The Bar Mitzvah, re-examined

Last week on this site I penned an column about a Bar Mitzvah party video that had been circulating on … Continued

Last week on this site I penned an column about a Bar Mitzvah party video that had been circulating on the Web. I was incensed not only at the video, but the currency it had achieved, making it appear that this was a paradigm of Jewish celebrations.

The article was written at white heat. A few correspondents, and particularly my friend and colleague, Rabbi William Gershon, the Horowitz’s rabbi, took me to task not for the points I made, but for appearing to insult a child and those who love him. I am truly sorry for that, and apologize to Sam and his family for anything I said that was wounding. As a Rabbi I should know better than to push “send” without calm and consideration. And I am additionally sorry for not addressing what is in some ways the greater and more pressing issue, which is not about any individual or family but about our community.

Half of my congregants are from Beverly Hills. I am acquainted with lavish celebrations and over sexualized adolescent events. Scales differ but still, in all communities — orthodox, conservative, reform, why do we believe such displays are appropriate for a sacred rite of passage?

No parent would permit such ostentation if met by disapproval from the community. It is our applause that keeps the performances going. Rabbis may thunder from the pulpit but unless there is a sense that this is a violation of sanctity, an insult to the holiness of the moment, such excesses will continue and even grow.

Repeatedly we see a child schooled in Torah, chanting, speaking, embraced by his family on the age at which he or she becomes responsible for mitzvot. And then, to mark the moment when religious obligations are now his, this same child celebrates with a party that is thoroughly inappropriate: pricey and even lewd. If we cannot feel — deeply feel — the disconnect, then something is broken in our Jewish souls.

These extravaganzas make sense if our definition of success is wealth, or a vainglorious declaration of self. But the Jewish tradition, our genuine teaching, disdains vulgarity and narcissism. We are secure in America, not arrivestes proving that we can be accepted by lighting our cigars with dollar bills. The American Jewish community is organized, wealthy and with all the problems that exist, comfortable. Modesty, humility and gratitude are Jewish values too little in evidence in many of our celebrations and synagogues.

The holidays are coming. I intend to examine my soul, understand my misdeeds and try to do better. As a community, let’s look at what we are teaching our children, and do the same.

You can follow Rabbi Wolpe on Twitter @RabbiWolpe

David Wolpe
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  • Shoshi18

    I agree with the premise of your statements; however,t this article is an “I’m sorry, but….” statement which detracts from and minimizes the apology. In fact, even though you are now writing in more general terms it is an obvious attack on the original family.

  • Cat84

    While I agree with Shoshi18, your apology has a “but” which nullifies it, I cannot disagree with the premise of this article.

    Perhaps Sam is not to blame for the over-the-top celebration, after all he didn’t pay for it. His parents must be held accountable on several levels. First, they must be held accountable for minimizing the importance of the sacredness of the bar mitzvah. Second, they must be held accountable for sexuallizing the celebration. Third, they must be held accountable for putting their son in a sexual fantasy made real. Fourth, they must be held accountable for not saying no to Sam. And finally, they must be held accountable for the complete waste and mismanagement of the resources which G-d has given them. They squandered their money, they flaunted their wealth, they taught their son and those watching that this excess is acceptable, even in times of great hardship around the world, in their own country and even within their own community.

    The parents had a chance to set a wonderful example, I do not apologize for calling them out and neither should you, Rabbi.

  • RaphaelB

    Isn’t the Bar Mitzvah celebration a “coming of age” one.. in which the boy is now a man!!?? Is that not the tradition? That boy can now marry, can go to war, and his parents are no longer responsible for his actions.

    Part of “coming of age” is a sexual component. No?

  • Moishgil

    Speaking as both a social worker and gay man, I’m all too familiar with the kind of exhibitionism some profoundly narcissistic people seek out. I suspect that what we witnessed in that now renown video about Sam Horowitz’s Bar Mitzvah had as much to do with Sam’s character as his parent’s money.

  • Helo Pilot

    Bravo Rabbi. This bad trend has been long in the making. Let’s hope this is sparks enough soul searching to trend in the other direction.

