A good portion of most b’nai mitzvah training is, frankly, meshugah.
This is how it’s done (mostly): Jews take a pre-teen or early teen, make them sing a bunch of stuff in a language they don’t understand, and then ask them to do all this in front of family, friends, and congregation. The boys squeak most of the time (we’ve rigged this event to occur just as their voices are breaking) and the girls sing too softly. A goodly percentage of teenagers sing off key. The last verse of Adon Olam is sung, and the community celebrates. Our young’un is now an adult.
It’s the Jewish version of sending a child off into the wild to fight with bears and suchlike.
I know cantors and rabbis who dread the whole experience. But I’ve learned to rely on a strange fact.
Almost every time, no matter the child, grace will descend and we will both understand the purpose of b’nai mitzvah training. We will ask who we are as Jews, and what Judaism can or should mean relative to the terms “human” and “humanity.” We’ll ask who and what God might be and why we pray (if we do).
There are no restrictions or right answers. We will learn something together. We will grow up – together.
Recently, my little congregation has adopted alternative approaches to b’nai mitzvah training. We’ve retained the religious service track, and it’s still the most popular of three. The culminating experience, leading a Shabbat service, is beautiful despite squeaks and shyness and minor keys because we enjoy demonstrating communal pride in our teens.
We also have a Jewish learning track, where the teen in question follows up on a specific area of interest. Just now I’ve got one student, Bryston Spivock, who has been learning Chinese. He also happens to love history. We’ve joined these two interests: Bryston is currently studying the history of Jews in China and will present an educational program to the congregation as his capstone experience.
We also have an intensive tikkun olam track which involves super-extensive hours of social action combined with a learning component.
One of my other students is on that track — Bryston’s sister, Emory. Emory is an animal rights activist who has won awards with her work protecting waterfowl. She and I are making our way through texts on animal treatment in both the Tanakh and in rabbinic texts.
At our last session, we were looking at biblical commands on the treatment of animals, particularly Exodus 23:5 and Deuteronomy 22:4, which enjoin us to relieve animals of onerous burdens even if we do not like the animal’s owner, do not know its owner, or even if it is ownerless.
Emory knows a lot about animal suffering. She knows about the black market that buys and sells products made from endangered species. She knows about the ways in which turkeys and hens are forced to live miserable, even unnatural lives before being slaughtered.
Emory volunteers for hours each week knowing that she will be unable to prevent much of this sort of cruelty.
I asked her: Where did God fit into the picture she was describing?
She struggled to define God’s role in her world. From Emory’s perspective, most animal life is utterly helpless in the face of human agendas. God seems more or less out of the picture. At a loss, she finally asked me what I believed.
Typically, when my teens ask me what I believe, I remind them that we are studying together to find out what they believe. But this time I abandoned my usual pedagogical tricks.
“What do I believe?” I asked.
I told Emory that answers are elusive and fragile. What I believe today I question tomorrow. When I sing, I am filled with God’s presence. When I am silent and observe the world and its pain and sorrows, I often feel isolated, anxious, even abandoned.
God permeates, signals, speaks to me and comforts me. God is absent, unreachable, a creation of my longing and my hope. Sometimes, I wonder if the divine is not my effort to imagine compensation for humanity’s many inhumanities. More times, I am rejoicing in that which feels like God’s grace, riding on the crest of waves of affection and love and joy and compassion I see in those around me. People acting goodly seem godly to me.
At our next Friday night service, Emory and I caught each other in the hallway to the fellowship hall.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation,” I said.
“Me, too,” Emory answered.
We both smiled.
“Let’s talk some more about it at our next lesson, okay?” I asked.
I will tell Emory then why she has been so much on my mind since I told her what is on mine. In a way, what she does and who she is teaches me to believe.