Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Confirmation, Mitzvah, and Meaning

This last Sunday, with my tech-savvy wee kirk preparing to spool up three Quicktime videos of me welcoming/ preaching/ benedicting, I went with my family to the morning funeral of my kid's Jewish great-grandfather.  Being a pastor married to a Jewish woman and raising Jewish children will have that effect on occasion, as our shabbas observances jostle up against one another.

As we waited for the start of the service, I talked shop with the rabbi for a bit.  Earlier that day, I'd sat in on a family b'nei mitzvah planning class that he'd lead, as my youngest is spooling up for that rite of passage later this year.   I'd been particularly fascinated by his presentation of the history of the bat/bar mitzvah within Judaism, and wanted to talk with him about what I'd heard.

What he'd laid out was the recentness of that ritual in the history of Judaism.  Though it's a huge blowout deal now, it was a relatively trivial event for much of the history of that faith tradition.  It was a coming of age, sure, but at the most basic level.  Even more notably, he talked about the move in the more progressive wings of Judaism to change the whole process back in the late 19th and early 20th century.

As it's impossible to notice, thirteen-year-olds are not always ready to make a meaningful public statement about their faith commitment.  Are they smart?  Sure.  Are they capable of interesting insights and real spiritual engagement?  Yes.  But are they their own adult persons?   Often, no,  not quite, not yet.  Sometimes, yes.

That process of individuation, the transition between childhood and adulthood, that's still very deeply in process.  At thirteen, most of us are still coalescing, still a swirl of the child we were and the adult we will be.

What Reform Judaism had struggled with...and still struggles with...was the meaningfulness of that ritual of transition.  If it's set to a particular age, something one does at a particular time in life no matter where one stands as a person and no matter where you stand in your relationship with your faith, then what does that ritual mean?

And so there was real conversation in American Judaism about pushing that time back, either to sixteen or to the point one desired it.  It was to become more like confirmation...which now is done in some synagogues in addition to the b'nei mitzvah.

That this conversation had been an active one in portions of Judaism is fascinating, because it needs to be an active conversation within those strains of Christianity that do confirmation.  Confirmation, within the Reformed tradition, is often presented as something like the whole mitzvah thing.   They do the bris and the mitzvah, we do the baptism and the confirmation.  For Christian progs, it lets us nod serenely at how our practices both mirror and honor the tradition from which Jesus sprang.

But given the struggles within Judaism about the place and role of the mitzvah, does that make sense?   I am convinced that approaching the affirmation of faith that is at the core of confirmation as something that happens at one age for everyone makes no sense whatsoever.  Now you're in ninth grade!  Time for confirmation!

This feels wrong.  This does not compute.

If you are a people woven together by blood and history, I can see some logic in doing this at thirteen.  If your self-understanding is that you belong to a community because of a shared culture and tradition, then age and volition matters less.  That's certainly far from the only factor in having a strong sense of Jewish identity, but it is there for some.

Within the dynamics of Christian faith, however, a volitional engagement with the faith is absolutely central because the cultural element is not...cannot be...there.  Christianity is not a culture or a people.  If it falls into identifying too strongly with one culture, it betrays itself.  It is a state of being, a freely chosen orientation of the soul.   If the rituals and celebrations of our entry into that state of being do not mirror that reality, then they will be empty things.

And our kids will notice the emptiness of that moment.  And they will not stay to walk the Way with us, because what we have taught them is that that statement of faith does not matter.


  1. It's Reform Judaism, not Reformed. We're still working on it, as your thoughtful post demonstrates so clearly. Putting the -ed on there just seems so final. Anyway, there are some really interesting conversations happening around the subject of b'nai mitzvah and its role in/impact on Jewish education, many of them led by my mentor here in Cleveland. You may want to have a look and see what you can take away for your own work:

  2. Stefani: Doh. Meant to say that, but as I come from a "Reformed" denomination, I have this pesky tendency to add an "ed" when I type that word, and once typed, it just looks right.

    I've seen that site, actually, although I found myself wondering when I saw it to what extent that conversation has become translated into practice. Has your community begun anything new as a result of it?

  3. The official Pilot Cohort has just begun doing its thing, and I'm really not sure what impact it will have on the actual ceremony. Most of those congregations are pretty big, but I do have interaction with a few of their Education Directors through our local network, so am curious to hear what will come. On the other hand, some of the curricular ideas have been out there for awhile, and are impacting even the work I do at the tiny congregations I serve. If you look on the Resources page, the links under Hebrew are some of the cool things we're doing here in NEO (Nachama is my mentor, and I had the privilege of studying with Lifsa while she was still at Siegel College). Or you could come to one of my classes and see for yourself!