Overhauling the Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs in America

As Jews celebrate the new year tonight, leaders in the largest branch of Judaism, the Reform movement, are starting an initiative to stop the attrition by reinventing the entire bar and bat mitzvah process. Laurie Goodstein, writing for The New York Times:

The problem Jewish leaders are trying to tackle is deeper than the perennial lament about ostentatious bar mitzvah parties, revived last month with a YouTube video from Dallas of a bar mitzvah boy hoofing it with Vegas-style showgirls.

Their concern is that they have built up the bar mitzvah worship service as the pinnacle, putting children through a lot of time and effort geared to preparing them for a daylong event. Rabbis said in interviews that the event has become more a private service for the bar mitzvah family and friends than a communal event for the congregation.

Children and their families go through what some rabbis call an “assembly line” that produces Jews schooled in little more than “pediatric Judaism,” an immature understanding of the faith, its values and spirituality. Most students deliver a short speech about the meaning of the Torah passage they were assigned to read, but they never really learn to understand or speak Hebrew, only to decode the text.

The new initiative by the Reform movement, a liberal branch that claims 1.5 million of the nation’s estimated 6 million Jews, is called B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.

Interesting. I wonder how successful it will be. This comment at The Times is thought-provoking:

Laurie Goodstein’s article about reviving the bar/bat mitzvah is well written. Unfortunately, there is nothing new about the “new look” of the American bar/bat mitzvah. As a former Reform rabbi, I heard and read endless variations of responses to the dilemma of the bar mitzvah/religious school industrial complex for decades. Efforts to include good deeds and social action in the process of bnei mitzvah study have been underway for generations, as have efforts to rewrite the Sabbath morning service to make the bar/bat mitzvah more “meaningful”. Such efforts, however, ignore the basic truth that, for most Reform Jews (and Jews of the other reformed movements), Judaism is a matter of nostalgia, not belief. It is a cultural identity, to be taken out of the drawer during life cycle events and then put back again. There is no getting around the fact that Judaism is based upon a belief in a Jewish God who issued Jewish commandments, not just good or humane ideas. If a Jewish child grows up in a family that does not believe in or follow such a God or such commandments–however moral that family may be–that child will not feel he or she is entering a religious community in any real sense. Do I have the answer? The fact that today I am a Zen Buddhist will tell you. I wish these well-intentioned rabbis and congregants luck, but unless they look issues of belief–belief specific to Judaism–squarely in the face, their efforts will be frustrated.


Men of Science, Men of Faith

In a must-read op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Welcome to the State of Denial,” Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, laments on the decline of people’s perception of science in our society.

Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.

The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember.

He goes on to write:

We face many daunting challenges as a society, and they won’t all be solved with more science and math education. But what has been lost is an understanding that science’s open-ended, evidence-based processes — rather than just its results — are essential to meeting those challenges.

My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.

As some comments note, the effort to denigrate science is strong and insidious. I agree with this:

The push by religious institutions to have creationism and intelligent design taught alongside evolution in schools as legitimate competing theories, as well as the suppression of data linking man-made atmospheric discharges to climate change by industry are designed to preserve the status quo. Science, as a catalyst of change, has always upended institutions as it ushers in new ideas. We are on the verge of discoveries that may forever change the way we look at the universe and our place in it. It’s clear that those with a vested interest in the institutions of today fear what this means for their futures. Science can make oil and bishops largely irrelevant rather quickly if left unchecked. You bet they’re scared.

If I am not being clear: this perverse social acceptability of the denial of scientific fact must be fought with vigor. I fear for our future generation in America otherwise.

Alain de Botton on Religion and Society

In the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal, Alain de Botton considers how religion influences society. After contemplating specific examples (such as Catholic Mass), he comes to the following conclusions:

Religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in harmonious communities, despite our deeply-rooted selfish and violent impulses; second, the need to cope with the pain that arises from professional failure, troubled relationships, the death of loved ones and our own decay and demise.

Religions are a repository of occasionally ingenious concepts for trying to assuage some of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life. They merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition and for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture—a range of interests whose scope puts to shame the achievements of even the greatest secular movements and innovators.

It feels especially relevant to talk of meals, because our modern lack of a proper sense of community is importantly reflected in the way we eat. The contemporary world is not, of course, lacking in places where we can dine well in company—cities typically pride themselves on the sheer number and quality of their restaurants—but what’s significant is that there are almost no venues that can help us to transform strangers into friends.

He brings up an excellent point: if I go to a restaurant alone and order a sit-down meal, is it my intention to be left alone? Perhaps I want to be entertained. Perhaps I want to hear others’ stories.

The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.

Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.

Which leads to de Botton to propose the following:

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Therein, guests would be able to ask each other introspective questions–What do you regret? Whom can you not forgive? What do you fear?”–and over time, our fears of strangers would subside. This sounds like a marvelous idea.


