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January 13, 2017  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

B’nai mitzvah for adults cause for celebration

By RABBI CARLA FREEDMAN Congregation Beth Israel of Sun City Center

In many congregations across this country, young people aged 13 are being called to the Torah every week, in celebration of their bar or bat mitzvah. Nothing unusual about that. I serve a congregation of retirees, whose age can be counted in multiples of 13. Some of the men, for a variety of reasons, did not have a Bar Mitzvah celebration when they turned 13, and most of the women did not have a bat miitzvah for three reasons: the family put its resources into a Jewish education for its sons and not for its daughters; the family belonged to a synagogue where bat mitzvah wasn’t celebrated at all; or the family did not belong to a synagogue at all, and hardly practiced Judaism.

These circumstances have bequeathed us a cohort of Jewish women and men who, as senior adults, feel deprived of a meaningful connection to their heritage. Some who went through the rite of passage decades ago are chagrined by the superficiality of their experience as compared to their grandchildren’s more meaningful preparation for this ceremony.

So, they come to their synagogue wanting “an adult bar/bat mitzvah.” In Piekei Avot 5:24, we learn that the age of 13 is associated with becoming “commandment accountable.” Our tradition teaches that until 13, the child’s parents are accountable before God for his/her moral behaviour; at 13, the individual becomes accountable in his/her own right. It is understood that parents are to spend their time preparing the youngster to stand before God and be held accountable for knowing and acting on the difference between right and wrong.

Originally, that transition from childhood to moral accountability took place without a ceremony. But as the communities grew, it became necessary to signal to their members that a boy was now old enough and educated enough to fulfill the responsibilities of an adult Jew. So he was called to the Torah, and by reading from the scroll, he demonstrated the ability to study seriously, to act responsibly, and to be a reliable member of the community. Until probably the 16th century, the event was nothing more than the sanctuary ritual itself. Over time it became a cause for celebration, and we all know what it has become in some communities.

But clearly, no adult can become bar or bat mitzvah at an advanced age, because, with or without a ceremony, all Jews are commandment-accountable at the age of 13 (12 for girls in some communities).

For those men and women who still feel the need to lay claim to their heritage, however, this technicality is no deterrent. So “adult bar/bat mitzvah” ceremonies take place in lots of synagogues. And our retiree community is home to many people who have come late in life to Jewish learning, who attend classes with enthusiasm and commitment, and want the opportunity to declare before friends and family that they take their Jewishness seriously. But they do not want to be 13 again, or to be treated now as 13 year olds.

So we call the ceremony a bar/bat Torah (usually done in groups, so b’nai or b’not Torah). As with the teenage rite of passage, the central feature is reading from the scroll, which symbolizes the totality of Jewish learning, and represents more than a year’s worth of learning.

We will do this again on Jan. 28, for a group of nine congregants. And after a short hiatus, we will begin the process again for another group. In a congregation where funerals are the most frequent rite of passage, that is cause for great celebration!

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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