A PECULIAR INSTITUTION
Today is supposed to be all about South Carolina. And South Carolina is supposed to be all about Newt Gingrich. With one boffo debate performance after another, Newt has taken the Palmetto State by storm. He showed up like a prize fighter, boasting that this primary would be “Armageddon.” And wouldn’t you know it -- throughout the past 10 days, he has retained the kind of fire in the belly that would have made John C. Calhoun proud. Calhoun, you may recall, was the in-your-face South Carolinian Senator who wasn’t satisfied simply by talking about slavery as a necessary evil; he hailed it as a “positive good,” one that resulted in treating working class blacks far more humanely than the “free” working class of Europe. Newt, unfortunately, hasn’t shown Calhoun’s skill in staking out the truly courageous and groundbreaking positions. Instead, he has confined his passion to such issues as whether the mainstream media should begin debate telecasts by talking about infidelity. It seemed a relatively small point to me. Yet somehow, it was important enough to garner TWO standing ovations at the candidates’ final debate. The Palmetto wind is now at Newt’s sail. What a country! What a state.
As a liberal political observer, I could be expected to spend today reflecting on the road kill that is the Republican Party and the fact that its open sores are being exposed in precisely the same state that is most associated with right-wing extremism. This isn’t just the state of Calhoun. It’s the home of Fort Sumter. And more recently, it gave us Strom Thurmond, the refusal until 1969 to ratify the 19th Amendment (enabling women to vote), and the longest tenure for displaying the Stars and Bars at the State House. What Massachusetts has been to the North, South Carolina has been to the South. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this state could be the Waterloo of that smug shape-shifter from Bean Town, Mitt Romney.
The truth is, though, that today, at least until the polls close, I’d rather not think about South Carolina … or any of its “peculiar institutions,” including the one rhapsodized by Calhoun. My thoughts have focused instead on a very different institution, one that is associated not with politics but with religion.
These days, anything identified with religion is mocked. The institution I have in mind is no exception. For many, it is linked primarily with hypocrisy and such values as rampant materialism and narcissism. Then again, we live in a time where it is trendy to expect religious institutions to live up to their ideals, and then blast them to smithereens when they fail to do so. The truth, of course, is that there no institutions – religious or otherwise – that live up to those ideals. But that isn’t an argument against the ideals; it’s merely a reminder that human beings are animals whose greatness consists largely in the fact that we are able to posit grand ideals and at least strive to live up to them. For my money, it is preferable to strive sincerely to live a religious life, even if this means you will largely fail, rather than blowing off the project altogether and mocking religion for its inevitable hypocrisy. That latter attitude is like the curmudgeon who decries romantic love and prefers remaining lonely, bitter and cynical … all the while feeling proud that he will never makes a fool of himself chasing the wrong skirt.
I’ve been thinking largely about a certain religious institution because I have two godchildren who have finally reached “that age.” They are Jewish, you see, and “that age” is 10. That’s around the time that Jewish kids first start focusing in earnest on a rite of passage that will swallow up much of their spare time until they turn 13.
In a society where kids live at home until they are at least 18, and commonly stay in school well into their 20s, it’s peculiar to think of them as “adults” as soon as they become teenagers. But the idea of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is that a 13-year old boy or girl is supposed to be a “Jewish adult.” (Traditionally, a girl could become a Bat Mitzvah at 12, but most modern Bat Mitzvahs involve 13 year old girls.) S/he is then viewed as responsible in ways that younger children are not – obliged, for example, to honor certain commandments, such as the need to fast on Yom Kippur. As is so often the case in Judaism, what it means to be honored is expressed largely in terms of accumulating more duties. It’s no wonder that we’re not exactly competing for the title of the world’s most populous religion.
If you live in communities with lots of Jews, you’ve probably noticed one oddity of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah process: the biggest and best parties in middle school are all thrown for Jewish kids. Gentiles might get their sweet 16s, but we all know that the middle school years are truly the most formative ones. That’s when kids develop their propensity to work hard, show ambition, and channel their energies … or, by contrast, get disaffected, disgruntled, or disinclined to fight to “do their best.”
