Christian Bar Mitzvah: My Take

by Rebecca Einstein Schorr on 16 January 2013 @ 11:55 am

So…last week, this article,The Sisterhood’s Christian Bar Mitzvah: Can Jewish Ritual Be Borrowed?, was flying all about the internet, causing quite a bit of commotion among my colleagues. I read it with interest and, quite honestly, some amount of discomfort. Because at first glance, the idea of a non-Jew borrowing such a definitively Jewish ritual caused a near-paralyzing pain in my kishkes.

confusion

The motivation behind the article was a clip from the new TLC series, The Sisterhood, a reality show showcasing the lives of five pastors’ wives in Atlanta. In the second episode, Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis reveal that they are “throwing him [their 13-year-old son] a Bar Mitzvah…a Christian Bar Mitzvah.”

Rituals, throughout history, have been borrowed, shared, appropriated, reappropriated, co-opted, and just plain stolen from neighbouring cultures, faiths, and ethnicities. The idea of syncretism is, therefore, not a new one. Yet, when someone takes one of “our” rituals, it feels like a personal attack.

My experience with the Rabbis Without Borders program has had a profound influence on my ability to recognize the possibility of multiple truths in other faith communities. In other words, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right — an idea explored by my teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, in his book by the same name. Prior to my involvement in this cutting-edge think-tank, my views were far more narrow-minded and I lacked a framework in which I could understand much of the current American religious landscape. So while my initial reaction was a visceral one bordering on revulsion, my second reaction was far more reasoned.

The notion of marking the crucial point in a young person’s life when he or she becomes responsible for his or her own religious decisions, beliefs, and behaviours is a wonderful thing. There is no reason why it ought not be universally celebrated in each and every culture and faith community. At age thirteen, or thereabouts, the critical thinking skills evolve to a much greater extent and the teen is beginning the long, though essential, process of establishing an identity separate from the parents. It is the terminology, however, that becomes problematic. To call something a “Bar Mitzvah” has certain societal implications; the first of which being that the individual is Jewish. And in the case of Pastor Brian and Tara Lewis’s son, he isn’t.

On Monday, I participated in a lively, if not frustrating, conversation about this very topic on Huffington Post Live. The panel included Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis, Dr. Julian Baggini (philosopher), Dr. Ron Lindsay (ethicist/secular humanist), and me.

Borrowing Bar Mitzvahs

If only we had been discussing the topic with which host, Josh Zepps, had led the program: the decision of which faith traditions to celebrate in marriages between faiths. That would have been an interesting and insightful dialogue. But Pastors Brian and Tara don’t exactly consider themselves an interfaith marriage. They see themselves as “true Jews.” They used their appearance as a platform for their own legitimacy and to witness to others with their understanding of Christianity.

So here is my question for you? What are your thoughts about a Christian Bar Mitzvah in the way I described? As a coming-of-age ritual meant to sanctify one’s reaching the age of religious obligation?

Oh, and one final thing:

The cake doesn’t have to be in the shape of a Torah.
The term ‘bar mitzvah’ is Aramaic, not Hebrew.
And for the record, Pastor Brian, one absolutely does give up being Jewish when accepting Jesus as the Messiah. That Jew is considered an apostate.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephen Einstein 16 January 2013 @ 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm

The most impressive part of this post is how much growth your participation in Rabbis Without Borders has yielded.

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2 IWe 16 January 2013 @ 1:48 pm at 1:48 pm

I find Christian bar mizvahs as strange as Christian Pessach seders. It is a special segment of evangelicals who want to connect with what they see as “authenticly Jewish”.
And they seem not familiar with their sources. The narrative of the twelve year old Jesus in Temple is not about bar mizva. Bat mizva as a ritual evolved later.

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3 Laurie Welch 16 January 2013 @ 2:35 pm at 2:35 pm

The Christians I’ve heard, who take on some Jewish practices, say they do it because Jesus did or they want to understand Jesus as a Jew. I think I can understand that and it seems laudable. However, (after watching the HuffPo panel discussion), I was struck by, what seemed to me, the Pastors’ lack of understanding of the context of the Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah) in the life cycle of a young Jew, though it is the context in which Jesus had his or what Christians point to as his in the Christian Bible. He was 12, I believe, and was teaching in the synagogue. The point being, that after years of study and preparation a young person is, as you say, ready to take on the duties and responsibilities of being a JEW. It is not a secular coming of age, but in the context of Jewish responsibilities and life.

