Bar or bat mitzvah—the venerated rite of passage whereby a Jewish child enters adulthood, a milestone which is reached at the approximate age when the body reaches maturity. Yet most of us still consider adolescents to be emotionally immature, and regard them as “children” for quite some time after puberty. Society doesn’t trust the young teenager’s ability to discern between the wise and the reckless, and has legislated many laws to restrict them accordingly. The ability to operate an automobile, vote, or purchase an alcoholic beverage (legally . . .) are still distant dreams in the eyes of the new bar/bat mitzvah “adult.”
Why does Judaism consider a 13-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl to be full-fledged adults? What is there to be gained from blatantly disregarding reality?
Let us take a moment to analyze the difference between an adult and a child. The difference between the two is not a disparity in intelligence; a child can have a very high IQ, but he is nevertheless a child. Knowledge, too, is not what sets apart the adult from the child. A child prodigy who is proficient in the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica—actually, the modern geeky child is more likely to be versed in Wikipedia . . .—is still not held responsible for his actions. Rather, maturity is the ability to integrate acquired knowledge into daily life, and to use the information supplied by the brain to suppress the urges of the heart.
The difference between an adult and child is not a disparity in intelligenceIn short, the adult has the capability to make hard decisions based on his understanding of the consequences of intended actions. The child may understand the consequences of his actions in theory, but to the adult the consequences are real, not abstract. To use chassidic terminology: “The mind rules the heart.”
This is the inner meaning of the mitzvah of tefillin, the practice most strongly identified with bar mitzvah. The arm-tefillin are placed adjacent to the heart, and the head-tefillin are laid directly above the brain. The mind must constantly govern the heart, and both of them have to submit to a higher authority—G‑d’s commandments, which are described in the parchments within the leather boxes.
G‑d, the designer of Man, created a model which matures physically and emotionally at approximately the same time. By the time puberty arrives, the human is theoretically prepared to be responsible for his or her actions. These newly minted “adults” now have the necessary maturity to base their actions on rationale, rather than impulse and spur-of-the-moment whims. This is not only theory; this is actually the way things were until the middle of the 20th century. In the not-so-distant past, young adolescents got married and supported a family, successfully carrying out all the duties this entails.
And then things became good. Very good. So good, in fact, that parents who had difficult childhoods decided that they could afford better for their children. They rightfully resolved not to deprive their children of all the comforts which they had been denied as children.
This newfound affluence of society was a double-edged swordThis newfound affluence of society was a double-edged sword. On the positive side—aside from the physical benefits it afforded, such as previously unheard-of luxuries and vastly improved and widely accessible healthcare—it produced a generation of highly educated youth. Parents did not need their children to augment the family’s income, and could afford to allow them to study well into their teenage years, all the while providing loving and total financial support. The problem then arose that children started maturing at a much later age. Why should the child grow up before it is necessary? Do the teenager’s actions really matter? After all, no matter what he does on any given day—provided he doesn’t become a serial murderer—he can always count on a warm meal and shelter. Does anything really matter? Being told that his assiduous study today will profoundly affect his distant future is quite different than the reality of being fired for not arriving to work on time!
There’s no turning back the clock. It would be cruel for 21st-century parents to have their eight-year-old apprenticed to a blacksmith in order to teach the child responsibility! We thank G‑d for the bounty He bestows upon us—and at the same time, we should realize that this presents yet another challenge which we can, and will, overcome. Real preparation for bar or bat mitzvah must now start from a very early age, and involves actively searching for opportunities to teach our children the meaning of consequences for actions. It means resisting the natural parental urge to always be there to fix, clean, intervene, replace and resolve. It means establishing meaningful consequence systems, and not capitulating to skillful pleading and cajoling.
Perhaps we can’t change society singlehandedly, but we do have the ability to ensure that our children are properly prepared to be responsible adults when they reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah.