Friends, comrades, and Gail’s relatives:
How many of you have been at a barmitzvah ceremony before? How many have never been to a barmitzvah ceremony?
When we were planning this event the others explained to me that this was the slot where the ‘elders of the community’ spoke. I’m not quite sure when I turned into an elder – I don’t feel old enough, not even nearly. And it sounds a bit sort of – Mormon really.
I prefer to think of this as the equivalent of the rabbi’s sermon – the long bit where he (or just occasionally she) gets all erudite and quotes from the torah in Hebrew, and the congregation can have a chat or a doze.
So in true rabbinical style, let’s consider the question: “Why are we here?”
The most obvious reason why we are here is to celebrate these four boys coming of age. We are all very proud of our first graduating class, and we hope they will be the first of many. There are already many things that they can do much better than we adults. At least as far as I am concerned foremost among them is the ability to keep time when playing music, which we will demonstrate beyond contradiction a little later in the day.
But why are we here? Why aren’t we in a synagogue, celebrating their entrance as an adult into a conventional Jewish community? And what is this ‘Coming of Age’ thing?
Well, to start with, we think of ourselves as secular Jews – with equal emphasis on both words. That is, we identify with Jewish culture (about which more later) but we are not religious. By that I don’t only mean that we are not frum – not observant. We don’t believe, as Orthodox Jews believe, that the Torah (the five books of Moses) was written by God and dictated to Moses.
Nor do we believe, as Reform Jews appear to believe, that when the superstitious outer layers are stripped away there’s an underlying core of superior ethics and morality. The truth is that those scriptures were written, edited and re-edited, and bolted together over a period of hundreds of years – and that during that long period what counted as morality and ethics changed a lot. Over succeeding centuries really very clever Jewish intellectuals have expended massive amounts of energy denying this, and trying to pretend that the scriptures contain a consistent narrative and a consistent ethical code.
But they don’t. The ancient Israelites were not monotheists (only monolatrists). They practiced animal sacrifices, their society was based on hereditary castes and clan loyalties, and they had a very prescriptive sexual morality with lots of “don’ts”, all designed to prevent practices which did not lead to reproduction. Not much of this is compatible with contemporary ethics and morality, and it takes a lot of intellectual acrobatics to pretend that it is.
Many Jews think the same way that we do. We’ve lost count of the number of people we have spoken to who admit that they don’t believe in God but have joined a synagogue as a form of communal identification – mainly because their cultural identity as Jews is important to them, and because they don’t believe that they have any other option apart from the synagogue. So why have we been able to maintain the courage of our lack of convictions?
Partly because we’ve been lucky. For the last five years we’ve been part of a group of people – the Red Herring Club – which has been dedicated to celebrating Jewish culture in a secular way. For most of those five years we have been organising our activities jointly with another group – the East London Alternative Cheder – so much so that in pretty much everything but name we form a single secular Jewish community.
We’ve celebrated festivals together in a way that felt right to us, allowing us to enjoy the traditions and the customs, and even some of the rituals, without having to take on (or pretend to take on) the theological and moral baggage that go with them.
Fifty years ago our choice, and our way of being Jewish, wouldn’t have looked so eccentric. Then there was a network of secular Jewish organisations – schools, friendly societies, summer camps and youth groups, housing associations – newspapers and magazines, publishing houses – all based on the idea that there was a kind of Jewish identity not based on religious knowledge and practice. In other countries, even now – especially in the US – much of this survives, on a smaller scale. This probably a good time to mention the Congress of Secular Jewish Organisations, which has recently accepted the Red Herring Club as its British – and first ever non-American – affiliate.
But since that network isn’t there any more, why have we bothered? Why try to preserve what doesn’t seem to be capable of preserving itself? Well, the short answer is because it feels right to us. We feel like Jews, and we don’t believe in God, so we’ve chosen this kind of identification. But feelings aren’t always right – maybe this is just a silly sentimental attachment that we should grow out of. Isn’t it time we just threw in the towel?
I don’t think so. This year, as every year, my family made our near-annual pilgrimage to the Womad festival. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s a glorious celebration of human cultural diversity. In a single day we listened to bands from Colombia, Ghana, Italy, Spain, and all over the place. Our favourites are the hybrids, like the Flamenco-influenced rock band that played on the main stage at dusk.
But there can only be hybrids like that if there are things to cross-breed; and our little part of the big picture, our contribution to the recipe, is secular Jewish culture. And if we expect other people to look after their traditions so that they have something to bring to the party, then surely we secular Jews have not just a right, but a duty too, to keep our own culture well watered and looked after.
And why are we celebrating like this? With this sort of ceremony – isn’t a coming of age ceremony, even without the ‘B’ word, inherently a religious activity? Maybe…but let’s not forget that many of the scriptures, the customs, the prayers, and the festivals of religious Jews are actually borrowed from other cultures and contexts – and then given a new meaning that fits them into a specifically Jewish story.
Pesach and Sukkot existed as non-religious agricultural festivals long before they were fitted into the story of the Exodus. The story of Purim was imported from the Bablyonian festival of Zagmuku, with the characters’ names based on the Bablyonian gods. The barmitzvah ceremony didn’t really exist before the middle ages, where it developed under the same influences that led Christians to invent the confirmation ceremony. (For Philip Pullman fans, it’s worth knowing that the latter largely replaced something called Oblation, where children were dedicated to God and given to monasteries at the age of five!)
So why shouldn’t secular Jews mark the coming of age of their children with a ceremony too? After all, once you accept that the Torah wasn’t written by God, you can really start to appreciate it – as a compendium of literature, love poetry, comparative ethics and Bronze Age political propaganda. So we assert the right to pick and choose from the storehouse of Jewish tradition without apology. To light candles, to read from the torah, and to have barmitzvah ceremonies.
So for those of you who have been to lots of other barmitzvahs, I hope you can appreciate why ours – is a little bit different. And for those of you who have never ever been to a barmitzvah before, they are all exactly like this.