My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Advice Column for March 2017:
Dizzy about her Bat Mitzvah and Bewildered about her Burial
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I’m getting a little dizzy trying to figure out when to schedule my bat mitzvah. My synagogue recommends that both boys and girls celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs at age 13. I’d like to celebrate it when I am 12. I am ready for it. My parents support me. What should I do?
Coming of Age in Clifton
Dear Coming of Age,
It’s probable from what you say that the tasks of preparing for the chanting of the Torah and haftarah in the synagogue likely are not what is making you dizzy. Planning and deciding on all the related logistics for your bat mitzvah day are challenges to young and old alike. You appear to be involved in the ordeals of scheduling and negotiations, perhaps with your parents, siblings, and friends, and with the calendars of your synagogue and the demands of caterers, DJs, and wardrobe, just to list the most obvious factors that come into play in approaching a bat mitzvah.
Do not fret. Yes indeed, you can get spun around trying to sort out the best practices and options for our major Jewish rituals and observances. True, many of our religious actions are rigorously defined and there is nothing to think about. But in the case of bat mitzvah, the rules are less clear and hence the choices are more complex.
Why is this ritual different from many of our other rituals? Let’s review just a bit of background about the origins of the bar and bat mitzvah, because that will help you understand why the instructions are less well defined for those practices.
It’s commonly accepted that the do’s and don’ts of Judaism, the rituals and restrictions, are mandatory for adults and optional for children. By a longstanding convention, the rabbis of the Talmud decided that the automatic age of majority is 13 for boys and 12 for girls. But there is no recorded discussion back in ancient talmudic times of any major public ritual or celebration of this transition.
Let’s look for a moment at the larger world, beyond our Jewish communities. Anthropologists call those human activities marking personal life cycle transitions “rites of passage.” They recognize the four major ones, marking birth, coming of age, marriage, and death.
In many world cultures and religions, there is a fixed set of activities to demonstrate the coming of age passage. In some native American cultures, there is a rite of puberty to mark girls’ first menstruation, which may occur when they are about 12. In some cultures in Africa and the South Pacific, boys are initiated into manhood by performing acts of bravery, survival, or athleticism. Malaysian Muslim girls recite from the Koran at the mosque at 11 to mark their maturation. That seems somewhat akin to our Jewish bat mitzvah practice.
In the recent past American teens have marked the passage to adulthood more informally, with sweet sixteen parties, with taking their driving tests, and perhaps with getting a new car.
Your dizziness over what to do probably revolves around the two elements of our current bat mitzvah practices. First you need to know when you should have the synagogue part of the rite. That’s for you and your family and community to mark your maturity in religious terms. And second you need to plan for your party, the time that you and your friends get together for a formal social celebration of your coming of age.
As I suggested, it’d be easier if the rules were hard and fast, as they are for many of our ritual observances in Judaism. Yes, you have found out that there is more flexibility in the scheduling of a bat mitzvah than you might have expected.
The laws are not so rigid for these mitzvahs partly because the bar mitzvah concept was developed in the middle ages. At that time, it began to be the custom that as soon as a boy turned 13 he was called to the Torah in the synagogue to mark his maturation.
And the bat mitzvah for girls is a later development. Some historians of Judaism trace its origin to American rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan’s celebration of the bat mitzvah of his daughter almost a century ago. On March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan was called to the Torah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan. In Reform Judaism in Europe and America decades earlier, girls and boys were confirmed in the temple; bar and bat mitzvah milestones were not celebrated.
If you and your family are members of a Conservative synagogue where egalitarianism is an important concern, then the aim sometimes is that boys and girls have equal rights — and equal rites — and celebrate coming of age at 13. But some Conservative families, as well as Orthodox families who celebrate bat mitzvah, do so at age 12.
This past year I attended my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah celebration party in Israel, which took place a few weeks before she turned 12 to allow her friends to attend and celebrate with her before the summer school break.
So dizziness at some point becomes a likely possibility when you are trying to please everyone involved, family, friends and community.
My advice — don’t agonize too long over this. Decide what you want. Listen to what your parents want. Find out what your synagogue wants and offers. Availability there for events may be tightly contested and restricted.
If you cannot get your first choice of a date for your bat mitzvah, be prepared with alternatives. Remember that this should be a joyous occasion, and do not let the constraints of others diminish that happiness.
Indeed, you show your bravery and maturity as a young adult when you manage to navigate through the ordeals and the choppy seas of your bat mitzvah selections and decisions. Mazal tov to you in advance on this important milestone.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I am a practicing Conservative Jew who was brought up in the Orthodox tradition. I’m thinking of buying an aboveground crypt in a Jewish mausoleum so that I can be laid to rest there after I die. It makes sense to me, but I know that it diverges from the age-old Jewish practice to be buried in the ground. What is your advice for me?
Above Ground in Boca
Dear Above Ground,
It sounds to me like you prefer to arrange for a mausoleum, but are willing to go along with the Jewish funeral traditions of in-ground burial.
That’s good. As I noted above for the previous question, there are four essential rites of passage in Judaism. Our marriage and funeral practices are without doubt old and venerable.
Some background related to your question may help you think further about this important end of life choice.
The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement issued an opinion in 1983 that opened the door to mausoleum use with this somewhat wavering message. It starts: “Although there does not seem to be any impediment in Jewish law to using a mausoleum for burial, it should not be encouraged. Indeed, it should be actively discouraged since it is an obvious change from methods universally accepted today and its general publicized approval may create confusion.”
Then the opinion continues with permissions and qualifications: “While it should be discouraged, we must recognize that it is permitted and that a rabbi may therefore officiate at an interment in a mausoleum. Although a mausoleum is halakhically permissible, certain restrictions applicable to a cemetery should be applied to the mausoleum. The mausoleum should be used exclusively for those of the Jewish faith. If a ‘non-sectarian’ mausoleum is used, definite and easily recognizable demarcations should be imposed, such as its own central hall and entrance, clearly indicating its Jewish nature.”
In contrast, Orthodox practice is clear on this. Chabad for instance has stated an unwavering Orthodox view: “Jewish law is unequivocal in establishing absolutely, and uncompromisingly, that the dead must be buried in the earth.”
As best as I can tell, Reform Jews have no official objection to mausoleum use.
Given these variations in American Judaism, you should choose with a main principle of Conservative ideology in mind — namely do what makes you comfortable within the parameters of what is permissible.
Perhaps you are okay with a mausoleum, but you imagine that your Orthodox relatives would be offended by that choice and would not visit your crypt. If that is important to you, then you ought to choose the most traditional option, in-ground burial.
Meanwhile, I extend to you the traditional hope and blessing that you may live to be 120 years old, giving you plenty of time to mull over your decision.
Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books about Judaism, including “Jewish Magic.” “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org