When Coming of Age Feels Like Farewell…

Since I grew up on Long Island, there were Bar and Bat Mitzvahs pretty much every weekend in seventh grade.  (No, although I’m descended from Jews on the correct side, I did not have one).  So I was interested in an article in The New York Times about the way the Union for Reform Judaism is experimenting with the ritual and the study that leads up to it.

A cursory primer for the goyim: Bar/Bat Mitzvahs mark the transition to adulthood and take place at age 13.  For example, after a bar mitzvah, a boy counts toward quorum for a minyan (and so does a girl, depending on the congregation).  The child reads from the Torah and interprets their portion.  (Growing up, people could match months to approximate areas of readings, “Oh, you were in the leprosy part of the calendar, too?”).  Usually there is a secular party after the reading at the synagogue.

If you stand back a long way and squint, you might be able to analogize Bar/Bat Mitzvah to Confirmation and the afterparty to a Sweet Sixteen.  And there’s one other resemblance that some congregations might draw.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

A village church had been plagued by bats. Several denominations had held the building, but all had eventually given it up in the face of the infestation. But, shortly after it was consecrated as a Catholic church, the bats vanished. The previous ministers asked how the new priest had managed it, and he replied, “Simple! I baptized them, I confirmed them, and I haven’t seen them since!”

In the same way, it was pretty common for my classmates to stop going to Hebrew school or meeting with their rabbis once the bar/bat mitzvah had been accomplished.  So here’s how the Reform rabbis are trying to get their congregants to stop treating it as a graduation ceremony from the faith:

Each congregation is expected to design its own program and share the results. Yet many of them appear to be moving in a similar direction: involve the parents so that they do not also leave the synagogue when the bar mitzvah is over. They want the children to spend less time learning Hebrew and memorizing prayers, and more time working as a group on sustained “social action” projects. (Many congregations already expect “mitzvah projects,” but those usually involve individual volunteerism, and are not extensive).

Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colo., will ask children to identify a social problem they want to work on and come up with a longer-term “tikkun olam” project, Hebrew for “repair the world.”

[...]

Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles has already been experimenting. Jordan Sachs-Amrami and his seventh-grade class voted to spend their b’nai mitzvah year working on the issue of hunger. They stocked shelves at a food pantry, cooked meals at a homeless shelter and interviewed experts about why hunger persists in a nation of plenty. During his bar mitzvah ceremony in 2012, Jordan dimmed the lights in the sanctuary and showed a video he made about what his group learned. Eight of the 10 students in his group are still in the temple’s religious school program.

It’s good to link prayer and tradition with the fruit they bear in day to day life in works and solidarity, but the new activities seems a bit generic.  I remember us all being assigned community service hours in high school, and the different can drives, walks, etc tended to blur together, without a lot of notice for which group was sponsoring them.

The Har HaShem project sounds a bit like the gereric (though intensive) capstone project for an Eagle Scout.  The article may be omitting nuances of the programs, but it’s not clear how this refocusing binds teenagers together as part of a Jewish community as opposed to a community that happens to be composed of Jews.  Again, this may be a result of the reporter’s choice of questions, but I would expect more effort to be put into reenchanting Torah study so that it is a draw in its own right.  The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the first time the person can chant, but shouldn’t they be looking forward to the second time?

 

UPDATE: Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist weighs in on this story too, though I think he’s kinda making my point for me:

I love this idea. Seriously. What’s important to realize is that you don’t have to be Jewish to go through this unique rite of passage. Any community — including atheist ones — can make it a tradition of their own, and it would be much more useful to society than memorizing a bunch of archaic verses from a holy book. It would teach the kids something much more valuable than faith and maybe even encourage them to pursue such projects in the future on a grander scale.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Bonnie

    Where did you grow up on Long Island? I am a Jewish convert from there.

    • LeahLibresco

      Nassau County

  • Randy Gritter

    I really think there is no substitute for evangelization. That has to come first. If it does not then there are many places young people can go for social action. Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Then love your neighbor.

