ARR 79-82




American Reform Responsa


30. Bar Mitzvah

(Vol. XXIII, 1913, pp. 170-173)

In this connection I wish to touch upon a subject involving the very principle of Reform, being well aware of the fact that we can only discuss congregational customs as to their correctness, but not dictate Reform and Progress. We should enlighten our people, working for a gradual advancement, following evolutionary, not revolutionary methods, as we want to build up, not to destroy. We want peace and harmony while aiming at true progress. The fact is beyond dispute that the introduction of the Union Prayer Book meant to bring about Union and Unity in our progressive American Jewry. Now I ask: Is the calling up of the thirteen-year-old lad to become Bar Mitzvah (Son [Bearer] of Religious Duty) by reading or by listening to the reading of the Torah–which is still the practice in many Reform Congregations–in harmony with the whole spirit of our Reform service?

To be sure, it was a grand and glorious privilege of each individual member of the congregation to be called up–like the Priest, the Aaronide, and the Levite, the original teachers of the Israelitish community–to read aloud from the Book of the Law and thus be made the participant in the great heritage of the people of God. Let me say in parenthesis that the seven men called up each Sabbath to read from the Law were, in my opinion, originally none other than the seven principal men of each town, the seven Tovei Ha-ir, called “the seven judges” by Josephus (Antiquities IV,8,14,38), who, being familiar with the whole Law, and otherwise the true representatives of the community, sat on the platform of the synagogue, having at least one Aaronide and one Levite endowed with the rights of priority in their midst. As the study of the Law spread among the Jewish people and all the members of the congregation were able to read, the reading rotated, and all were in turn called up to take the place of the seven Tovei Ha-ir. Accordingly, it was the greatest privilege that could be bestowed upon the youth who had just attained–according to the juridical view of the time–the age of duty and responsibility, and the Bar Mitzvah, after having received his training in Scriptural reading (see article on “Bar Mitzvah” in Jewish Encyclopedia, and esp. Mas. Soferim XVIII.5; Bereshit R. LXIII.14), to be called up to the Torah like any of the learned men and thus be solemnly admitted into the membership of the congregation. And this custom prevailed even after the congregation had been so enlarged as to admit many of those unable to read aloud from the Torah, so the Reader (Chazan or Sheliach Tsibur) had to read the portion for them, while they simply recited the benediction preceding and following the Torah reading. The young Bar Mitzvah at least took special pride in being amply conversant with the law so as to be able to read his Parasha when called up on the Sabbath marking the entrance into his fourteenth year.

But there is a greater principle involved. When Confirmation–a rite borrowed from the Church but sanctioned even by Conservative congregations and rabbis all over Europe, notwithstanding its denunciation as Chukat Hagoy (a pagan rite?) by strict Orthodoxy–was introduced into the modern synagogue, the early Reform leaders had chiefly one object in view, viz., to emancipate religion from the Oriental view which regards religion in the main as the concern of man only, and not of woman, and, therefore, essentially and intently neglects the religious training of the girl (Loew, Die Lebensalter, pp. 218-222; Herxheimer in Geiger’s Wiss. Zeitsch. f. Jued. Theol. I, pp. 68-96; the article “Confirmation” in Jewish Encyclopedia; and The Reform Movement in Judaism by Philipson, Index, s.v. “Confirmation”). In clear and emphatic opposition to such Orientalism as still prevails wherever the Shulchan Aruch or the Talmudic code is regarded as authoritative, the religious instruction was systematically extended so as to include the girls, and after the conclusion of the course of instruction, the young woman was as solemnly initiated into the faith of the fathers at the age of maturity as the young man. As a matter of fact, the Confirmation introduced by enlightened religious educators in Germany bore originally the character of a solemn Religious School graduation rather than that of a specific religious or synagogal ceremony.

Only gradually the Confirmation was transferred to the synagogue, there to become a prominent and impressive feature of the divine service. And finally it was rendered an integral part of the Shavuot service in the Reform synagogue, expressive of the grand idea that, just as our fathers stood on that day at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Law amidst the solemn vow “Na-aseh venishma”–“We shall do and shall hearken!”–so is the whole congregation, in common with its young men and women, each year reconsecrated to Israel’s mission on God’s Holy People and His Kingdom of Priests.

How, then, can a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, as a survival of a dead past, claim any importance beside the Confirmation? Is it not an altogether false pretense that the young man is a more important factor of religious life in the community than is the young woman? Granted for argument’s sake that the individual allegiance entered into by the Bar Mitzvah is of some value and impressiveness, let us see whether these very Benei Mitzvah are kept from violating the Sabbath as soon as they enter business life. On the other hand, watch the girls after Confirmation and see how eagerly and conscientiously most of them become and remain attendants at the divine service and prove powerful influences for religion at home! Disregarding altogether the false claim of mental maturity of the thirteen-year-old boy for a true realization of life’s sacred obligations, I maintain that the Bar Mitzvah rite ought not to be encouraged by any Reform rabbi, as it is a survival of Orientalism like the covering of the head during the service; whereas the Confirmation, when made, as it should, by the rabbi to be an impressive appeal to the holiest emotions of t-he soul and personal vow of fealty to the ancestral faith, is a source of regeneration of Judaism each year, the value of which none who has the spiritual welfare of Israel at heart can afford to underrate or to ignore.
K. Kohler


If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.