Mazal Tov, Madonna?
Time to cue the band. Let’s see now: “Hava Nagilah?” “The Hokey Pokey?”
Um, can you do the hora to “Material Girl?”
Those were the questions on everyone’s lips this past week as the gossip pages roared the news that Rocco, son of the pop sensation Madonna and her ex-husband Guy Richie, was going to celebrate becoming bar mitzvah.
To coin a phrase: “How was this bar mitzvah different from every other bar mitzvah?”
For one thing, the ceremony entailed the completion of the writing of a Torah scroll. Madonna wrote: “We finish the last letter of the Torah for Rocco’s Bar Mitzva! [sic] Lucky 13! Happy Birthday Potential……….responsibility!!!!” This was certainly unlike any other thirteen year old’s rite of passage, at least in my professional memory. Learning a Torah portion? Chanting haftarah? Giving a devar Torah? Nope. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing a Torah scroll (it is, in fact, the 613th mitzvah in the Torah), but bar or bat mitzvah, it ain’t.
Oh, there was one other thing about the uniqueness of this bar mitzvah. Call me a stickler, if you want, but this might be the first bar or bat mitzvah in history in which none of the cast of characters is Jewish. Madonna isn’t. Guy Richie isn’t. Rocco surely isn’t.
I’m not going to take anything away from Madonna. As gentile pop stars go, she is definitely on our side.
Madonna is studying kabbalah. She gave herself a Hebrew name – Esther. She has played numerous concerts in Israel. She has visited Israel more times than the overwhelming majority of American Jews. She has gone to Israel for Rosh Ha Shanah. She has met with Israel’s President, Shimon Peres. She is reportedly interested in buying an apartment in Tel Aviv, which is sort of like South Beach.
We do not take this for granted.
However: what does Rocco’s “bar mitzvah” say about bar/bat mitzvah and about Judaism?
Ever since I wrote Putting God On The Guest List: How To Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-260-9, I have marveled over the fact that two phenomena seem to walk hand in hand.
On the one hand: among the non-Orthodox, the vast Jewish majority of traditional Jewish observances seem to have shrunken. It seems that the substance of Passover seders has shrunken. I sense that fewer people observe yahrzeit than ever before. Yom Kippur fasts are shorter.
And yet, even as other observances shrank, bar and bat mitzvah grew – explosively. What was once a semi-colon in the paragraph of Jewish life has become, sadly, a period. Bar/bat mitzvah eligibility is still the major impetus for synagogue membership. It is a multi-million dollar business. In my own non-scientific study of popular culture, I have figured out that bar and bat mitzvah is probably the most-portrayed religious ceremony, both on the small screen and the large screen.
Is it any wonder, then, that the popularity of bar/bat mitzvah has spread to other ethnic and religious groups? Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal featured a front page article about Protestant kids wanting bar/bat mitzvah: “You Don't Have to Be Jewish To Want a Bar Mitzvah Party. More Kids on Cusp of 13 Get Faux Post-Rite Parties; Picking Hawaiian Theme.”
But it’s not just the party. It’s also the passage. In the African-American community, some thirteen year-old boys publicly give a small speech, and explicitly pledge not to do drugs, be involved with crime, and abuse women. A few years ago, I attended an Episcopalian “Rite Thirteen,” a church pageant in which a group of thirteen year-old kids declared their faith. Imitation, they say, is the highest form of flattery. A few years ago, a Protestant colleague of mine said to me: "Do you have any idea what a great thing you have in bar and bat mitzvah?"
Bottom line: if bar/bat mitzvah did not exist, it would have to be invented, because people really want rites of passage for their children.
Still, even though I can hear Madonna singing in my ear – “Papa don't preach,” I have grave misgivings about the de-Judaization of bar and bat mitzvah. I have to wonder aloud: is it really good for the Jews or for Judaism that a primal Jewish ceremony is ripped out of its traditional Jewish context and becomes available to anyone?
In the theological category of “if it quacks like a duck…” this is what I would want to say to Madonna. Madge: you are studying a kind of Judaism. You have given yourself a Hebrew name. You have proven yourself to be a friend of the Jewish people, Jewish teachings, and the Jewish state. Go the full Marilyn (Monroe, that is)! We would love to welcome you and Rocco into the Jewish people.
Is that "like a prayer?" Perhaps so, but it is a prayer worth uttering.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, NJ, and the author of many books on Jewish spirituality, published by Jewish Lights (www.jewishlights.com).