    While you are at it you can evangelize the parents as well. Will it work in every case or even in most cases? No. But it is the only thing that can work. In Catholic terms you need to make clear that Jesus is Lord. You accept or reject Him as Lord. Similarly the church is the body of Christ. You accept her or reject her as legitimately speaking Chirst’s word and performing His sacraments. This is what Jesus did. He asked for total commitment. Most refused it but those who gave it became evangelists themselves. It makes the church what she was meant to be. Not a social action club but the family of God.

    • ACN

      Ideological purity at all costs.

      You sound exactly like the protestant “fundamentalists”.

      • Randy Gritter

        Yes and no. We have a living magisterium. Fundamentalists are those that land on some arbitrary set of doctrines that they deem fundamental and declare a sort of religious firewall around them. Catholics don’t do that. We have a succession of popes and a succession of bishops. They define the faith. So there is a difference in the nature of the thing being embraced. It is a set of leaders rather than a set of doctrines.

        Still we need to embrace it completely and totally. Once we say the faith is useful in this are of life and not so much in that area then we get into the notion of only being Catholic when we agree with the church. Obedience only when we agree is no obedience at all. It means Jesus is not Lord at all. That seems harsh, I know, but it the hardest truths that are the most profitable for us to live. It means the biggest change but God-ordained change is always positive. We believe that but sometimes we are afraid to test it by putting our most personal agendas on the altar.

        • ACN

          Do you think the world would look better if every religious person applied this optimization scheme to their particular religion?

          • Randy Gritter

            Sorry I missed this comment. The answer is Yes but it is not always possible. You need a set of leaders that has been ordained by God. If you just have a book like Muslims or protestants do then every interpreter is as good as the next. How does one become God ordained?

          • ACN

            Do you see why someone might say this sounds like an special pleading for the religion that you happen to be?

          • Randy Gritter

            For me it is not because I was raised protestant. I didn’t happen to be Catholic but became Catholic precisely because of these issues. In general, if one religion is the true religion then some people are going to luck out and be born into that religion. I thought I did. I convinced myself that Calvinism was the truth and I just happened to be born into it. I thought I had done an open-minded investigation of other faiths but I really had not.

          • avalpert

            Turns out you are 0-2 on the ‘true religion’ front – but don’t stop looking

          • Randy Gritter

            It is more like a journey than a hit and miss thing. Calvinism has a lot of truth. Catholicism has more. I shall keep looking. Catholicism is like science. It has some answers and a method for discerning more answers but leaves enough questions to last a lifetime.

          • avalpert

            Yeah, Catholicism is like science in the same way Dianetics is like science – but making it sound like science doesn’t make it science, or even really like it.

          • Randy Gritter
          • avalpert

            Um, yeah that pretty much confirms that Catholicism is like science in the same way Dianetics is like science – if you accept our premises it is all true.

            It is unlike science in far more significant and impactful ways – the lack of falsifiability and refusal to acknowledge that ‘truths’ of the past were wrong are big ones. As is the wide gap between the scientific method and the papal voice of god method – not really comparable at all.

          • Randy Gritter

            Catholicism is falsifiable. It just has passed all the tests. As far as acknowledging mistakes, science gets things wrong too. I am not sure what errors you mean. Just teachings you don’t agree with or things the church has actually admitted were errors.

          • avalpert

            In your mind, what would falsify Catholicism?

            And yes, science gets things wrong all the time – and the process is such that it dumps those things and moves on. In science, nothing is sacred and everything is expected to be questioned, challenged and eventually overturned – that is the point of the scientific method. Is the Church able to acknowledge that past teachings said to be the infallible truth of God turned out to be mistaken?

          • Randy Gritter

            Finding contradictory infallible statements would falsify Catholicism. Not contradictory according to someone who is trying to manufacture a contradiction by interpreting things uncharitably. Rather a contradiction that no intelligent Catholic could resolve rationally. That would mean Catholicism as we know it would be dead.

            Is the Church able to acknowledge that past teachings said to be the infallible truth of God turned out to be mistaken?

            Given the above, we would say infallible truth cannot be mistaken. That is what the word infallible means.

