Sermon: Ekev: The Not Mitzvah

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 August 2013

Two weeks ago today a Bar Mitzvah took place here in our Shul – of Reuben Brown.    Just like Georgia did today Reuben read from Torah, shared a D’var Torah giving his new and fresh perspective on the Torah portion and participated in the Shabbat morning service.  On the same Shabbat morning another Bar Mitzvah took place in New York – of a young man called Rocco.    He didn’t read from the Torah, nor did he give a D’var Torah and he didn’t participate in a Shabbat morning service – but a Torah scroll was completed in his honour.  If all of that sounds a bit odd for a Shabbat morning you shouldn’t be too surprised to hear that the Bar Mitzvah took place not in a Shul but at the Kabbalah Centre in New York, that Rocco is not actually Jewish and that his parents are the pop star Madonna and the film director Guy Ritchie.
It wasn’t really a Bar Mitzvah but it was an important creative rite of passage for his family.  Rabbi Jeffery Salkin notes that: among the non-Orthodox, the vast Jewish majority of traditional Jewish observances seem to have shrunken. It seems that the substance of Passover sedarim has shrunken. He senses that fewer people observe Yahrzeit than ever before. Yom Kippurfasts are shorter.
And yet, even as other observances shrank, bar and bat mitzvah have grown – explosively. What was once a semi-colon in the paragraph of Jewish life has become a huge full stop. Bar/bat mitzvah eligibility is still the major impetus for synagogue membership. It can seem like a multi-million pound business.
This year I am teaching the course on the Jewish Life Cycle to second year Rabbinic students at Leo Baeck College and have been enjoying reading many perspectives on the way in which rites of passage form Jewish life in preparation.  Why do we need them?
Arnold van Gennep early last century was a French sociologist fascinated by the way in which different cultures marked growing up.  He wrote that every rite of passage is a point of separation from a previous group or situation, then a moment of transition as you cross the threshold leading to incorporation into a new group or situation.  When we don’t perform that rite of passage the separation and the incorporation don’t properly happen.  In a Reform Jewish Bat Mitzvah for example a young woman leaves the world of the small children of the shul, has a threshold crossing moment in Synagogue reading Torah in front of a community ready to accept her and is then incorporated into the women and adults of both gender of our Shul and the Jewish community as a whole.
The success of what happens is not what takes place on the threshold of course, the reading of Torah, the giving of the D’var Torah but rather the incorporation into the adult community.   You know a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah was worthwhile when you meet the young person some years later and they are functioning as a Jewish adult, more learned than they were, participating and contributing to the community, being a Jew.
The ritual of Bar Mitzvah is essentially the same in all branches of Judaism but Bat Mitzvah, the rite of passage for girls is different in different Jewish movements due to the extent to which each aims for the girls as women to be incorporated into the adult community on an equal basis to the men.   Orthodox Judaism does not currently allow women to read Torah in public, to inhabit what they see as the male spaces of a Synagogue, nor to see themselves as bound to the time based Mitzvot, the Jewish duties which fall upon a Jewish boy from the age of 13.  Hence the Orthodox and non-egalitarian Masorti Bat Mitzvah does not include Torah reading take place during the “official” part of the Shabbat morning service nor give the option to the young woman to wear a tallit, symbolising her acceptance of the mitzvot.
What we do here in Reform Synagogues is part of a process of personalisation in which the person is at the centre of the rite of passage rather than the demand of the ritual.  But as Rabbi Laurence Hoffman writes “when a ritual strays too far from its authorised format it does not feel historically or communally authentic”.  However when a traditional ceremony no longer meets the meaning brought to it by its participants then adaptations to personalise it will come to feel authentic.  When a young woman reads from Torah here then because our community accepts women as having an equal role in Judaism to men, our community publicly acknowledges that this ceremony modified from that which takes place in Synagogues to the right of us in the Jewish spectrum, is indeed rooted in our historical tradition.
As so often this is a matter of boundaries.    Our section of the Torah portion today begins with an unusual feature noticed by the commentator Nachmanides.  It starts with the words hear O Israel – Shema yisrael  – addressed you could say to all Jews as a collective.  Then it continuesatah over et ha yarden – you are about to pass over the Jordan river.  This “you” is in the singular.  Meaning that each one of us individually passes over the barriers we need to go through.    I love the idea of the Jordan River as the symbol of the barrier which each of us passes through.  This is not the Red Sea which needs a huge collective act of will or better still a miracle to get through – that is, it is pretty much insurmountable without divine help.  This is the Jordan River which with effort and help any one of us could get through even at its widest points.
That is what a Jewish rite of passage is like.  It is doable – on the one side is a place where you could stay living – the baby boy uncircumcised will still live, the boy or girl who is not Bar or Bat Mitzvah may yet become fully Jewish as an adult, the couple unmarried can have a perfectly happy life together, the person who has died without a funeral will go the way of all flesh.  You can stay on the other side of the Jordan.  But much better for a Jew that you do go through the rite of passage and join the community on the other side ready to welcome you and support you on the other side of the Jordan as you individually cross through your participation in the rite of passage.
That is where my problem is with the Kabbalah Centre Bar Mitzvah – it does not send the young man into the community to welcome him.  It is an individual ceremony which actually leaves him nowhere nearer a Jewish community to be with him in his growth.  It is why I love the potential of each and every Bar and Bat Mitzvah here at our Synagogue.  With a good measure of individuality each young person is welcomed into a community which will incorporate their Jewish growth into its own.
Maybe Madonna’s son will one day decide that he wants to become a Jew, as a Kabbalist only he isn’t – then Bar Mitzvah in our tradition will of course be available to him.  In meantime, if you would like to study the beginnings of Kabbalah come and join me on Tuesday night here at Alyth where we be looking at how Kabbalistic texts like the Zohar help us to feel more connected to God and the world around us.