Arts & Culture

A Call for a New Jewish Custom: Bar and Bat Mitzvahs Every 18 Years

Like many Jews, I don’t procrastinate–I put things off right away.  This is especially true of spiritual and ethical pursuits because of heavy career and personal responsibilities. How many of us have made plans to finally sit down and read … Read More

By / September 18, 2008

Like many Jews, I don’t procrastinate–I put things off right away.  This is especially true of spiritual and ethical pursuits because of heavy career and personal responsibilities. How many of us have made plans to finally sit down and read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but just never got around to it, or more concretely never went back to that rewarding social action project we abandoned after college. The truth is, when we plan do something someday, it usually means no day. Without a structure we generally postpone what is important for the sake of what is urgent (Hawking vs. bills and work). The understanding of time in Judaism addresses this human tendency.

Jewish time means more than arriving late without apologies; it is about carving out time for the holy and the profane, the everyday and the inspirational. Shabbat, the holidays, and life cycle events structure time and activities for spiritual and ethical growth. Americans have adopted the time orientation of Judaism to some degree and, in one respect have surpassed it.  Whereas Judaism only has one major individual milestone, that is the entry into adulthood (namely the bar/bat mitzvah a.k.a. the exit from Hebrew school); Americans celebrate milestones throughout the course of their lives.  Many Jews also observe these milestones, usually by throwing a party with family and friends. We have not however infused these types of activities with Jewish time which means structure and specific activities or rituals to facilitate inspiration and personal growth. These milestones are therefore a modern day lost opportunity.

We could change this. Milestones could become a way for Jews to engage in meaningful projects and learning at key moments in their lives. Many American Jews are searching for meaning, and milestone birthdays are often a time when this search is most acute. For many young Jews, thirty is the age when starting a career, getting married, and/or starting a family are central concerns. At fifty, many Jews face mid-life crises, reevaluate their priorities, wonder whether they took the right path, and think about their children’s future. For sixty-five year-old Jews, looming retirement, health and the prospect of grand-children are important issues. Finally, after eighty, many Jews wish to celebrate their lives, enjoy their families, and think about their past. While it is good to celebrate these crossroads with parties, we should not pass up the opportunity they provide to seek inspiration for each new stage in life.  

In other words, I propose that we infuse milestone birthdays with Jewish time and thereby transform them into a new Jewish custom. In order to do this, we should designate the year before each milestone as the time to get around to those books or projects that always got postponed, or take up something new and meaningful. Milestone birthdays would thus become like a bar/bat mitzvah for different life stages.  For symbolic reasons we should set the milestones at every 18 years after the bar/bat mitzvah, since 18 corresponds to the gematria of chai (life in Hebrew) and to the interval between major new life stage (31, 49, 67, 85). But the idea holds for those who celebrate other milestones like 30 or 40 etc… The "bar/bat mitzvah plus chai" could become a new custom for individuals, friends, and communities to make time for what is important at the beginning of each new stage of life.

The key to this new custom is to set aside specific times during the year before each "bar/bat mitzvah plus chai" celebration to engage in Jewish learning and activities in a concrete and structured way, as one does before the bar/bat mitzvah. For example, one might cover twelve books one would otherwise never find the time to read, take up one community or social action projects that always got put aside, and explore one Jewish tradition that just always got put off–or even try something completely new.   I have created a learning resource that offers models for participating in the bar/bat mitzvah renewal on a busy schedule, contains an extensive bibliography of works by contemporary Jewish thinkers from across the spectrum, and offers concrete projects and practices based on available resources for individuals, families, and groups.  I would hope that many people will take up the "bar/bat mitzvah plus chai" in a group/chavura type of setting.

The modern world is a confusing and conflicting place.  Our Jewish learning, which was typically truncated at thirteen, does not provide us the tools to make sense of it from a Jewish perspective or even to determine if the Jewish perspective makes sense to us.  As a result, the "bar/bat mitzvah plus chai" is a custom uniquely suited to American Jews in the present age.

Many thoughtful Jews have risen to these challenges and opportunities with truly creative responses. Over the last decade, hundreds of Jewish thinkers, teachers, and community leaders have wrestled with traditional Jewish texts and contemporary problems and have come up with wonderful and innovative books and projects as result.  However, many of these works have only reached a small audience, often of like-minded readers.  We know we want to add meaning to our lives and we have an instinct to do it Jewishly but we have lacked an over-arching framework for Jews to grapple with modern Jewish thinking.  Anytime becomes no time. It is a sort of Gresham’s law for self time and meaning management. The idea of "bar mitzvah plus chai" seeks to rectify this situation by providing the time and structure for more Jews to engage with these ideas and projects. It is also a reminder that to live a responsible and committed life we need to take the time to engage with new ideas, to give back to the community and the world, and to return to the sources again and again.

While some may think that the notion that the bulk of American Jewry will embrace this new custom is fanciful, I would note that the whole idea of bat mitzvah is still less than ninety years old.  I look forward to synagogues, emerging communities such as Moishe Houses, chavurot, new minyanim, places of adult Jewish learning and venues that I cannot imagine adopting "bar/bat mitzvah plus chai" as a normative life cycle milestone.  Given the wealth of books and projects available, but as yet unexplored by most American Jews, I truly believe that this new custom could contribute to a renaissance in American Jewry.

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