          • stanz2reason

            Randy… you’re drawing a false equivalency between truths people accept regarding previous scientific claims & truths people accept from catholics claim. There is level of verifiability in scientific work that can support or refute past truth claims that you simply do not have, nor do I suspect you will ever have, for matters such as the resurrection of Christ. It is, shall we say, kooky to disbelieve the moon landing or believe the age of the universe to be in the thousands of years, as the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming by any rational standard. Perhaps videos & photos can be altered, & hundreds if not thousands of engineers, laborers and staff who worked on the project could somehow be compelled to lie, but the likelihood of that in the face of little evidence to the contrary seems low, so much so that disbelief would be irrational.

            With your religious claims not only is the evidence presented far less compelling than evidence for putting a man on the moon or any other scientifically verifiable truths, but the claims to the contrary (ie. people who are dead stay dead) seem far more compelling, so much so that belief would be irrational.

            I’m not entirely sure what falsifiable truths the Catholic Church has provided for which there is not an equivalent or superior alternative explanation.

          • Randy Gritter

            I don’t know why the equivalency is false. It seems like the difference you see is you agree with one set of truth claims and disagree with another. That is quite irrelevant. Saying you accept one method of arriving at truth is similar to saying you accept another. You accept one and reject the other but that does not make them dissimilar in an objective sense.

          • stanz2reason

            The difference is that scientifically accepted truths can in most cases be verified & reverified by different people in different places at different times (which is basically a textbook definition of objectivity). Your religious claims can not. In addition there exists compelling evidence to the contrary (again, people who are dead tend to stay dead) that push your claims from highly unlikely to irrational. It has nothing to do with my views on anything.

          • Randy Gritter

            The church teaches that Jesus rose from the dead. That is objective. Nobody disagrees that that is in fact what the church teaches. Your evidence to the contrary misses the point. Catholics believe that people who are dead stay dead. That is precisely why the resurrection is remarkable. It is not irrational to think there can be rules with rare exceptions.

          • stanz2reason

            That the church teaches that is objective. Whether that event went down as the church teaches, if at all, is far less clear and impossible to verify to the standard of a scientific truth such as the relationship of mass and gravitational force. Given the level of evidence you have for it, there exists alternate explanations to the Christ story that are more consistent with everyday observation. We have no reason aside from questionable 2 millenia old heresay to believe that there are exceptions to natural rules. It’s as remarkable as Kim Jong Il hitting a dozen hole in ones in a round of golf. That we might dismiss one as at best a gross exaggeration of the truth (and at worst an outright fabrication) and not the other seems silly.

        • stanz2reason

          Fundamentalists are those that land on some arbitrary set of doctrines that they deem fundamental and declare a sort of religious firewall around them. Catholics don’t do that. We have a succession of popes and a succession of bishops. They define the faith.

          So one group (Fundamentalists) checks their minds at the door in favor of letting an ‘arbitrary set of doctrines’ tell them what to think and the other group (Catholics) check their minds at the door in favor of letting the Church hierarchy tell them what to think…

          You’re simply describing a fundamentalist worldview that makes a superficial distinction of replacing doctrine for leaders. Perhaps a step in the right direction in that it allows for better views to evolve slowly (too much so IMO) over time, but still demands you not to be responsible for making up your own mind.

          • Randy Gritter

            You come to religion to learn from God. If you are just going to make up your own mind then why bother? The problem is that we need to know it is God’s word and not merely human opinion. How do we tell the difference? Catholics do that differently than fundamentalists. That difference is hugely important.

            That is not really the issue here though. What is at issue here is the central place religion needs to take in our lives. We have a tendency to try and play it half way. Try and do just enough to stay out of hell but not so much that we miss out on all the fun out of life. The solution is not to find some things that are religious and also fun. The solution is to show how it is precisely those things that seem like joy-killers that bring us into close communion with God and each other and lead ultimately to the greatest joy. That it always turns out that God knows what is best for you and wants what is best for you. The solution is to challenge people to have faith.

          • stanz2reason

            The problem is that we need to know it is God’s word and not merely human opinion.

            … so your solution to this is to rely on other human opinions??

