Many contemporary bar mitzvahs in western cultures, especially America
are increasingly expensive, intricate affairs, centered around elaborate parties full of conspicuous consumption
. Accordingly, many critics, including some of our own, in writeups above, and in nodes like this one
, argue that they are increasingly distanced from Judaism and the tradition's origin (as recent and questionable as it is), and plead for the tradition to refocus itself on Jewish spirituality.
Well, they're half-right. I would posit that these modern b'nai mitzvah are becoming more and more distanced from Judiasm, but there's neither need nor reason to attempt to return it to some ideal sublimity - it is no longer a truly Jewish practice at all, and those expensive trappings which they decry are indicative of its new function, as a co-opted and repurposed coming of age ritual appropriate to the modern society.
What, in the modern age, signifies adulthood, and how should it be celebrated? The signs and rituals of our ancestors are of little to no use. We tend not to breed until comparatively late in life, so sexual maturity is no longer relevant enough. Combat is the domain of professional specialists at one end and the stigmatized underclass on the other, the same for hunting, so the ability to do either has no utility as a ceremony or marker of adulthood. Likewise, absent for the most part a true conception of frontier, nature, or even the unknown in everyday experience, a journey through the wilderness would be neither appropriate nor feasible. And while we're on the topic of the unknown, the aftershocks of the Enlightenment continue to render spirituality or a notion of the divine increasingly remote from our sense of selves.
In comparison, the traditional bar mitzvah, with its preceding study of Hebrew and Torah, incorporates an element of the lifelong education and knowledge acquisition that is a central part of modern adulthood, certainly appropriate for today's world (arguably, the fact that it to a significant extent consists of rote memorization of somewhat arbitrary subject matter makes it more so), but even this is besides the point. It is precisely those aspects of the modern bar mitzvah made the subject of so much kvetching - the over-the-top parties and expensive gifts and cost as the only given, that point to its role as the new celebration of what it means to be a full-fledged member of society. As with all such ceremonies, it serves as a declaration to the world. And what does it declare?
Today is born a consumer.
In a world where scores of cultures and subcultures
coexist in the context of, and in part created by, a market society, consumption is the only common social bond, the only practice and tradition shared by all. The timing works out perfectly, the ceremony taking place at the age where individuals first begin to make significant purchasing and brand-identification decisions of their own, through this process first taking on a role and function in the broader society, and by virtue of the identifying function of their tastes in media, clothing, and other areas, creating a discrete and visible identity
and aligning themselves with particular cultures, movements, and outlooks on life. The gifts and entertainment perform the same function of the ceremonial shields, masks, and tattoos of "undeveloped" tribes - flamboyant signifiers of the honored's new role, unashamedly meant for public consumption, each different and particular to the person, reflecting their status as full individuals.
It's a great tradition for the new religion to absorb and repurpose aspects of that which it supplants. Many Christian holidays were claimed and incorporated from other traditions, and the Romans were famed for assimilating foreign pantheons as part of their own. This syncretism avoids having to start from scratch when seeking to address a social need already fulfilled by some preexisting institution, maintains a vital sense of tradition and continuity, and eases social tensions caused by such major paradigm shifts. Part of why consumerism has spread so quickly, and so widely, is because it is one of the, if not the, most syncretic religions in human history. (Note here that I speak of consumerism as a religion not in the disdainfully sarcastic leftist mode, but in honesty and with proper respect - profit and commerce have done more to give me a longer and higher quality life, not to mention neat stuff, than Yahweh or Ahura Mazda ever did, and I tithe regularly, at eBay and the mall.) The bar mitzvah is simply the latest tradition to be co-opted in this manner.
Now, where does the bar mitzvah go from here? It's hard to tell - the new tradition for the most part remains confined to the nominally Jewish culture in which it arose, and these things are often a matter of several generations - it took multiple centuries for the Christian Christmas to emerge from the various pagan winter festivals, and depending on how you count the early periods, somewhere from several decades to several centuries to incorporate Christmas, the Jewish Hanukah, and various year-end festivals as the commercial capital-H Holidays. That said, the first thing to be accomplished is the scrubbing or marginalization of the vestigial religious practices - the study and reading lends a sense of accomplishment and growth, but in current form serves only to limit cross-cultural adoption.
That addressed, I foresee the ceremony refocusing on the central purpose and creating new traditions on that basis - for example, it would seem an excellent occasion to first present a child with a checkbook, credit/debit card, or the contemporary equivalent purchasing tool. I've considered suggesting it as a date to first give a child their own radio, television, computer, or the like, so that they might first start to regulate and control their own media intake, but on reflection that would seem appropriate for an earlier, childhood ceremony, starting them on the path to full consumerhood, rather than acknowledging their arrival. But in any case, those are just my ideas, and I yet lack the kind of media apparatus necessary to have such a shaping effect. One simply has to sit back and see.
Of course, I could be wrong. Change speeds up all the time, and though I neither expect nor hope so, something might come along to supplant consumerism before it can fully institutionalize itself. The culture eats its own tail. But keep it in the back of your mind - the present is not exempt from history just because you live in it, and history, as ever, unflaggingly marches on.