July 13, 2024
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Religious Development—The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Years

My mother used to say that you can do whatever you can in parenting your child until she or he turns 13. After that, you have to just stand back and pray.

After describing the births of the twin boys Yaakov and Esav, the Torah skips over their early childhood years and says, “And the boys grew up and Esav became a skilled trapper, a man of the field; but Yaakov was a wholesome/scholarly person, who remained with the tents” (Bereishit 25:27). On the words “and the boys grew up,” the midrash says: “To what may this be compared? To a myrtle tree and thorn bush that grew one beside the other. When they began to flower, the one produced a pleasant fragrance while the other produced thorns. So, too, with these boys; when they turned 13 years old, the one would go to the batei midrash to study Torah while the other would go to pagan temples. R. Elazar said: A person must tend to his child until he is 13; from that point onward, he should say “Baruch she’petarani mei-onsho shel zeh.” (Blessed be the One Who relieved me of responsibility for this child” (Bereishit Rabbah 63:10).

There are a number of fascinating aspects of this midrash. First, it seems to assume (as a parallel text in Tanchuma Ki Tetzei 4 would have it), that the boys’ personalities were indistinguishable when they were younger. Modern-day social science research would suggest that this was because when children are under the roof of their parents, they are more likely to sublimate their own predispositions of character. This is not necessarily an ideal for, as we shall see, Rav Hirsch takes the boys’ parents to task for not noticing the differences early enough and not parenting accordingly.

Second, the midrash highlights the age of 13 as a watershed year of religious development. Indeed, this midrash is the earliest source we have for what centuries later in Ashkenaz became the rite of “becoming a bar mitzvah.” It is the time when the child “grows up,” that is to say, when they assume the responsibilities of adulthood. In Western society many of the benchmarks of development are marked in intellectual and emotional terms. Adulthood only comes about when one is finished one’s schooling at age 18 and that is when one can be deemed adult enough to do things like vote and serve one’s country. In Jewish life, however, the milestone of adulthood takes place at least five or six years earlier and while it may not include things like driving a car and army service, for all intents and purposes one is considered as an independent, especially religiously.

What’s so significant about the age of 12 or 13? Chazal explain that it is the age of da’at, of intelligence; that is to say, the child has reached a developmental milestone. In modern terms, we would say that he or she has reached the early adolescent years, a stage that is known for its potential confusion and conflicts. No longer a young child who accepts things at face value, but not yet a fully grown adult who can find ways to reconcile inconsistencies or live with contradictions, the early adolescent is at the beginning of a state of flux that will take some time to calibrate. Intellectually they can be curious and challenging, wanting to continue to see the world in black and white terms, emotionally they can be on a roller coaster as hormones and neurons bounce around in unprecedented ways, and socially they can struggle to find their place in the constellation of friends and acquaintances and distinguishing between the two.

But what is true intellectually, emotionally and socially, can be true religiously as well.

At the age of da’at, kids want the religion to make sense, emotionally they want it to speak to them, and socially they can want to explore different kinds of relationships. Consider, for example, the issue of prayer, where after years of davening with kavanah (whatever that meant to them at any given stage) they are now faced with the reality that God doesn’t necessarily answer all prayers positively and He can seem (God forbid) cruel and unconcerned in the process. That’s a cause for questioning and perhaps even some pushback. And that’s the reason why numerous studies in both Judaism and other faith communities reveal that there is a decline in the belief in the efficacy of prayer beginning in the early adolescent years. That, in turn, explains the oft-heard complaint from parents to middle school and high school principals to the effect that “My child was such a great davener when he was younger. What did you do to him?!” The answer is not what the school did but what is essentially a normal stage of human development.

All of this means that children at this stage need our utmost patience and understanding. They need help negotiating their new (lack of) understanding of the world and of Judaism. We need to understand that questions and challenges and passivity and boredom are not necessarily acts of rebellion but rather stages that they go through, some kids more dramatically than others. The midrash concluded that this is a time when a parent is no longer legally responsible for a child’s sins but certainly in today’s society that does not mean that our job of religious parenting is over. Quite the contrary. Our young adults need our guidance more than ever and, as my mother used to suggest, we need to pray more than ever as well. In short, our work doesn’t end when they turn 12 or 13. In many ways, it is just beginning.

By Rabbi Jay Goldmintz

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