            What is at issue here is the central place religion needs to take in our lives.

            Sounds like a fundamentalist type thing to say. Hiding behind vagueness like ‘communion with God’ or ‘greatest joy’ and pretending it’s profound might sound good to the believer-folk, but sounds pretty silly to me.

          • Randy Gritter

            so your solution to this is to rely on other human opinions??

            If human opinion is all that is available then we would not be able to know any religious truth for sure. What Catholics believe is that God guides the church through the pope and the bishops. That the church is going to generally have a better grasp of the truth than any individual. The church can also, through the pope, discern some things infallibly. Some things we just need to know for sure.

            Sounds like a fundamentalist type thing to say. Hiding behind vagueness like ‘communion with God’ or ‘greatest joy’ and pretending it’s profound might sound good to the believer-folk, but sounds pretty silly to me.

            I know it sounds silly to you. What you need to know it is not just a bit of silly mumbo-jumbo we Catholics engage it once a week. It is the center of our lives. If it was just silly then building our lives around it would not work.

          • stanz2reason

            Who says that God guides the church via the pope & bishops?

          • Randy Gritter

            Actually Jesus did. He mentored Peter and the apostles for 3 years. Then He blessed them several times. Their successors become the pope and the bishops. He gave a special blessing to Peter, whose name means rock, in Mat 16, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

            Anyway, over time the church unpacked these blessings and understood what it all means. It has to do with teaching, governing and sanctifying. The popes and bishops are not perfect but God will not let His church be ruined. So He prevents certain things like letting them teach error in a definitive way. This, by the way, makes Catholicism falsifiable in a way that fundamentalism is not. These definitive statements can never be contradictory. After 2000 years there are quite a few of them so you would expect contradictions.

          • stanz2reason

            Who is Jesus to be able to know and say such things?

            I suspect this line of thinking can only ultimately lead to ‘because the Bible said so’ in which case you’re still relying on doctrine then to make up your mind for you, no? On the religion family tree you’re just a fundamentalist once removed.

          • Randy Gritter

            Who is Jesus? That is the key question. But if He is God then we need to fully accept all the implications of that. If He is God then He can start a church capable of speaking for God. That church can definitively say these books make up the New Testament. The fundamentalist picks up the bible and rejects the church. But the church is what tells us that the Gospel of John is the word of God and not just human opinion. So he is stuck on the question of where we got the bible.

            He is also stuck on questions of interpretation. What if I say abortion is not prohibited by scripture? The fundamentalist is stuck again. He disagrees but can not offer any more than one human opinion against another. So He has a problem explaining how we know God’s word got into the bible and he has a problem getting God’s will out of the bible without serious error. One serious error they have made is to reject evolution.

            We do have them on the family tree. They are what we call separated brothers. People who should be living with us in God’s family but are not. Logically and historically Catholicism makes much more sense. Still we do share a common belief that God’s revelation must be obeyed even when it seems foolish by secular standards.

          • stanz2reason

            The Fundamentalist
            #1: Bible validates Jesus
            #2: Jesus validates Bible

            The Catholic
            #1: Bible validates Jesus
            #2: Jesus validates Church
            #3: Church validates Bible

            Perhaps I’m mis-understanding or over simplifying, but this seems pretty… convenient.

          • ACN

            And actually, Randy knows that “jesus validates church” because of bible.

            The circle is now complete.

          • Randy Gritter

            The church knew that before any of the New Testament was written. So it does not come from the bible. It did make it into the bible. Eventually it became the easiest place for us to see it now but it did not start there.

          • Randy Gritter

            For Catholics the bible does not really validate Jesus. History does. The bible does act as a source for historical data but not the only source. Even so, it does not need to be seen as the inspired word of God to act as a source for historical data. That is what the church validates in #3. It is a different level of trust in the same book.

          • stanz2reason

            History provides reason to believe that some historical person or persons might have done at least some of the naturally ascribed acts of Jesus. History does not validate a single claim to Christ’s divinity nor a single supernatural act, which really is what we’re talking about here. Evidence of one does not really support evidence of the other. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Jesus the suspiciously unmarried hippie carpenter.

