300 B’nai Mitzvah

[ A Dvar Torah I gave this past week at the Jewish Futures Conference in the topic of role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America today? See the video of the talk. )

Manufactured by 300 years of Spartan warrior society… to create the finest soldiers the world has ever known.The Agoge, as it’s called, forces the boy to fight. Starves them, forces them to steal… and if necessary, to kill. By rod and lash the boy was punished… taught to show no pain, no mercy.

Yes, this is the JEWISH FUTURES  Conference. Welcome. What does 300, the story of King Leonidas, and the Agoge have to teach us about the role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America today? The Spartans were barbaric and so different from us, but there is much to learn:

What were Spartan’s highest values?
How were these values manifest in the Agoge?
How did the Agoge ensure that the next generation of Spartan warriors knew, valued, and behaved as loyal Spartans?
How did the Agoge inculcate in the, if not beat into them,a sense of belonging to their community?
What was the nature of the preparation for and practice of this ritual that spoke to these, the Spartan’s highest values?

Looking to our own tradition, the earliest reference of , if not allusion to, youth coming of age in the Torah might be when Shimon and Levi take up the swords and kill the people of Shechem in the name of defending their sister’s honor אִישׁ חַרְבּוֹ -Each man and his sword ( Genesis 34:25)  On this Rashi quotes the Midrash, ” Rabbi Elazar says: they were 13 years old” ( MidrashBereishit Rabbah 80:10).

How is this helpful? Now we see that both the Spartans and the Ancient Israelites were barbaric and different from us. But are we so different? What do we hear at these Bnai Mitzah? “The Bat Mitzvah girl had such presence when giving her Dvar Torah. She really stood her ground.” Or “That Bar Mitzvah boy– ah his haftarah- he killed it. His form… perfect.” Or “She had such poise and grace, She was amazing and majestic”. Or the classic, “Today, you are a man

Before we can evaluate, re-imagine, or rebuild a Bar or Bat Mitzvah we need to determine what our highest values are? We are not Spartans and we do not aspire to be ancient Israelites. Please take a moment. Let’s think about our highest values. Please write your top one or two values on sticky pads at your table. What your highest values? [waited 15 seconds here ]

Now, what do we think are our children’s highest values? חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ –Initiate a child according to his/her path so when s/he grows old, s/he will not turn away from it. ( Proverbs  22:6) What grabs them? Have we asked them? What gives them a “heightened sense of things”? Are they drawn in by:

fixing the world,  bettering their community, or developing themselves
connecting with Israel, connecting to the Jewish People, or connecting to God
moving their bodies in dance, sport, or out in nature
raising their voices in sound or raising money for charity
speaking out for justice or speaking Hebrew
experiencing the sacred in time, space, or art
protecting the earth or preserving our collective memory
or building community with Food, Folks, or Fun

Please take these sticky note with you. The preparation for and performance of any ritual practice we come up with today needs to connect with both our and our children’s highest values. If we do not keep Judaism sticky, we are off the path. And I frankly I have no idea what we are doing here today.

So back to our question. What can the Spartans’ Agoge offer us? Yes, they were barbaric, but to be honest I would take barbaric over irrelevant any day. In order to clearly manifest our values I would want to offer a myriad of ways, halachic and otherwise, that might frame a rigorous education and training regimen leading toward, but not culminating in an authentic ritual practice. But in the allotted time I have now, I wanted to share just one from this past week. For a moment let us talk about Purim.

In a number of ways life in Persia seems to have been similar to our own. We too have chosen to live outside of a Jewish State in Israel.

  • We experience ourselves having political power in our country  in the Post-Lieberman Era.
  • Our society is rethinking the role of women in public life  in the Hillary Era.
  • As a community we are dealing with shifting attitudes toward intermarriage.
  • Many of us share a sense that God is hidden, if  there is a God at all.
  • And most important for today, in our trying to respond to a joyous occasion in our lives we also seek to create something that is both authentic and relevant.

So what does Adar offer us?

Joyous Judaism, Mi’ Shnichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha
Collective Memory in reading Parshat Zachor
Collective Empathy and Self sacrifice. It is not all peaches and Cream. We see this in our not eating on the Fast of Esther

And the core of the day? In the Megilah we read that Mordechai and Esther created a ritual on the 14th and 15th of Adar every year, to commemorate the days when their fortune was reversed. To make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.( Esther 9:20-22) קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלֻ הַיְּהוּדִים  עֲלֵיהֶם וְעַל זַרְעָם -And just like that they created out of  whole cloth an authentic ritual that spoke to their needs and lasted for generations.

What are some of the critical ingredients of Purim? How might this help us think about Bar or Bat Mitvah for generations to come?

1)  By reading the Megilah we need to articulate the national narrative
2)Companionship is founded on breaking bread. We  build our local communities around festive meals
3) By sending Mishloach Manot one to another we connect to and contribute to the larger Jewish communal network
By sending these gifts we expand our virtual table and re-weave our community. 
4)And we contribute to the larger community by giving Tzedaka to all those who need- Matanot L’Evyonim
5)Purim is not complete Ad d’lo Yada  until we do not know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai. To do this we need to know what is good and bad. We cannot forget the much-needed ingredient of a moral discernment process

Like Mordechai and Esther we have to be bold and creative. In partnership with our youth we need to make something that is rigorous and relevant. We need to empower our youth to be authentic authors of our collective narrative. Who will do this? Mi hu zeh? If not us, who? ( Esther 7 :5)

AGOGE                   ἀγωγή

SYNAGOGUE      συναγωγή

Can we take the best and leave the rest of the Agoge tradition? Can we take the best and leave the rest of the Syn-Agoge tradition? We will only achieve our goals if we can clearly articulate our needs. What are our highest values? Are they sticky? How will we prepare the next generation to perform a ritual practice that manifests these, our highest values? To borrow the sentiment from Mordechai’s message to Esther for the task at hand:

It is not a time to be silent, even without us the role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America today will be someone will re-imagined. But who knows? It might have been just for this very task  that we came together today.

The link to the video of the talk 

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