I thought it was telling in the clip provided by the show, that Pastor Tara’s first response when Pastor Brian started discussing his son’s Christian Bar Mitzvah, was about the cake! I actually had to listen to that a couple of times, because I didn’t understand if I was hearing that right. The cake? It seemed to underscore the sense the Bar Mitzvah was the after party, not the Jewish religious ritual that takes place in a synagogue as part of the service.

I think it is fine to see a Bar/Bat Mitzvah as a ‘coming of age’ ceremony that you might want in your own non-Jewish tradition, but done in the spirit of a religious ritual, using your own tradition, symbols and words…and call it something else. When Pastor Brian said something like, “We’ll bring Christ into the Torah!,” that’s when I got a pain.

I am sorry this is long. It is personal. I have never fully recovered after a well-meaning friend took me to a presentation at her church of a Passover Seder put on by Jews for Jesus. In first telling me about the event, she left out the ‘for Jesus’ part and I thought a nice Jewish group had been invited to do an interfaith Seder.

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4 Jew-by-Choice 16 January 2013 @ 5:21 pm at 5:21 pm

I found myself both laughing and shouting at the Huffington Post Live piece – laughing because both Pastors have a clear misunderstanding of what an “Abrahamic” faith is and shouting because much of what they said came across (to me) as self-righteous pontificating.

I can acknowledge that they, as Christian parents, saw fit for their child to become a Bar Mitzvah. I can even acknowledge (begrudgingly) the idea of clothing a Jewish ritual in Christian garb. What I can’t tolerate is the message I believe it sends – the idea that Christianity is clearly the fulfillment of Judaism and as such, Jewish ritual is nothing more than a background for Christian ritual. From my point of view, it’s nothing but a backhanded compliment. While the Pastors believe they are showing us how ecumenical they are, in reality, they’re telling us (albeit quietly) that if we would just read our Scriptures (BTW, it is the HEBREW Bible, NOT “old testament!!!), we would understand that they point to Jesus as Messiah.

Kudos to you, Rabbi! Love what you said and how you said it (too bad you’re so woefully ignorant of the Christian Scriptures – what was that about?). I forgot how much I used to enjoy hearing you preach – and I remember how much I miss you.

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5 R. Ellen Bernstein 17 January 2013 @ 11:16 am at 11:16 am

I watched your segment on the HuffPost and congratulate you for getting up and taking a stand. I believe good things come back to people when they put themselves out like this. While I was not attracted to this couple and would probably have a hard time reasoning with them, I am wondering what your stand would have been if the couple had been a liberal, intellectually thoughtful couple–people who you were attracted to; people whom you might like as congregants– who wanted a Christian bar mitzvah for their son? Would you have had a different reaction?

I’m also wondering if you think any harm could come to Jews if Christians do this?

Last year there was an article in NY Times about non Jews having a Jewish wedding–because they loved the customs, and about 10 years ago there was a whole fashion phenomenon of models dressing up in UltraOrthodox clothing styles!

I think its possible to take all this as a complement. To get a kick out of it! Or to laugh out loud!

I also think that our “re-actions” are important teachers to us.

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6 phyllis 17 January 2013 @ 6:43 pm at 6:43 pm

I really want to write something rabbinic and profound here but all I can say is “whaaaaa???????” I watched the clip of the show and I am feeling a little sick….

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7 Sarah 18 January 2013 @ 8:33 pm at 8:33 pm

Wow. I’m impressed by your ability not to run screaming from the room.

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8 Brianna Soloski 19 January 2013 @ 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm

I am not a fan of people borrowing anything from religions that don’t belong to them. I have two good friends who both have kids – one has a two year old son, Dad is Jewish, Mom is not, so they do Christmas and Hanukkah. My other friend has a six year old son, Mom is not Jewish, Dad isn’t around, but they do both holidays and it bugs me because it’s about the gifts and not about the tradition or the religiosity behind the holiday. It’s so he doesn’t feel left out.

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9 Alicia 31 January 2013 @ 12:10 am at 12:10 am

I honestly think it’s an honest attempt for the family to remain Christian but remain connected to the husband’s Jewish heritage . . .

