Sunday, August 25, 2013

Whose Fault Is it Anyway?

Sam Horowitz (center), his family, and his rabbi - Photo credit: Dallas News
It was 1983 – the year of my son’s Bar Mitzvah. I wanted to throw a party. And I did. It was on the Motzi Shabbos of his actual Bar Mitzvah. It was a dinner with about 175 people in the banquet hall of a Shul (Skokie Valley Traditional Synagogue). There was a Drasha (speech) by my son. There was a band and dancing. And there was a skit performed by one of my brothers and his son that was a knockout hit! It practically got a standing ovation by the guests.

Es Chatoei Ani Mazkir HaYom. I recognize my sins. As much fun as that Bar Mitzvah was, I would not do it again.  Bar Mitzvahs do not in my opinion warrant such elaborate productions.  A 13 year old boy has rarely achieved anything in life that warrants such a celebration. What he has accomplished is something that is automatic. He had to do nothing to achieve it except pass the threshold of Mitzvah obligation upon turning 13 years of age. While this is truly a great milestone that deserves recognition, I do not see throwing any kind of banquet that involves all the elements I described above.

Especially when there is a real crisis in financing Jewish education in our day. I need not remind people how much how much they spend on tuition. And that the vast majority of parents are on at least a partial scholarship even if their incomes are well above average. There are very few people who don’t feel the pinch – no matter how much money they make.

And yet somehow the money is found for Bar Mitzvah parties. So even though I had a somewhat elaborate Bar Mitzvah for my own son (although truly modest by some standards) I have evolved in my views and consider it money not well spent (to say the least).

In my view a Bar Mitzvah should be limited to Shabbos which should include a nice Kiddush. That can include a range of food options based on what parents can afford all the way up to and including a nice Shabbos Seudah (dinner) for the guests after the Kiddush. 

I have heard the argument made that Bar Mitzvahs should be made on weekdays so that people who do not live in walking distance can share your Simcha (joyous occasion). I disagree. Not everyone need come. If they are that close - arrangements can usually be made to have them in the neighborhood for Shabbos. Othewise, the world will not come to an end if friends that do not live close by don’t come. If I had it to do over again. I would have just had a nice Cholent Kiddush on Shabbos and that’s it.

Which leads me to Sam Horowitz’s Bar Mitzvah celebration - which has gone viral on YouTube.

First I want to state unequivocally that young Sam Horowitz is not at fault. It is very likely that he had no religious education to speak of outside his synagogue. His values are mostly those of the general society in which he lives. He should not be castigated for what he did. I’m not even sure I can fault his parents for indulging him. Sam is probably a wonderful young man with otherwise exemplary values…  as described by William Gershon his Conservative rabbi.

Rabbi Gershon penned a defensive response about this young man and rebuked Rabbi David Wolpe. Rabbi Wolpe is another Conservative rabbi that expressed outrage at it in his initial response. He later apologized for his intemperate article which many say should have been a first draft.

Although his letter was not well thought out and may have hurt the feelings of the young celebrant, his sentiments were right on the money. They in fact are mirrored on Cross Currents by Rabbi Avi Shafran, who contrasted this Bar Mitzvah with those he held for his own children.

There are really several elements to this Bar Mitzvah that should be weighed with a sober mind. First there is looking at what a Bar Mitzvah celebration is supposed to signify – a young child’s entry into the adult responsibilities of Mitzvah observance. He passes from a state of no Halachic responsibility for his actions into one of complete responsibility. This is a happy occasion but it is also a serious one – a time for reflection as well as celebration.The one thing it is not is about singing and dancing on a stage with a bunch of Las Vegas style show girls.  Even if we leave out the fact that dance numbers like these sexualize the child under any circumstances, such dance numbers surely have no place at a Bar Mitzvah.  

The reason his parents did this is because Sam is talented and expressed a desire to enter show business. Had he performed this way on some sort of competition like America’s Got Talent I doubt that there would have been any public reaction.  But the fact that it was part of a Bar Mitzvah is what makes it so egregious.

What does performing on stage with showgirls have to do with his entry into the realm of Mitzvah observance? It is in fact the antithesis  of it. It celebrates the opposite of what the Jewish people are supposed to be about. Which is to be a Goy Kadosh – a holy nation. Sexualization of a young Jewish boy in this way is the exact opposite of holiness. Rabbi Wolpe’s gut reaction was therefore the right reaction – if the wrong way to express it.

He was right to apologize. As I said, It is not Sam’s fault – or even his parents fault. At least not entirely. It is the failure of Heterodox movements like Rabbi Wolpe’s. They have failed to instill any sense of holiness into their community.  That this Bar Mitzvah was extravagant is a flaw that many in our own Orthodox community have. I have attended Orthodox Bar Mitzvahs that are as elaborate as the most lavish of weddings. This happens in all segments of Orthodoxy, from Left Wing Modern Orthodox to Right Wing Charedi. On that level we Orthodox have failed as well. But at least we understand that dancing on stage with a bunch of scantily clad Vegas type showgirls is completely inappropriate.

Rabbi Wolpe knows this. And yet he and other members of heterodox clergy have failed to instill this value into their members. So a Vegas act at a Bar Mitzvah is hardly seen as inappropriate by even good people who no doubt Sam’s parents are.

This is a broad based failure of our clergy. For Orthodox rabbis it is about the failure to communicate the vulgarity of extravagance at a Bar Mitzvah. For heterodox rabbis it it is also about the failure to communicate the vulgarity of immodest dance numbers at a Bar Mitzvah.

If a rabbi is going to be irate about such events… he need look in the mirror and ask, where was I? Why have I failed to communicate to my members just how inappropriate and even vulgar such Bar Mitzvahs are?

They need to ask themselves why they have been unable to communicate to their members the true meaning of a Bar Mitzvah and the nature of holiness. Or the idea that at age 13 (…for a boy 12 for a girl) they are now Halachicly responsible for their behavior and celebrate that in an appropriate and modest manner. And that God takes note of everything we do. He wants us to be a holy nation. Extravagance at any level is not holy. That is exponentially true about a young boy dancing with a bunch of scantily clad Vegas type show girls at his Bar Mitzvah!

In Orthodoxy, children are Jewishly educated by more than just their rabbi. So the blame can be spread around among the parents who in most cases having had a extensive religious education themselves and should know better;  by Mechanchim (teachers) in elementary schools; and by their synagogue rabbis. Extravagant Bar Mitzvahs are more of a communal failure.

In Heterodoxy, it is often the case that the rabbi the sole source of anything religious for their congregants.  So who can we blame for this Jewishly embarrassing Bar Mitzvah? Not 13 year old Sam Horowitz. Not even the parents who apparently have no clue what it means to be holy. But the very rabbis like Rabbi Wolpe who are so strongly and correctly outraged by it.