          • Randy Gritter

            History is maybe to small a word here. I really mean all of history. That is all the things Jesus has done from the lives transformed to the miracles to the civilizations built to the poor people fed all the way back to the stories given in the bible. Assuming you find some reason to accept Jesus in some of that then the rest can follow. It is really impossible to weigh all the evidence for the divinity of Jesus. There is just too much for one mind to grasp.

            Your reading of history is common. The trouble is it cannot make sense of where Christianity came from. Christianity allegedly invented Jesus as we know Him but then who invented Christianity? It just appears out of nowhere for no reason. When you try and ask who did what and when and where and why to invent Christianity you end up with more questions than answers. It only works as hand-waving pseudo-knowledge. It does not work as a coherent historical theory.

          • stanz2reason

            Divinity is not required for altruism or civilization, nor is it required for peoples lives to be transformed, for better or worse. Much of what Jesus might have taught falls into the category of what I’d call ‘good’, though not for a moment do I buy his (or at least the words authored into his mouth) delusions of grandeur. Civilization existed pre-Christ. While Christianity has played a role in how history has unfolded since then, particularly in the west (again, for better or worse), it is merely one of numerous influences, not the singular cause. Islam has played a large role in how history has unfolded the past decade and change. Should we be dubbing their claims true now as well?

            It is really impossible to weigh all the evidence for the divinity of Jesus.

            But it’s really not, at least no more difficult than weighting the divine claims of anyone else. I’m sure you find it fairly easy to disregard past claims for the divinity of Zeus, or past & present claims for Krishna. What is it that makes weighing the likelyhood of Christian truth claims impossible? Divinity is an extraordinary claim, and in all instances lacks a reasonable measure of the necessary extraordinary evidence to support it. Such evidence should be abundant and it’s absence suggests a willful deception in hiding it from us, an impotence in being unable to provide it, or non-existence all together.

            The trouble is (history) cannot make sense of where Christianity came from. It just appears out of nowhere for no reason.

            I’m not entirely sure what you’re saying here. Are you implying that historians are unable to retrace the emergence of Christianity? I’ve heard pretty thorough explanations that I felt were historically satisfactory & sound. Consider Mormonism where we can trace it’s spread and the historical roots back to a fraud and the kooks that followed without having any problem dismissing the supernatural claims as bogus or downright laughable. Or Scientology for that matter. Christianity is simply older than some and not quite as old as others. It is the middle child of belief systems, one that emerged at a time and within an environment that allowed for it’s spreading.

          • Randy Gritter

            When I say all the evidence for the divinity of Jesus I was not talking about just the bible. I was talking about everything. All the people who have come to believe it for all the many reasons they give. Then there is our own spirit. The gospel touches us so deeply.

            As far as historians go, no I don’t think the modern historical skepticism with its anti-supernatural assumptions can give any reasonable account of Christianity. It depends entirely on people not asking any of the hard questions. These are smart people and they have been at this a long time. Yet they have not gotten close to another plausible story of how scripture and tradition came into being. Modern society swallows whatever pile of horse pucky they serve up. It is not a rational thing to do but rejecting Christianity is not really about reason.

            Mormonism and Scientology are easy to explain. There are just a few people who can easily be assumed to be less than honest. Either they lied or they were lied to by something. Christianity requires many people to tell the same lies and to do it in an environment that was not at all welcoming. The Jews killed Jesus and many of His followers. The Romans outlawed Christianity. The only thing that prevented the thing from dying a natural death is that the it was true. The story they told about Jesus was true and the insights into the nature of God and man were true. One of many times the thing we call Catholicism should have died.

          • Lane

            If Christ is really Lord, you have to bend your knee. Your comments seem to suggest that you have a problem with authority outside yourself. When you don’t “check your mind at the door”, what do you base your judgement on?

          • stanz2reason

            And if he’s a figment of your imagination perhaps you’d be better served devoting the attentions of your finite life elsewhere.