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10 David 03 May 2013 @ 3:25 pm at 3:25 pm

This all presents very important questions which must be addressed by the Jewish community as a whole. Having chosen Judaism ten years ago, after a lifetime of study in Christianity as a minister, I find the entire concept of Christianity usurping Jewish rituals, customs, parts of our liturgy and completely hijacking Jewish teachings totally offensive. This is a part of the overall “plan” I experienced and was a part of for almost twenty years, that is, blur the lines between Christianity and Judaism in an effort to confuse and eventually convert Jews to a Christian belief.

While there are those who found your responses, Rabbi, to be good, I found them to be woefully inadequate and misdirected in such an apologetic debate. You focused on the wrong discussion points and left the viewer questioning the efficacy of your positions. As someone who has been, now, on both sides of the argument, and has experienced a modicum of success in such debates I would have selected a substantially different tact, along with different counter-points.

Pastors Brian and Tara are only expressing the growing Christian teachings regarding Christianity’s “Jewish Roots,” and thus appeared well versed in their doctrinal positions and passionate in their adherence to the deception that has been propagated for the past few decades starting in the 1960′s, but found their origins 2,000 years ago.

Our challenge, as Jews, is to become just as educated as the Christian missionaries and those Jews who have become apostate by accepting their deception. We must know how to answer the Christian claims and to exposed them for what they are false, inadequate and totally lacking in true validity from the Hebrew Bible. Until we accomplish this we, our children and our Jewish communities will remain weak and ready targets for Christian missionary efforts.

David

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11 Rebecca Einstein Schorr 03 May 2013 @ 4:04 pm at 4:04 pm

Hi David,
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

When I was invited to participate in the HuffingtonPost Live discussion, it was with the express purpose of dealing with the very same usurption you mention in your comment. I deliberately chose not to respond to any of Pastors Brian and Tara’s doctrinal points. It became clear after just a few moments that the Lewises were attempting to hijack the entire discussion in order to share their particular beliefs with viewers and I was not going to engage in such a debate.

Thanks so much for stopping by and contributing to this ongoing conversation.

Shabbat Shalom!

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12 David 03 May 2013 @ 4:18 pm at 4:18 pm

Rabbi,

I do understand. Again, having extensive experience in apologetic debates I very familiar with the habit of Christians to attempt to change the debate. This is when the best tact is a hard redirection to return to the agreed upon format. If the moderator doesn’t do his/her “job” then it falls to the debaters.

I am writing a book at this time comparing the Christian claims to the Jewish positions. Getting good comments to the initial drafts.

Shabbat shalom,

David

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13 Lisa 09 October 2013 @ 7:23 pm at 7:23 pm

I thank you for your blog. I am currently researching about having a Bar Mitzvah for my son. I am Christian, I was brought up Christian-so why am I doing this? How this came about-my father-in-law is Jewish who has converted to Christianity. He identifies himself as a Messianic Jew. Even before I met him, I studied where and how Christianity developed. I believe that many of the practices that are observed by Jews should also be done so by Christians out of reverence for G*d and the miracles he provided for the Jews. I also believe that the Jews will have an important critical role for the end times. I respect and revere the Jewish people and traditions. My children are raised honoring both beliefs. All except this. Their cousins all had Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. At times my boys do think they are Jewish (btw-our youngest is adopted from China and truly adores all the Jewish traditions). One day, I was working at a residential home for the elderly, many of whom are Jewish, and my son was having a conversation with one about something. Later the lady came up to me and was telling me how she didn’t know I was Jewish all based on this conversation that my son had with her. She had asked him about how his studies were going as he should be coming of age for his Bar Mitzvah. This is how the whole thing got started. My son was asking my when he starts taking lessons to learn Hebrew and on down the line. This is coming out of left field. My son was baptized and is a practicing Christian. I explained to him that this is a Jewish tradition when a boy becomes a man and there is a lot of responsibility as he shows his knowledge and reads from the Torah in the synagogue. His response…I need to get studying. So I was talking to my father-in-law and he once he got through laughing, stated he never herd of a gentile having one. Thus why I am writing. I don’t want to be disrespecting anyone or offending anyone. We are not doing this as a social event (we are not that well off), but I am torn as I want my son to search out his beliefs and walk through that threshold of taking responsibility as a man. Is there a Christian counter part?

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