Rabbi Akiva’s Adult Bar-Mitzvah

Beha'alotekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 21, 2003 / 5763 | Torah Commentary | Conservative Judaism Gender

One of the most compelling new rituals in the Conservative synagogue is the adult bat–mitzvah. The impulse is egalitarian, the result religious empowerment. The women who participate enjoyed no bat–mitzvah ceremony in their youth. Years later they seek to fill the void. Usually in small groups of up to a dozen, they study with their rabbi and cantor for a period of at least two years. The practice is so widespread today that the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism has produced a carefully articulated curriculum to enhance the meaningfulness of the experience. Learning to read Hebrew is required. Biblically based yet religiously encompassing, the study period culminates in the preparation of a specific parashah and haftarah to be chanted in the synagogue on a Shabbat morning. There is definitely comfort in numbers. Doing the bat–mitzvah as a group lessens the tension of performing in public. Each participant must master only a part of the whole.

A few years ago, a large Schechter elementary day school appointed its first rabbi–in–residence, a post vital to intensifying the religious atmosphere and programming of the school. A number of the women on the faculty approached her about preparing them for an adult bat–mitzvah. She readily agreed provided that the ceremony be held in the school. After two years of serious study, the teachers celebrated their bat–mitzvah in a service attended by all the students in the school. The event was role modeling at its best. To see their teacher and colleague reach for holiness transformed students and teachers alike.

The reward that comes from an adult bat–mitzvah is commensurate with the effort. A second chance brings with it a heightened state of consciousness. We would not be there if we didn’t appreciate what we missed. The bonding with fellow adult learners, the illumination of Jewish texts, rituals and values and the mastering of a new set of skills fill us with pride and meaning. The growth brings us closer to God even as it affirms our vitality. The power of this new ritual is infectious. Men who never celebrated a bar–mitzvah or endured one bereft of spiritual content are beginning to ask their rabbis for equal attention. To cast study in the mold of ritual is to infuse it with sanctity.

What prompts me to speak of the innovation of an adult rite of passage is the briefest of narrative fragments in our parashah. Out of Egypt a year, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to observe their first Passover in the wilderness. Some, however, inform Moses that they have been rendered impure by contact with a corpse and therefore are prohibited from sacrificing and consuming the Paschal offering on the assigned day. Yet given the momentous nature of this first anniversary, they do not want to be excluded. Moses seeks God’s counsel and returns with a unique concession, that individuals who are precluded from participating by virtue of defilement or being on a long journey may offer the pascal sacrifice exactly one month later, that is on the twilight of the 14th of Iyar rather than the 14th of Nisan (9:1–14). The accommodation gave rise to what became known as Pesah Sheni or a second Passover which remained operative as long as the Temple stood. Today the date on the calendar is merely noted by the slightest of changes in the morning prayer service.

But the passage remains noteworthy. For one, it offers a classic example of the intimate connection between nomos and narrative in the Torah. Law repeatedly springs from a narrative context, in our case a lasting ritual concession from a minor historical incident. The Torah is far more than a codification of law, though at its core it most assuredly is a legal digest whose disparate ordinances are often put into a narrative setting for effect and explication.

Secondly, the passage reveals a striking exception. No similar concession is granted for missing any other festival. There is no second chance for those who for some valid reason are unable to observe Sukkot or Yom Kippur. The added dimension of Passover seems to be its thoroughly national character. It commemorates the founding of ancient Israel as God’s emissary to humanity. Each time that the nation was reconstituted by Joshua, Hezekiah, Josiah and Ezra, the occasion was marked by a public celebration of the Passover festival. The import of Pesah Sheni seems to be the integration of the individual into the religious polity. To sacrifice the Paschal lamb was to reaffirm one’s sense of belonging. Hence, the possibility of a second chance. Annually, everyone had to avow and renew the bonds of national affiliation.

Pesah Sheni ended up more important in a psychological vein. The accommodation caught the optimistic spirit of Judaism. Human beings are endowed with the capacity to avail themselves of a second chance. Neither habit nor fate is the final arbiter of what we do with our lives. Pesah Sheni brings to mind the stirring odyssey of R. Akiva whose life turned on the intrusion of a second chance.

As a young man, according to the Talmud, R. Akiva was no more than an illiterate shepherd for one of the richest men in Jerusalem. His daughter, however, fell in with R. Akiva because of his modest demeanor. She also recognized his innate talent and promised to marry him if he would go off to study Torah. He agreed and they married secretly. But when her father discovered the breach of social etiquette, he drove them from his home, disowning his daughter. Despite their dismal poverty, the couple adhered to their plans and each other. For twelve years, R. Akiva left his wife to study at the academy of R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. Ready to return, he learned indirectly that his devoted wife would endure another dozen years of widowhood if her husband would continue to study. Again he heeded her wishes. Finally, after an absence of 24 years, R. Akiva, now the greatest scholar of his age, did come home with an entourage of students without number. As his shabbily clad wife approached to embrace him, they tried to rebuff her. But R. Akiva immediately recognized her and told his students “what is mine and yours is actually hers.” Achievement had not gone to his head. Still modest, he acknowledged that his awesome erudition owed everything to the judgment and loyalty of his helpmate (BT Ketubot 62b–63a).

The story is not without a touch of irony. The primary founder of rabbinic Judaism was a second career student! Had his farsighted and long–suffering spouse not provided him with a second chance, his flock would not have changed. After R. Akiva citizenship in the Jewish polity was acquired through the study of Torah. Age ceased to be a barrier. It is never too late to start. Nor, in fact, is there a point at which we are entitled to stop. For the beneficiaries of the exodus and Sinai, Torah became the link to God, the world and the Jewish people.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’ha·alot’kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.