            It would depend what I’m judging. Were I to be judging claims of the natural world, I would give more weight to evidence that is scientifically verifiable. Were I to be judging ethical claims, I would give more weight to claims determined by my conscience and reasoning rather than waiting for the dictates of some book or the pope to tell me right from wrong. Were I to judge historical claims I would give more weight to claims that don’t rely on hocus pocus, and for those that do rely on hocus pocus I would demand a high standard of proof.

          • Lane

            I apologize, I didn’t see your numerous comments below before I posted mine; I assumed you were a Christian in your comments above. I see now that you are an atheist. Your determined desire to be your own ultimate authority is now unsurprising.

            As for your demand for a high standard of proof. Could there ever be proof good enough to change your mind? I would like you to honestly consider this. No really, would you ever actually be open to the idea? What proof would you actually need to believe that there is a God?

            I would also ask you to consider something further. Let’s say there was proof that was so explicit, so in your face, so good enough that everyone would be forced to believe in God. Would this have the effect of leading people to have a desire to love and worship God? By not forcibly compelling you to believe, He is actually giving you the freedom to live without Him, thus making the choice to live him, to have a relationship with Him all the more meaningful. Is your heart so hard that there is no choice but to give you over to what you really want?

          • stanz2reason

            No apology necessary.

            Yes, I imagine there could be evidence I’d find compelling enough to believe, though I’m hesitant to think what that might be. A fully inexplicable event or set of events that leaves no reasonable room for doubt. Something that couldn’t be deemed coincidental or needlessly vague. For instance I don’t believe in someones ability to see the future. If someone asked me to pick a number between 1 & 20 and guessed correctly 2 times in a row (1 in 400 odds), I might be impressed but unconvinced. Were this at a big sporting event, odds are there’d be over 100 people in the audience who could say he guessed right, hardly the work we’d deem inexplicable. But if he singled me out and guessed right 100 times in a row, I’d be compelled to change my beliefs.

            I don’t know what the effect would be of God revealing himself in an explicit way to the world. For some it might be a relief or validation. For others it might might harden their resolve to do something terrible. It doesn’t take a hard heart to disbelieve, but an honest one. Make no mistake, while I feel our finite existence helps give our lives value, I find the prospect of losing everything profoundly sad. But what I want is irrelevant. Wishful thinking is a waste of my finite time and ultimately dishonest for someone who simply is not compelled to believe. (my use of the word ‘compelled’ should be understood as ‘convinced’ rather than ‘forced’, just to be clear).

            Is that satisfactory?

          • Lane

            “Is that satisfactory?”
            I’m not the one to decide that. I will say I honestly believe that you think you are being honest. However, I worry that you have been given sufficent reason to believe, but have talked yourself out it for the sake of something more important to you, something you can’t bear to lose – only you know the answer to that. See Romans 1:18-23 for why I think that. Hopefully, you don’t take this comment as some sort of insult or attack, but as a sincere warning from someone who cares. I wish you the best.

          • Lane

            “perhaps you’d be better served devoting the attentions of your finite life elsewhere.”
            I have never done anything more fruitful in my life than devoting it to God. I pray that I will be able to devote even more.

          • stanz2reason

            I admire that and am glad you get something out of it. As for myself, it would be dishonest.

          • Alice

            Church leaders are not God, and they should not be trusted blindly.

  • ChanaM

    Perhaps what might help is role models of older teens and younger adults regularly reading from Torah during services, so there aren’t just the “normal” services where it’s all the rabbi and it goes very smoothly, and then the b’nai mitzvah services where there are 70 people who have never been there before and a weak, nervous voice half-leading and half following, but rather the rabbi and those who are honored by being given the gift of coming to the torah, which you may do for the first time after a year of work.

    Cognitive psychology speaking, I recognize I am surprised that something which requires that much investment (memorizing words, learning the cantellation trope, preparing for months) doesn’t lead to more cognitive dissonance upon departure from organized religious life, thereby ensuring a more faithful post-age-13 following.

    • Randy Gritter

      Cognitive psychology speaking, I recognize I am surprised that something which requires that much investment (memorizing words, learning the cantellation trope, preparing for months) doesn’t lead to more cognitive dissonance upon departure from organized religious life, thereby ensuring a more faithful post-age-13 following.

