The Bar Mitzvah – and the Bat Mitzvah, its counterpart for girls – is a traditional coming-of-age ceremony. In rabbinic Judaism, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah was a legal category: the age when a boy or girl became responsible for obeying Jewish law. Before thirteen (twelve for girls), a child was presumed to be a parent’s responsibility. After this age, he or she was now part of the adult community, a “son (bar) or daughter (bat) of commandment (mitzvah).”
The practice of calling a thirteen-year-old boy to read from the Torah on the occasion of becoming Bar Mitzvah, or creating a commentary on a Jewish text, is not specifically prescribed in Jewish law and was not practiced widely until the fifteenth century. Girls did not begin celebrating Bat Mitzvahs in significant numbers until the 1940s, since in traditional Jewish life women were not allowed to lead public Shabbat Torah readings; today the Bat Mtizvah practically universal throughout the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.
In contemporary liberal Judaism, it is customary for the Bar/Bat Mitzvah to read from the Torah portion or Haftarah [later Bible text] assigned to a particular Shabbat on or after his/her thirteenth birthday, as well as to present a commentary on the text and on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience and to lead a portion of the Shabbat service. In modern American society, thirteen is no longer the beginning of adulthood, but rather the onset of adolescence – a period of searching for one’s identity and life path. Thirteen-year-olds can demonstrate greater independence and depth of thought, competence, and commitment than they did as children.
A Humanistic Bar or Bat Mitzvah provides public celebration of the development of these capacities on the road to maturity. It signifies a young person’s desire to become more responsible for his or her own decisions and actions, and to identify with previous generations of the Jewish people who have done so. The Hebrew word mitzvah today is used in two ways. The original meaning was “commandment,” but a second meaning of mitzvah is “Good Deed.” Thus for Humanistic Jews, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah also signifies a “son/daughter of good deeds.”
Humanistic Jews observe this life passage by encouraging the Mitzvah student to select a Jewish text or research project with which they feel a personal affinity as the basis for their study. In their Jewish education at Kol Hadash, the students receive a thorough grounding in Jewish history, Hebrew, Jewish culture, and Humanistic Judaism. The Humanistic Mitzvah presentation declares membership in the Jewish people and in the human community of ethical citizens.