  • Afshine Emrani

    Here is what I believe is at the core of the psychology. It is wrong to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah so lavishly and make it about financial and gaudy rewards. However, many of us, even those from Beverly Hills were not born into wealth, but toiled for years to get there. The age of thirteen represents typically parents in their early fifties, with their own parents either gone, or soon to be. Many of these parents, like I, had no significant Bar Mitzvah (for me, I read from the Torah and an unknown Chabad rabbi came to our apartment and ate a few cookies and nuts.) This sets the stage for a midlife celebration ( one of coming of age of the parents) and in my mind overwhelms the occasion. How better it would be to have modest luncheon at the temple without themes or dancing girls for the Bar Mitzvah and a separate celebration of being grateful to live in a land of opportunity.

  • Ann Bene

    No authentic apology is being offered here. “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt” is a fake apology because it accepts no personal responsibility. It takes great awareness to be accountable. Rabbi, you simply state your original premise. What you wrote then and what you write now is just a rehashing trying to disguise itself as an apology.

  • macnietspingal1

    Rethinking all this. Reminds me of 2 Samuel 6:12-23
    When I saw that other “viral” event, the IDF Bikini and Gun
    I always loved the story of the triumphal march of David and Michal.
    Mixed feelings. But seeing the IDF Bikini and Gun I’ve now imaged a
    new Triumphal March placing the Trope Trainer Booth in the Dome
    of the Rock and also the Arch of Titus Menorah (copy) with Shofar and
    Drum, Bikini and Gun I can’t get it out of my head Guess I am
    enjoying my second childhood at 84. Being Jewish is like expandex.

  • AlizaG

    As a Jewish educator, temple board member and parent, I have to say I agree with Rabbi Wolpe’s message here – which, to me, is – what is this day about? Is it a celebration of study, leading up to leading a congregation in prayer? Is it a day of excess? Is it a joyful day, calling for celebration? And what kind of celebration?
    I, like many others, have watched the gleeful Bar and Bat Mitzvah dances on You Tube. Some are joyous celebrations of a rite of passage; some have made me cringe in their “adultness”. I think it’s time to get back to the significance of what is happening that day, with celebrations to match, never forgetting that it is a religious ceremony after all.
    I think that ceremonies, both B’nei Mitzvah and weddings, have gotten out of hand and become stressful for both the planners and the participants. The goal to knock everyone’s socks off at the best venue, have the nicest (expensive) clothing, most gourmet food and splashiest goodie bags possible. But is that what it’s about? As a teacher of Jewish lifecycle events , a parent and guest at these events, I think not. Let’s get back to basics.

  • themcnotts2

    As a Christian, and fond admirer of Rabbi Wolpe and his writings, I read his remarks as simply stressing the importance of truly living our faith. When he speaks of the need for “Modesty, humility and gratitude are Jewish values too little in evidence in many of our celebrations and synagogues,” I must share that this is also true for Christian churches — and very likely most other religious traditions as well. We should never feel we are above the need to humbly look within — for that very humility that must be lived out to be authentic to the religious beliefs that espouse it. Marshall McNott, Montgomery Village, MD

  • Neil R.

    CRAP is CRAP! Trying to excuse excessive vulgarity by pointing out one’s monetary charity is pointless behavior

  • Secular1

    “I must share that this is also true for Christian churches — and very likely most other religious traditions as well.” If this is true as you state it, from whence comes this “Modesty, humility and gratitude are Jewish values too little in evidence in many of our celebrations and synagogues,”

    To put it succinctly these claims “Bla Bla bla is jewish value or muslim value daa de da da” is nothing but nonsensical homilies. These are everybody’s values as well as nobody’s values. By that I mean every one talks it but few walk it. So to label something as Jewish values, by that implying those things are not valued by others and are adhered to exclusively by Jewish people is silly. I rather when people have nothing to say they should learn not to say anything. Mr. Wolpe seems to be inordinately very unskilled in that.

  • SueD

    While you examine your soul, I hope the Washington Post re-examines its choice of columnists. Your attack, as a spiritual leader, on a child and family you didn’t even know was as disturbing as Rabbi Gershon’s defense of his congregants was inspiring. I agree with others who have commented here that this is no true apology. I assume you’re now embarrassed at your bullying words and snarky use of “Sammy”, but your judgmental message remains. For those who call this innocent little routine “vulgar”, did you even watch it? Did you see the joy in this boy’s face? This is a talented boy celebrating with friends and family in a way that is meaningful to him. Also, according to his own rabbi, he’s a boy who had asked his guests to, in lieu of gifts, donate to a worthy cause. From the information offered by Rabbi Gershon, and the poise and presence Sam displays on that video, his parents have a lot to be proud of and, yes, to celebrate. Mazel Tov to them!