Bar Mitzvah – Adolescence and Social Responsibility

Bar-Mitzvah – Adolescence and Social Responsibility

It has been recognized that religious Jews celebrate the coming of Adolescence while other parents dread this period of social development. Even if a child is rebellious it might be reason to celebrate. After all a child’s character changes while entering into adulthood.

Erikson has said that during this period the search for Identity commences. According to Kolberg it is hoped that during this period youth will reach the period of Post-Conventional Moral Reasoning. If strong identity (hopefully Jewish identity) and morality are very important to Jews then it is more than obvious that we should celebrate a child’s entry into these modes. Mystics have said that a Bar-Mitzvah should be celebrated even more than a wedding.

The long phrase of Post-Conventional Moral Reasoning means that a person looks into the reasons for rules and the justice behind laws. Too much has been said how this causes adolescents to hit the streets in mass demonstrations against governmental injustices. The main changes in adolescents can be seen in how they interact with family and friends. Adolescents have begun to realize that there exists other human beings in the world who have feelings like themselves. This applies whether they act positively or negatively towards others.

Before this period a child almost exclusively thinks of himself and his selfish desires. At the beginning of adolescence they have a new attitude towards friends and recognize the importance of social activity. It has been hypothesized that the same hormonal changes which gives a young person sexual attraction gives him this realization of other’s existence. Whether you believe this or you think that the cause is social or even a combination of the two the result is the same.

I recently asked a lady whose son was approaching his Bar-Mitzvah if she noticed any changes in the boy. This is a boy who has been “wild” since the day he was born. She answered, without entrapment, that he had become more responsible and had realized that it is actually good to help others. As this is the period of identity development acquiring a Jewish identity must be very important. There exists certain attributes which almost all Jews hold to be important, no matter what the level of religious observance or connection. These personality attributes fully develop during this stage of moral reasoning. Our rabbis of blessed memory have said that there are three attributes of Jewish people: mercy, shame, and benevolence. These are so much a part of Jewish existence that lack of all of these three traits is reason to suspect a person’s lineage. Hopefully our children will develop these three keys to Jewish identity.

We hope that we have been adequate role models, we live in a good neighborhood, and we have sent our kids to good schools. If we have done all this then we have done all that we can and should be very happy if we succeed. These personality traits are ones which require a well developed mind. They require the lad to see into other people’s thoughts and feelings. A child who is “an angel” but is a robot can not have possibly developed the conscience which is needed to have the three attributes of mercy, shame and benevolence. That is why social, intellectual and moral development follow the same schedule.

This is related to a Midrash which discusses the feast which Avraham Avinu made for Yitzchak Avinu when he was “weaned”:

The child matured and was weaned’ Rabbi Hoshaya the Great says that he was weaned from the evil inclination, the rabbis say that he was weaned from milk.

According to Rabbi Hoshea the Great’s opinion Avraham made a party when his son developed adequate moral reasoning and was no longer a selfish little child. The Torah Shelema says that this Midrash is the source for having a party for a child when he turns thirteen. To be weaned from the evil inclination is the same thing as saying that the child has reached a new level of development different from previous levels. As Jews we consider the three Jewish attributes as most important. There is nothing better than making a party as great as a wedding to celebrate a child’s acquisition of these attributes.