The 50th anniversary of my Bar Mizvah is Oct. 20, 2011 on the Western calendar; on the Hebrew
(lunar) calendar, it is Shabbos Lech L’cha, which this year falls on Nov. 5. I’ll mark the occasion by reading a few verses from the Torah.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah at 13 is when a Jewish child assumes adult responsibilities in the Jewish religion and community. ”Today, I am a man” is the worst cliche in Bar Mitzvah speeches. It’s so trite, nobody dares say it any more.
Debbie Friedman, one of the most important contemporary writers of Jewish sacred music, who died young in 2011, set Genesis 12 to music. Because she was a staunch feminist, she called the song L’chi Lach, which means “get out,” same as Lech L’cha if you’re talking to a woman.
(I like to say some Hebrew words and prayers, like Shabbos, in the old European dialect, which is dying out and sounds archaic: SHAbbos, not the modern Israeli Sha-BAT).
The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is divided into roughly equal portions of about six chapters. We read it in order, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, and each Sabbath is named for the Torah portion of the week. Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah portion depends on when you were born. Lucky kids get portions from Genesis and Exodus, heroic stories full of meaning.
Unlucky kids get portions from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, which are often step-by-step directions for priestly sacrifices in grizzly, boring detail. Those poor kids have to make a speech about what their Torah portion means in their lives. What do you say about a red heifer a priest carved up?
Lech L’cha (Genesis 12-17) is a great portion. God tells Abraham to get out of his father’s house and go where God tells him. God promises to make Abraham a great nation, an or lagoyim, a light to other nations. In 1961, the meaning of “light to the nations” was clear to liberal Jews: we had to set a moral example for the goyim, and Israel had to be morally better than her enemies.
Mention or la-goyim to right wing Jews and Israeli hawks today, and you start a big argument. They’ve decided that Jews have no responsibility in the world except to survive, because the world feels no responsibility toward Israel and the Jews. In the 1970’s, most Jews and their national organizations turned in that direction, and dumped me on the curb. The pendulum has swung back some, at least in Reform Judaism.
My portion has the story of Lot, but the story of Mrs. Lot turning into a pillar of salt comes later. Childless Sarah tells Abraham to have a child by a servant, then gets jealous and kicks Hagar and her son Ishmael out into the desert, where they practically die of thirst. God rescues them and makes Ishmael the father of the Arab nations. Arabs and Jews are both children of Abraham.
There’s a story about Abraham’s incredible hospitality. Plenty of Bar Mitzvah speeches in Lech L’cha.
But I was assigned to read the Maftir, the last few verses of Lech L’cha which say, “And Abraham was ninety years old and nine when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was 13 years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the selfsame day were circumcised Abraham and Ishmael his son. And all the men of his household, whether born in the household or bought with money from the son of a stranger, were circumcised with him.”
Ever since, Jewish boys have been circumcised at eight days old in the flesh of their foreskins in a ceremony called Bris Mila, which means covenant of circumcision. Bris means covenant and is the Hebrew word for any kind of contract. Mila is circumcision.
Doing it to an innocent child is bad enough, but Jews make a party out of it and invite their friends and relatives to watch and eat fattening stuff. The parents honor one of their best friends by asking him to hold the baby in his lap while a Jewish civil servant called a mohel chops off the tip of the kid’s penis.
“Why do we do this?” violinist Itzhak Perlman asked everyone at the bris of a mutual friend. ”Does anybody like this? Do you like this?”
Jewish feminists, who have been gender-neutering Hebrew prayers and ceremonies for 40 years, don’t say anything about a gender neutral bris.
Since bris means contract, and the bris mila writes the contract between God and the Jewish child chopped clearly into a place the child won’t forget, and since my father was a lawyer, my Bar Mitzvah speech was about the contract between God and the Jewish people. At eight days old, I became party to that contract involuntary, but at 13, I was accepting personal responsibility for upholding my end of the bargain. “Today, I am a man,” is the cliché of all Bar Mitzvah speech cliches.
In 1961, in a segregated state, in a liberal congregation, with both my parents active in the Civil Rights movement, it was easy to talk about upholding the commandment to pursue justice as my part of the bargain between the Jews and God. Pretty good speech for a kid. We felt Jews and blacks were linked by their histories of persecution. Both groups lost that feeling in the 1970’s. I never did, another reason why the Jewish community changed direction and left me at the curb. That traumatized me for the next 30 years. That pendulum has also swung back some.