Monday, January 13, 2014

Why you're having a Bat Mitzvah: An open letter to my daughter

Beloved daughter,

You and I have been having an interesting dialogue about your Bat Mitzvah- or, as you would say, the question of your Bat Mitzvah.  I remember the look in your eyes when I casually mentioned that you'd be stepping up to the Bima in less than two years.  "No!!" you shouted back, incredulous.  "I'm not having a Bat Mitzvah!  I hate Hebrew school!"  I felt that flush of righteous indignation that always hits me when you're defiant, just before I remember that I haven't exactly raised you to be passive and acquiescent.  Still, this one... I thought that somewhere in the transfer of DNA that occurred during conception, you would understand that becoming a Bat Mitzvah was as much a part of your future as losing your baby teeth.

Your resistance has led me down a path of introspection about what it means to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah, and why it's so important to me - because I don't just love you, I respect you and revere you, and I know that your challenges are not something to be dismissed.  As much as I just wanted to say "Because I said so," I felt an obligation to explain my conviction to you.

You've said from time to time that you don't want to be Jewish... because you don't believe in God, or at best, you're not sure what you believe.  I have news, honey… you're in good company.  It's perfectly normal to wrestle with the notion of "God".  Whether internally or out loud, people have been doing it for millennia.  Reform Judaism embraces this struggle as part of our identity. 

But here's the thing.  You don't have to want to be Jewish; you are Jewish.  There are Jews by choice - those who convert to Judaism - but you are not one of them.  No matter what you believe about God, no matter how much you like or dislike going to services, it doesn't change the fact that the Jews are your people.  You have a shared history. 

The day you were born, I handed you a torch that has been passed down from generation to generation for more than 5,000 years.  It is the light unto the nations referenced in Isaiah.  It is the spark of the divine in each of us.  It is the rune that proclaims our values, our ethical code, our rituals and traditions- born of faith, yet borne through history even when our faith was shaken.  In the much broader expanse of our family life that happens outside of the synagogue, you are bathed in the light of this torch -whether you identify it as a "Jewish" light or not.  In the scripture of Judaism, you will find commandments to treat the earth kindly, to welcome the stranger, to treat animals humanely, to give to the poor.  You will find admonitions against waste, greed, short-sightedness, and idle chatter.  Every day, your life is guided by these values.  I see it in the way you navigate the world.

Your Bat Mitzvah is a rite of passage.  It marks the transition from childhood to adolescence.  It is a time when you stand before God and everyone, holding up the torch you were handed at birth and affirming that it is still lit. 

As for the religion of Judaism: so many of us who identify as Reform Jews struggle with this.  I include myself in this camp.  I won't be able to answer during my lifetime the question of whether there is a God.  But this doesn't make the construct of our religion meaningless to me.  The liturgy, the stories of the Torah, the fabric of social action that is woven into our culture, the rituals of gratitude and rest and introspection and repentance, the tunes I hum when I am alone in the car: all of this provides a structure within which I make sense of life, death, and my purpose on this earth.  The cloudy notion of something larger than myself that floats around in my head gains traction in our religion.  This is a far cry from declaring the Bible to be the inerrant word of God.  I have never and will never believe that.  I hope you never do, either.

Our life is so full of blessings that we lose track of them.   Sometimes it feels like a perverse version of Dayenu: "If God had given us an unrationed supply of clean drinking water, but not provided a bubbling fountain with a filter for our cats to drink from, it would have been enough...."  Even if nothing else comes from your Jewish identity, I hope at least that it instills in you a sense of wonder and awe at creation, and the impulse to give thanks for it.  When the world seems so full of darkness that I can barely stand to look it in the eye, I retreat to the things that humans have not created: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, to quote Hannah Senesh.  I find solace in the things my arms and legs can do, the things my heart can do, our capacity for joy.

For all the beauty of creation, for the awe and mystery that does not defy but rather wraps itself around science- embraces it, if you will- I am grateful to have our Jewish traditions to honor it, remember it, and act as its steward.  If your Jewish education gives you the reverence to live an inspired life, to commit yourself to making your life a blessing - even if you never set foot in a synagogue again after your Bat Mitzvah - Dayenu.  It will be enough.

I know how you feel.  I felt the same way when I was in my early teens.  I could let you opt out now, skip the Bat Mitzvah, find your own way - and you'd probably be just fine.  But I don't want you to look back 30 years from now and say, "I wish I had."

So, that's why you're having a Bat Mitzvah.  I love you with every ounce of me.