      This used to be true. People got the same religion in the home and school as they got in church. The mass media was not as powerful. So you could go through life without having your faith really challenged. In our modern world where you get exposed to so many ideas and religious skepticism is so common that does not happen near as much. People are going to ask questions. So the old tricks don’t work like they used to. That explains much of the decline in religion over the past 100 years.

      The good news is we don’t need tricks. God is real. Catholicism is true. So we can take people right to the heart of it and let them experience it for themselves. It involves risk and sacrifice so not everyone will do it but some will. The key is we have to have the courage to ask. If we say religion is too hard for someone like you so try this other project instead then we have failed them.

      • avalpert

        The good news is cognitive dissonance is alive and well right here.

        • Randy Gritter

          Don’t be so hard on yourself!

    • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

      “Cognitive psychology speaking, I recognize I am surprised that something which requires that much investment (memorizing words, learning the cantellation trope, preparing for months) doesn’t lead to more cognitive dissonance upon departure from organized religious life, thereby ensuring a more faithful post-age-13 following.”

      My guess is that, for those who leave, their motivation to invest is like their motivation to attend school: they have to because their parents make them or they want to because they want a reputation as a good student/whatever. Once Hebrew school/Confirmation class/catechism is over, those particular motives are not just gone, but also fulfilled. There’s no cognitive dissonance because they investment has already paid out (parents got off their back/reputation achieved) and/or because they felt coerced into it the whole time and don’t really need to feel like the investment was worth it.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Sounds all too familiar to me, especially the “social action” part (although we didn’t call it that in my time).

    A combination of post-Vatican II implementation of the changes in the Church and Ireland getting half-modernised in the 70s meant that, after the age of 12 and Confirmation, I more or less educated myself on the faith past the “God made the world” stage of catechesis as to what it is we believe (and a half-assed job I did of it, too).

    I’m not joking when I say I got all my theology out of Dante and thank God for “The Divine Comedy” because I had to learn about all the doctrines presented there).

    We went from catechisms in Sixth Class (when I was twelve) teaching us the Ten Commandments and the Six Laws of the Church in the old question-and-answer format, to textbooks more like workbooks in First Year (when I was thirteen and in secondary school) that never went next, nigh or near the doctrines and dogmas in depth but concentrated on exactly that kind of social justice, ‘it’s nice to be nice so let’s all be nice’ stuff. Forget all about the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, which I would be wiling to bet good money very few of my generation even heard of, much less could name (or know that there are the corresponding Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy).

    Charitable work is not bad, and it is a part of the faith – but instead of, for example, learning about the cardinal virtue of Justice and how the requirement of the Eighth Commandment (Catholic numbering) on “Thou shalt not steal” requires employers to pay their workers a living wage, we got the ‘work on a project’ approach which put an updated gloss on the old ‘pennies for the black babies’ notion – so if we all looked at maps of Africa and talked about famine and disease in religion class, and ended up having a raffle to raise money for a charitable project, what did we really learn? Or end up doing? I don’t know any of my class who went on to be heads of charities or activists, and I imagine most people are the same – we throw a few bob into the Trócaire box when it comes in the door during Lent, and that’s the height of our social justice activity.

    This sounds worthy, and I’m sure it will teach the kids about charity and social justice – but what is it that makes it Jewish, specifically? If it’s more important to “identify a social problem” than learn why they do those funny old rituals, why on earth should they keep up those funny old rituals if they don’t understand them or see the use for them? Why keep going to a place that performs those funny old rituals, once the pressure of “Your granny won’t understand if you don’t have the *insert appropriate religious rite*” is taken away?

  • Y. A. Warren

    Sounds wonderful! How silly it is to act like thirteen year old who have not had to really “live” their faith can commit to a life’s mission based on their faith.

  • http://thinkinggrounds.blogspot.com/ Christian H

    “The Har HaShem project sounds a bit like the gereric (though intensive) capstone project for an Eagle Scout. The article may be omitting nuances of the programs, but it’s not clear how this refocusing binds teenagers together as part of a Jewish community as opposed to a community that happens to be composed of Jews. Again, this may be a result of the reporter’s choice of questions, but I would expect more effort to be put into reenchanting Torah study so that it is a draw in its own right. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the first time the person can chant, but shouldn’t they be looking forward to the second time?”