Similarly, if you live in communities with lots of Jews, you’ve probably noticed that the B’nei Mitzvah party is often a lavish affair. Indeed, stories abound about how some of these functions are ostentatious to the point of absurdity. Five-figured affairs are becoming the norm, and six- figured affairs are not out of the question for those who have money to burn. Needless to say, the cynics among us have no shortage of material here. According to their narrative, the B’nei Mitzvah process is primarily an opportunity to teach Jewish children that what matters most in life is grabbing attention, making money, and spending money. As for the religious trappings of the event, we can just consider that an “accessory” that goes with the ensemble.
While I have no doubt that such mockery is valid for certain families, and perhaps even for certain zip codes, I’m not buying into it as a general rule. My godchildren, for example, live in an upper middle-class neighborhood of Bethesda, Maryland. Their parents “do OK,” as the saying goes, but they’re not one-percenters, and neither are most American Jews. When we throw a B’nei Mitzvah party, we do it in much the same way that gentile families throw a wedding. Sure it costs a bucket of money, but the idea is not to sell our souls in the process. Quite the contrary – B’nei Mitzvah ceremonies, like weddings, are only successful when they reflect the best of our values.
When I think about the opportunity that my godchildren are about to have, I can’t help but smile. Just at the time of life that is most central to their development as adults, they will engage in one wholesome activity after another. In addition to their regular school and their weekend Jewish school, they will now attend a separate class to learn the Hebrew language. They will be expected at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah not only to read Hebrew prayers but, if possible, to chant sections of Hebrew Scripture with a particular trope. And they will have to chant this foreign tongue in front of many scores of their classmates, friends, family, and clergy. It can be a scary prospect, particularly if you are not gifted at memorizing trope or singing in front of large groups. And how many of us are?
What’s more, these middle-schoolers will be expected to deliver one or more mini-sermons, as if they were a rabbi. These kids will take the weekly Torah portion (in the Jewish calendar, each week is devoted to a different portion of the Torah), focus on certain verses or themes from that portion, and then apply those verses or themes to the thing in life that mean the most to them. Typical B’nei Mitzvah talks focus on economic justice, world peace, environmental protection … the same kinds of themes that are regularly trashed or at best ignored by the politicians in South Carolina. In fact, not only are these kids expected to write and deliver orations concerning these issues, but they usually take on a “B’nei Mitzvah Project” in which they attempt to repair the world through action, and not merely words or prayers. Many of the kids ask for cash, as opposed to other presents, and then give away much or all of this cash to a charity that they’ve selected in connection with their B’nei Mitzvah Project.
In short, far from selling their souls, kids who experience this process the way it’s intended to be experienced are actually developing their characters in wonderful respects. They grow in many ways, including courage, wisdom, dependability, spirituality and generosity. Plus, they are developing these qualities in the context of what is ostensibly an “extra-curricular activity,” which means that they are learning the importance of going above and beyond the call of duty. Indeed, when it comes to what a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can accomplish during the course of this process, the sky is the limit.
As for my own kids, their Bat Mitzvahs were among their most transformative and fulfilling experiences. My younger daughter, Rebecca, went through that whole process with the dream of being a rabbi. Now that she is at college, she is regularly attending Jewish services and planning to devote her life to one of the so-called “helping professions.” As for my older daughter, Hannah, who is graduating college this June, she will begin a five-year program in September in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I can’t tell you how proud that makes me.
So, my fellow political junkies, tonight after the polls close in South Carolina, you will probably be compelled to turn on the television and tune in Newt, Mitt, Rick, Ron and all the talking heads whose lives consist of “idolizing” the political process (that’s the term MSNBC’s Chuck Todd used to refer to his own attitude, when he claimed to be “offended” that Steven Colbert dared to make fun of our political process and the Republican party). Don’t apologize for tuning in tonight, for politics is important and political campaigns are great theatre. But please know that there are far more profound things in life than politics. In other words, we must not let our cynicism about political institutions form our attitudes about institutions in other domains of life. Sometimes, we can come across traditions that are truly inspiring. Even then, a brilliant satirist like Colbert can mock them. And unlike Chuck Todd, we should be able to put up with it, assured as we are that these traditions are beautiful.