Note: this essay is part of Alain de Botton’s newest book, Religion for Atheists, to be published in March 2012.

File-Sharing as Religion

Well, this is interesting. File-sharing has been declared an official religion in Sweden:

Since 2010 a group of self-confessed pirates have tried to get their beliefs recognized as an official religion in Sweden. After their request was denied several times, the Church of Kopimism – which holds CTRL+C and CTRL+V as sacred symbols – is now approved by the authorities as an official religion. The Church hopes that its official status will remove the legal stigma that surrounds file-sharing.

All around the world file-sharers are being chased by anti-piracy outfits and the authorities, and the situation in Sweden is no different. While copyright holders are often quick to label file-sharers as pirates, there is a large group of people who actually consider copying to be a sacred act.

This is from their official press release:

For the Church of Kopimism, information is holy and copying is a sacrament. Information holds a value, in itself and in what it contains, and the value multiplies through copying. Therefore, copying is central for the organisation and its members.

Being recognized by the state of Sweden is a large step for all of kopimi. Hopefully, this is one step towards the day when we can live out our faith without fear of persecution, says Isak Gerson, spiritual leader of the Church of Kopimism.

The Missionary Church of Kopimism tripled its members from 1,000 to 3,000 in the second half of 2011. I just have one question: who (or what) is their God?

Tim Tebow’s Miracle

Tim Tebow won another game last night. That’s six out of seven games in which the Denver Broncos, under his helm, have proved victorious. Is it a miracle of some sort? Frank Bruni’s op-ed column in The New York Times provides good commentary about the rise of Tebow’s “Gospel of Optimism”:

In sports as in politics, business and so much else, we like to think that we’ve broken down the components of achievement and that, looking at those components, we can predict who (and what) will prevail. But if any football analyst at the start of this season had said that a quarterback averaging under 140 yards of passing a game — that’s Tebow’s sorry statistic — would have a 6-1 record as a starter and be considered the linchpin of his team, few people would have bought it.

BUT Tebow tends to have his worst 45 minutes of play when it matters least and his best 15 when it matters most. And while he makes many mistakes, their cost is seldom exorbitant. These aren’t so much skills as tendencies — inclinations — that prove to be every bit as consequential as the stuff of rankings and record books. He reminds us that strength comes in many forms and some people have what can be described only as a gift for winning, which isn’t synonymous with any spreadsheet inventory of what it supposedly takes to win.

Maybe the best part is that The Times links to a Tumblr blog about Tebowing:

Which brings us back to religion. With Tebow there’s no getting away from it. He uses the microphones thrust in front of him to mention his personal savior, Jesus Christ, and has said that heaven is reserved for devout Christians. He genuflects so publicly and frequently that to drop to one knee in the precise way he does has been given its own word, along with its own Web site, where you can see photographs of people Tebowing inside St. Peter’s, in front of the Taj Mahal, on sand, on ice and even underwater.

And here is what Chuck Klosterman wrote last week, after the Broncos defeated the Vikings 35-32:

The crux here, the issue driving this whole “Tebow Thing,” is the matter of faith. It’s the ongoing choice between embracing a warm feeling that makes no sense or a cold pragmatism that’s probably true. And with Tebow, that illogical warm feeling keeps working out. It pays off. The upside to secular thinking is that — in theory — your skepticism will prove correct. Your rightness might be emotionally unsatisfying, but it confirms a stable understanding of the universe. Sports fans who love statistics fall into this camp. People who reject cognitive dissonance build this camp and find the firewood. But Tebow wrecks all that, because he makes blind faith a viable option. His faith in God, his followers’ faith in him — it all defies modernity. This is why people care so much. He is making people wonder if they should try to believe things they don’t actually believe.

What do you think? Are the Broncos headed for the playoffs this season?

To Be Young and Mormon in America

An article in The New York Times explains the challenges of being Mormon and rebellious:

But the boundaries of Mormon style are expanding. The highly visible “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign (the subject of a major push on television, billboards, the subway and the Internet) seeks to quash strait-laced stereotypes by showing off a cool, diverse set of Mormons, including, besides Mr. Flowers, a leather-clad Harley aficionado, knit-cap-wearing professional skateboarder and an R & B singer with a shaved head.

It’s not just in ads sponsored by the church. On college campuses, city streets and countless style blogs, a young generation of Mormons has adopted a fashion-forward urban aesthetic (geek-chic glasses, designer labels and plenty of vintage) that wouldn’t look out of place at a Bushwick party.

You learn something new every day. This is the most unusual tidbit from the article:

But when it comes to dressing young and hip, some Mormons said they face unique challenges. Among other things, many adult Mormons wear a type of underwear known as the temple garment, meant as a symbolic reminder of an individual’s promises to God. Both men and women have their own style of garment, but each consists of two pieces, a chaste knee-length bottom reminiscent of a boxer-brief and a white undershirt.

No tattoos. No beards. Strict dress codes. It’s not easy being a Mormon.