The Movement for Reform Judaism recently hosted the launch of two books, both written by Reform rabbis. Find out more about the books as the authors: Rabbi Michael Hilton and Rabbi Larry Tabick introduce them.
“Today I am a man!” To hear these words coming from the mouth of a thirteen year old boy is nothing strange in Jewish life. On the day the boy comes up to the reading of the Torah for the first time at his bar mitzvah, he takes on the ancient responsibilities of his faith. Many think that since time immemorial, Jewish boys have been going through this ceremony, joined in recent years by girls celebrating bat mitzvah. But they are wrong, for bar mitzvah is not as ancient, and bat mitzvah is not as young, as people suppose.
The Palais de Justice at Rouen in Normandy is a fine ornate Renaissance building. Enter the spacious courtyard, head for the grand steps leading up to the law courts, and peer under the steps. You’ll find a small door leading down into an excavated space under the courtyard, where lie the remains of a twelfth century stone house with Hebrew graffiti on the walls. In this forgotten space teenage boys studied the classical Jewish texts – Bible and midrash, Mishnah and Talmud. Beneath the bustle of the city streets, we are back in the time and close to the place where bar mitzvah began. The small communities of early European Jewry lived there in Normandy and along the River Rhine in what is now Germany. One day, when a boy of thirteen stood up in the synagogue and came up to the Torah to read, his father said “Blessed be the one who has freed me from punishment because of him.” In this simple way, the boy became a man and the ceremony was born. It was just a few words, and at first the occasion didn’t even have a name.
Bar mitzvah may well have been forgotten about were it not for changes in the European world-view at the Reformation. In many Churches the “ritual of the word” took on an increasing importance—and at the same time Jewish parents in Germany and then in Poland took up the idea of bar mitzvah with enthusiasm, celebrating with their friends and with the boy making a speech to show his learning. Some found the new fangled custom a step too far, but it soon spread across income groups, from the pious to the less involved, and geographically as well. Rabbis were not asked for their approval—it just happened. “Let us not have too many of them” grumbled Rabbi Solomon Luria “or it will completely disrupt our time for Torah learning.” Little did he know how popular it would become. The new custom became established in Poland—in those days half the Jews in the world lived there. What happened there was going to spread out elsewhere as Jews travelled.
In 1817 in Berlin, the very first ceremony for girls was held. The congregation of 400 was “moved to tears” at this “most festive and most beautiful celebration.” Yet now, as we approach the two hundredth anniversary, that event has been forgotten. Yet Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah in New York in 1922 is widely remembered, and thought to be the first one. Why such selective memory? One reason is that the many ceremonies for girls in the nineteenth century were “confirmation” ceremonies. The girls did not read from the Torah, but graduated as a year group and answered questions about their faith. Was this thought more suitable for girls? Perhaps, but many boys have had exactly the same ceremony over the last 200 years. Bar mitzvah was in slow decline throughout the nineteenth century and Reform and Conservative synagogues replaced it with confirmation for both boys and girls. In Orthodox synagogues, Hebrew standards declined, and bar mitzvah boys were often just saying the Torah blessings, not reading from the scrolls. In the 1920s and 1930s the bar mitzvah revival began, and as bat mitzvah too began to spread more children celebrate today than at any time in our past history.
My book “Bar Mitzvah: A History” tells the story in full, and I am very grateful to the Movement for Reform Judaism for hosting the official launch.
I used to have a friend – long gone to the Other World, I’m afraid – who was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, an extreme fundamentalist Protestant sect, before he became Jewish. He told me that among the Brethren, each verse of the Bible had only one correct interpretation (based on the King James translation), and that they had it. Other interpretations were not allowed. But my friend loved the Bible, had an enquiring mind, and often disputed their interpretations, with the inevitable result that he was invited to leave the group.
Eventually, he found his way to Judaism, and was thrilled and delighted to discover that in Judaism each verse may have up to seventy interpretations, or perhaps an infinite number. He felt absolutely liberated!
It is true that traditionally the Torah is seen as having multiple legitimate interpretations, but most of these are closed to anyone with little or no Hebrew knowledge, and (until recently) difficult to find even for those with good Hebrew skills. And for some, multiple levels of meaning is a scary concept, for others fascinating. I’m in the latter group – no surprises there, then.
The fact is that the Torah at its simplest level is sometimes not very spiritually enlightening. The Shema is fine at it stands. So too ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18), but what about all those laws about offering sacrifices, or the rule about wiping out all memory of the Amalekites? These are not only not very uplifting; they are positively troubling, even immoral. Where is the spiritual value in these passages? Is there any?
Traditionalist rabbis have always believed that, when it comes to Torah, you should ‘turn it, turn it, because everything is in it’ (Pirkei Avot 5:22). In other words, with enough ingenuity, you can find what you want in the Torah. If the Torah comes from the Infinite God, it must contain infinite teachings, teachings that may enlighten us, deepen our understanding, and bring us to spirituality and the divine.
I have been fascinated by Jewish mysticism in all its phases since I discovered it in the early 1970’s. (Ultimately, this led me to the rabbinate and the Leo Baeck College.) Kabbalists and Hasidic teachers in particular exerted themselves mightily in pursuit of spiritual readings of the Torah. Of course, we would probably see what they did as reading their spiritual teachings into the Torah, rather than deriving them from it, but that may not matter, provided those teachings touch us.
When I came to serve Shir Hayim, the Hampstead Reform Jewish Community in 1990, I embarked on a personal campaign of basing my Shabbat sermons on Kabbalistic or Hasidic comments on the Torah. I spent many hours happily perusing the original sources in the literature in search of interesting passages that would point me in the direction of something I might want to say. Each week I would present that passage, and draw my sermon from it. And the congregation has been fascinated enough (or just too polite) to complain. I’ve been doing the same ever since.
My wife Jackie and Lois George, an active Shir Hayim member, both suggested that I put the collected passages into a book. I didn’t think anyone would be interested, but I took my courage in my hand and showed them to Rabbi Barry Schwartz of the Jewish Publication Society a few years ago. He was very interested! The result is The Aura of Torah (JPSA 2014). It contains three interpretations on each of the Torah’s 54 weekly sections or parashiyyot. My choices are drawn from a wide range of sources, and each has an introduction describing the Biblical context of the verse being discussed and the historical background to the comment offered. Each comment has notes explaining any points that might be unclear, followed by a brief statement from me about what I derived from the passage: its application to the issues of our time or to the development of our spirituality.
I leave others to judge the results of my modest efforts, but if I have opened up some of the more hidden and more spiritual levels of interpretation of Torah to a wider readership, then I will have succeeded in my task. And if a few readers achieve a deeper spirituality after reading my book, then who am I to complain?