritor to Jewish destiny, which has been handed down from generation to generation.

How can we redirect our focus?

A Bar/Bat Mitzvah function should be held in an atmosphere of modesty, dignity and family love and warmth. It should not be ostentatious, over sophisticated and overly materialistic. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is not a wedding and there should be a clear difference in the level of the party. Very importantly, alcohol has no place at this function. Why do twelve or thirteen year olds need alcohol to celebrate? Why does anybody? Alcohol abuse is enormously destructible. The general tone of the function should be uplifting.  

Away from materialism then…

We have to be very careful of materialism, because it is deeply unsatisfying. It can never fill our lives with meaning. Ultimately a parent is doing their child a disservice if they bring them up to believe that the way to future happiness and fulfilment is through acquiring physically appealing things. Beautiful things are of course an important part of being a human being, but it must be in context of good solid values. Judaism seeks to uplift and sanctify the physical in a way that gives the physical its appropriate place within a broader world vision, which is to be a good, giving person.

And a Bar/Bat Mitzvah helps them become this…

Yes, but it is important that the focus be on this – and this is about education. For example, we must train our children to give tzedokah from their Bar/Bat Mitzvah money, between 10% and 20%, as is required by the halacha. Education is so important, which is why I personally have become involved in the Bat Mitzvah roots programme, which is now running in over 12 shuls under the directorship of Ronit Janet.

Why is it such an important programme?

The idea behind this programme is to create a standardised Bat Mitzvah programme that educates, uplifts, inspires, and shows the enormous beauty within Judaism to the next generation of young Jewish women.

It is all very well for them to learn this for their Bat Mitzvahs – but how do we make the lessons sustainable, for both boys and girls?

If these boys and girls are being exposed to the beauty of Judaism during this year, it is so powerful and so attractive that this can be the catalyst going forward. But of course, it is also up to the parents. Parents need to inculcate the importance of Judaism. And to do this, they need to take it upon themselves – so families should view the Bar or Bat Mitzvah year as a journey of growth for the each of its members.

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