Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Great Threat of Birthdays

According to Slate, the Washington Post Company-owned website that many on Jewbiquitous have come to love, the traditional Latin American fifteenth birthday party has become for some the "go forth and hook up" ritual. Ross Douthat, a somewhat conservative commentator, reads the article and says that:
The same coming-of-age tradition that in an agrarian society segues naturally into marriage and family can, in a more permissive cultural context, function as a license for sexual activitity and unwed motherhood. The same network of extended families, churches, and stay-at-home mothers that sustains a traditional social order can provide a temporary cushion that makes second-generation family breakdown more socially acceptable than it should be.
Which brings me to b'nei mitzvot. Nobody's kidding nobody that a thirteen-year-old boy or a twelve-year-old girl are ready to join the adult Jewish community. In some jurisdictions, they're still not even liable for their own tortious (personal injury causing) conduct. For various reasons, we don't really hear about teen pregnancy in the Jewish community. But that's not the point.

We still have an "out into the world" ritual for people who aren't going out into the world for at least five more years, usually more. Does that make sense?


Adam Shprintzen said...

I defintely see your point to be sure, but I have always seen bnai mitzvot as the first step into the adult community. Yes there is lots of talk of "now you are a man/woman" and that seems fairly trite. Really, being called to the Torah for the first time is just that first step, and I would also say when taken seriously enough, is a great lesson in learning about the choices we make, the responsibilities we gain, and the burdens associated with those responsibilities.

Annie said...

I think that it is less "now you are a grown-up" and now "you are responsible for your own actions" which makes sense in a halahkic context.

At 13 you are old enough to be responsible for your decisions to keep kosher when out with friends, or daven three times a day, although maybe not for more complicated things. It makes sense to start young-ish so that the practices can become a habit,but old enough that the child can comprehend what they are doing.

15 and 16 is trickier.

The Autodidact said...

Perpetual defender of liberal religion that I am, this comment may surprise you.

I must agree with The Pedant, but with a caveat. Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies make little to no sense in liberal Jewish communities, but they do still make quite a bit of sense in Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox spheres. Indeed in those communities (and in certain observant Conservative communities as well), the ceremony starts the child on a path of increased involvement in the Jewish community that leads to his/her marriage within the next decade (by about 22-23). This still works despite everything else that has changed. However, Liberal Jewish communities exist much more in the world that Mundy is discussing in Slate. A world where, "childhood ends earlier than ever, while adulthood in the traditional sense—of settling down and starting a family—begins much later, if at all." Indeed Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in Liberal Jewish communities do not introduce further involvement in the community, and certainly do not lay down the groundwork for marriages within the next 6-10 years (try doubling that). They really serve no purpose at all. If we want our Jewish kids involved with other Jewish kids, we will sign them up for youth groups or camps. For liberal Jews, as with mainstream American society, the moment of "adult" involvement in things that matter is college, though even that is questionable. No matter how you slice it, 13 simply doesn't work.

The Pedant said...

I think the Autodidact and I are in agreement here; it makes no sense to have a 2000-year-old ritual based on the fact that women are marrying at 14 the basis for religious adulthood in a community where adulthood is not expected in any other behavior until much later.

In communities like the one Annie describes, where there are "cool kids" who go to morning minyan, the bar or bat mitzvah might be a good reinforcing routine, creating the beginnings of the adult community in youth religious activity.

But, outside that world, I see it like the Jewish organization ad in Heeb that has some kid in a suit and the line "you had fun the last time you did something Jewish."