A reporter called our office this week, looking for someone to reflect on the phenomenon of Faux Mitzvahs. For the heretofore blissfully ignorant, a “Faux Mitzvah” is a party thrown by non-Jewish parents on behalf of their son or daughter, in order to give them the same kind of coming-of-age blast given to Jewish boys and girls.
One of my associates discovered an opinion piece, Faux Mitzvah is Faux Pas, from the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix late last year. In it, Barry Kluger writes:
How do you think the non-Jewish world would react if I threw a faux baptism, just to enjoy the ritual of dunking my head in water, and tossed in a little glass of wine and one of those yummy chewy wafers? I don’t have to guess. Blasphemy, sacrilege and heresy are three of the words that come to mind.
With all due respect, it is not the non-Jews who are to blame. And when Mr. Kluger asks, “I am not aware if the pretenders to the faith pictured on television have started inserting a Haftorah reading into their faux mitzvah events, but can doing so be far behind?” — the answer is a most resounding yes. It can be extremely far behind, and is unlikely ever to happen. His analogy misses the point entirely, since what the gentiles are imitating is not the religious symbols — the baptism, the wine, and the wafer — but the party that follows.
It is not, as he writes, “never mind that the ritual itself has been slightly skewed by fellow Jews to the point where many of these rites of passage have become one-upmanship as to who can rent a bigger hall or get a better band.” It’s not “never mind,” because that is exactly why Faux Mitzvahs are happening.
Faux Mitzvahs happen because the Bar Mitzvah has not been “slightly skewed,” but ripped from its religious moorings like a pleasure boat in Hurricane Katrina, converted [sic] into a tortuous rite of passage followed by an evening’s testament to the family’s boundless capacity for innovation in materialistic excess. It is all about the Bar, with only lip service for the Mitzvah.
The Faux Mitzvah merely (or is it mercifully) does away with the “rite of passage” part. As if the Jewish kids didn’t have it bad enough already, having spent years in Hebrew school while their friends were out on the ballfield, the Faux Mitzvah skips all the prep and all the embarrassment, and heads straight for the good part.
Someone recently asked (using our ask the Rabbi service) whether a Jewish boy has to have a Bar Mitzvah. The answer is no, because a Bar Mitzvah isn’t a party — it’s a boy. A person becomes Bar Mitzvah, literally a “son of the Commandments” and obligated in their performance, at age 13 — while a girl becomes Bat Mitzvah at 12. The Torah reading is merely to offer the boy the opportunity to do that which he can now do on behalf of a congregation, and the party merely a small celebration of the occasion.
Recently I attended two Bar Mitzvahs. In one case the sponsors were perhaps “upper middle-class,” while in the other they were capable of one-upping most anyone in the neighborhood. In both cases, though, the “party” was a Kiddush reception after the morning services on Sabbath, plus a few meals in the synagogue hall for family and a select group of friends. No band, no party promoters, none of the purported requirements of a Fau.. umm, Bar Mitzvah.
Of course, an essay on such a serious topic cannot be concluded without a link to the photos from a Bark Mitzvah. The Bar Mitzvah should not suffer from a similar lack of spiritual meaning. We should not take umbrage at Faux Mitzvahs, but take a lesson!
A guy walks into a rabbi’s office and asks if he can give his dog a bar mitzvah at the shul. The rabbi, outraged, throws him out of his office.
A few months later, the rabbi sees the guy walking his dog. The dog is wearing a yarmulke. The guy sees the rabbi and says, “Rabbi – I told you I’d give my dog a bar mitzvah. After I left your office, I went to the shul across town, and the rabbi there said we could do it. We had a nice ceremony, a great party, and afterwards I donated $10,000 to the shul.”
“$10,000?” the rabbi exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me your dog was Jewish?”
Why do non-Orthodox parents give those huge parties when their kids reach Bar/Bat Mitzva age? I suspect that there are two reasons:
1. The parents feel identification with Judaism, even if they don’t practice it. They want to pass this identification on to their children. Throwing a huge Bar Mitzva is a lot easier than following Mitzvot day in and day out. They hope it will have enough of an effect.
2. Bar Mitzva preparation is a pain for the non-Orthodox kids. They are forced to spend their Sundays learning a foreign script so they can read from a prayer book in a foreign language they do not understand. This is so they can lead services they don’t see their parents attend regularly, and which they have no wish to attend regularly themselves. The huge party is essentially a bribe to get the kids to go along with the program.
The underlying theme here is that Judaism is perceived by the parents and the children as an annoyance, something you have to go through, for which one should be compensated. I believe that that is the real issue, the underlying cause.
The further right you go religiously the less emphasis there is on the bar mitzva. In Israeli chareidi circles many (most?) boys don’t even read from the Torah, they just get an aliyah in shul to show that they are now counted toward a minyan. Later there is a seudah–a party–but these are much less ostentatious than in the States and will typically include words of Torah delivered by the bar mitzva boy’s father and rebbe.