    Have you read what Richard Beck wrote about making progressive theology more, shall we say, robust? That’s what this reminds me of: Beck is saying, “You already fight evil, so why don’t you articulate that fight Biblically?” That’s not quite what you’re asking; you seem to be saying, “What’s Jewish about this?” But I wonder if the question for the Har HaShem project might be better articulated like Beck’s: “How do you articulate this in a Jewish way?”

    My underlying assumption here is that, if Christianity is right, then any do-gooding (however generic) will automatically be a Christian act, so the task is just to articulate it Biblically. Similarly, if Judaism is right, then any do-gooding (however generic) will automatically be a Jewish act, so the task is just to articulate it … is there an adjective for Torah? Repeat for all systems of thought that contain morality. (And those conditionals may not even be necessary. Even if Christianity’s claims are not true, ethical action could still always be a Christian act, at least for Christians.) This seems like exactly the kind of articulation the article might omit.

  • Bob

    I agree that feeding the hungry isn’t uniquely jewish, but at least the hungry are getting fed. Better that than memorising something you’ll never use again.

  • stanz2reason

    Doctrines supposed to express truths for us to live by in this world well and when we die to live with god and his saints. This is “fundamental.”

    I’m afraid I don’t require prohibitions on murder or theft to literally be written in stone in order to determine how I should or shouldn’t be behaving, nor do I require the delusion that a magic man on a cloud deemed actions good or bad. Yes, that is “fundamental”… fundamentally a way for people either too frightened, lazy or simple minded to be able to absolve themselves for having to think for themselves.

    Your “reason”, I take it, is nothing like this…

    Correct. Constantly assessing and re-assessing ones values, adhering to them or modifying them as conscience dictates is the polar opposite of blind obedience and abandonment of your senses to the hocus pocus of your doctrines.

    … since you imply that you believe in no fundamentals at all.

    Might skepticism & doubt be a fundamental of sorts? Perhaps, though I’m not buying it.

    You are your own god in a very sterile and lonely universe populated by you alone.

    I am the author of my actions, or at least as much as one can be of such things. I don’t believe the world to be a sterile place, and in fact disbelief in the supernatural makes my temporary time in this world brighter, sweeter and all the more valuable to me. I certainly hope for a continuation of consciousness, but spending my time here indulging in wishful thinking via religious belief that somehow everything I want will magically manifest itself into the specific forms dictated by yours or anyone elses silly little doctrines would be a waste of my time. There are 7 billion people on this world. I know some of them, a number of them very well. The universe is many things, but lonely is not one of them.

  • Hanan

    Personally, this new idea within the Reform Community is simply going to tank as anything else they have tried. This comment from the article says it all:

    “Laurie Goodstein’s article about reviving the bar/bat mitzvah is well written. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about the “new look” of the American bar/bat mitzvah. As a former Reform rabbi, I heard and read endless variations of responses to the dilemma of the bar mitzvah/religious school industrial complex for decades. Efforts to include good deeds and social action in the process of bnei mitzvah study have been underway for generations, as have efforts to rewrite the Sabbath morning service to make the bar/bat mitzvah more “meaningful”. Such efforts, however, ignore the basic truth that, for most Reform Jews (and Jews of the other reformed movements), Judaism is a matter of nostalgia, not belief. It is a cultural identity, to be taken out of the drawer during life cycle events and then put back again. There is no getting around the fact that Judaism is based upon a belief in a Jewish God who issued Jewish commandments, not just good or humane ideas. If a Jewish child grows up in a family that does not believe in or follow such a God or such commandments–however moral that family may be–that child will not feel he or she is entering a religious community in any real sense. Do I have the answer? The fact that today I am a Zen Buddhist will tell you. I wish these well-intentioned rabbis and congregants luck, but unless they look issues of belief–belief specific to Judaism–squarely in the face, their efforts will be frustrated.”


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