More than once, Jews have been described as a people of laws. Sometimes this is used as a pejorative, to suggest that Jews are obsessed with legalisms. An impression that, while misleading, can be understandable if one considers certain sections of legal discussion from the Talmud—a commentary of oral law, codified in A.D. 500—outside of the larger context. Similarly, some of the publications of fervently Orthodox Jews dealing with matters of legal minutiae can seem mind-boggling to those outside that community. Even without those extreme examples, the fact that there are several thousand years of Jewish case law on the books would indicate that clearly the laws of Judaism matter.
And they do. But there is a core piece missing here, since, while the laws are important, they aren’t the most important things. The laws are derived from mitzvot (the plural of the word mitzvah), which means “commandments.” The generally accepted number of commandments in the Torah is 613, and while none are optional, they do not all apply to any one person. The most commonly known Jewish life cycle event is the Bar (for a male) or Bat (for a female) Mitzvah, often seen as a coming of age ritual when someone is around 13 years old. It’s an important one, since it is a mark of someone’s status in the community. In the modern era, this has often been taken to extremes, with people using a bar or bat mitzvah as an excuse to throw parties that cost more than the GDP of some nations—but it’s not about that kind of status.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah is often interpreted to mean “Son/Daughter of the Commandments.” While those are what the words literally mean, it misses the actual meaning and the status conferred. To be a bar/bat “something” is to be one who is in possession of that “something.” For example, the legal status of being a bar/bat da’at, one who possesses understanding, is critical in any proceeding, as a person who is not sufficiently aware cannot be held truly accountable for their actions—and therefore can’t actually be a bar/bat mitzvah. Because the status of bar/bat mitzvah is about accountability, it means that someone is not only of sufficient age but, most importantly, of sufficient maturity to be held responsible for their actions and has therefore earned the status of one who is obligated to the commandments.
In the modern era, there is almost a formula to this. When someone is 11 or 12 years old, he or she begins to prepare for his or her bar/bat mitzvah by learning some of the prayers, how to chant from the Torah and often how to chant a haftarah, a reading from the Books of Prophets. They’re called up to the Torah, with their family and friends present, and everyone is very happy and very proud of them. And then comes the moment for their speech, where they speak about how much they have studied, how it has changed their life, how everything will be different from now on and who are the many people whom they want to thank. It’s lovely and wonderful and everyone loves it. There is then probably a party that night, and the following Monday the kid is back in school—because, when you’re 13, that’s pretty much what you have to do.
I don’t write that to make light of the process. It’s serious, especially when you’re a kid and for your family, and it deserve to be taken seriously. But it’s hard to talk about how you’re now obligated to the commandments when you’re just as obligated to follow whatever rules your parents set (honoring your father and mother IS a commandment!) as well as whatever rules are enforced by the school (yep, honoring teachers, too) and whatever other aspects of early teen life that you have no control over.
But not for an adult. In so many ways, late teen and adult life is very different. You have much more control, much more independence and so much more accountability—something that only increases over time. Committing to the mitzvot as an adult is an entirely different process, because you have full volition. It’s a significant choice to stand with and before your peers at Duke and accept the status of being a bar or bat mitzvah. It’s a significant choice to choose as an adult to begin a serious course of study in Jewish thought, knowledge, traditions, law and customs. And it’s an amazing thing to be a part of.
This coming weekend marks the third year in a row that Duke has been privileged to have members of our student community take this step—the third year in a row that students have engaged in an active learning process led by their peers and celebrate together in public. And the third year in a row when the community is honored to be taught by our bar and bat mitzvah.
Obligations are important, and accepting them is something to be celebrated as both individuals and as members of a community. I hope that you, too, join in celebrating that this weekend.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.