An Atheist Bar Mitzvah?

My nephew (on my husband’s side) is to become a Bar Mitzvah in May.

He told all of us at Thanksgiving that he is an atheist. My brother in law explained that they are cultural Jews and that the rabbi will say during the ceremony that we can pray to God, or for those who don’t believe in God, we can pray or observe whatever we believe to be true.

This is causing a bit of confusion in our family.

  1. Don’t Jews exist today entirely because of their belief in One God thousands of years ago?

  2. Is it wrong for a rabbi to even suggest the possibility that there is no God to a congregation of people?

  3. Can an admitted atheist read from the Torah?

  4. Is the coming of age in Judaism connected to God in any way?

  5. Is it wrong to attend a religious ceremony for a person who is an atheist? (I am assuming if there is a rabbi and the Torah that it is considered a religious ceremony).

Thanks for any input - this is causing a bit of a problem in my husband’s family and with my own children. I am hoping to discuss it, not argue about it, before making a decision. ****

Interesting.
There are a lot of people who are “cultural” about religion…two friends of mine the other day told me they are “cultural Catholics”–which, of course, means that your nephew and my friends don’t believe the doctrines of the religion, but have been brought up with the rituals and identity of it…and when we’ve been brought up with specific rituals, they do often become ingrained in us.

I can see why they might want to combine their actual beliefs (atheism) with a right-of-passage ritual (becoming a man) that is linked with what they were brought up with.
And what they propose for the rabbi to say makes sense, too…in order to include everyone in the temple and their varied beliefs.

What would amaze me is if the rabbi actually said those words to the attendees.
I mean, I think it would be very loving of him to say those words…and I would applaud him to…but I’ve never heard a priest or rabbi acknowledging the possible different beliefs of those in the room, and giving respect to them in such a way.
That would be very progressive and all-loving of him.

In answer to your questions:

  1. Since they are saying they are “cultural” Jews, whether this is true or not wouldn’t matter to them.
  2. I don’t think the rabbi would be suggesting there is no God…he would be acknowledging that there may be some in the room who don’t believe, but he is inviting them to pray any way they feel comfortable.
  3. Sure an atheist can read from the Torah. He will be interpreting it in his own way, as a ritual of a group of people to which he feels a part of.
  4. I don’t know this one…we need to get Melzterboy to answer these…
  5. I can’t see why it would be “wrong”. If you are indeed religious, you can still look at it as a way to support the Jewish faith, if that makes you feel more comfortable. And there may be many in the room who are religious, who belief in the ritual and religion, and will take it seriously.

.

You obviously have never met a liberal Protestant or Jewish religious figure. Many of them pander to the kumbaya/all religions-are-the-same mentality quite often.

Yeah, this sounds right. Confusing, but not surprising.

I’m a Roman Catholic, born and raised. But I’m also a Sephardi Jew. My family speaks Ladino, regardless of the fact that I grew up in a Spanish-speaking Catholic community (what Yiddish is to Ashkenazi Jews, Ladino is to Sephardic Jews).

Though Catholic through and through, my family has many customs that are uniquely Jewish. Our food is Sephardic, our language, even the way we bury our dead–our family never holds or goes to a wake. We still observe Jewish customs of a quick burial and sitting shiva.

Not all members of the family keep up all the unique Sephardic and Hebrew practices, but we don’t have any others either. We even clean house a particular way due to Jewish laws on cleanliness that have filtered down into family habits and traditions. Who out there is willing to assimilate all their customs for those of another nation, people, or ethnicity they don’t belong to?

There are secular Jews, many who are atheist, and even Jews who subscribe to Buddhism. And some of these may hold on to many Jewish customs, some more than others. How does this work? Some Jews see themselves as not much an ethnicity as being members of a tribe of people that hold certain customs and views of life in common. While this isn’t a universal understanding among Jews, you will find that all persons tend to respond to life according to custom.

Secular Americans celebrate Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick–all without claiming to be Catholic or Christian–why some even of these even claim to be (dare I say it?) atheists!

Customs are customs, even when it sounds a bit odd for an atheist to want to be known as “bar mitzvah” or “son of the Law” that comes from a God he claims he doesn’t believe in. Most secular Jews probably don’t go so far because it is paradox that makes one into an enigma in the eyes of some, but try to explain that to non-religious people who line up in droves to celebrate things like Mardi Gras, Halloween, Twelfth Night, etc.

The idea of “bar or bat mitzvah” comes from the Oral Torah (Law) and is inscribed in the Talmud; it is not part of the Written Torah (Law). However, since Orthodox Jews in particular believe that the Oral Torah was given by G-d to Moses together with the Written Torah, there is very little distinction in terms of importance. When a boy reaches the age of 13 and a girl the age of 12, they have entered into the adult stage of life, which means they are ready to fully comply with the mitzvot (commandments). Before this age, following the mitzvot was voluntary but now it is considered to be mandatory and an even greater blessing due to the commitment that is required. The actual ritual of the “bar or bat mitzvah” is not a commandment, though; it is a custom. Nonetheless it is connected to G-d in the sense that at this time, one is thought to be ready to take on the responsibilities involved in practicing the commandments according to G-d’s Will.

Can an atheist Jew have a bar or bat mitzvah? As I explained above, the responsibility is present whether or not one participates in the ritual. Since in Judaism “deed comes before creed” and moreover, one is regarded as a Jew provided one is born of a Jewish mother (for Reform Jews, even this is not a prerequisite so long as one is raised Jewish, as by a Jewish father), I see nothing wrong with a Jewish boy or girl reading from the Torah regardless of their personal religious belief. In fact, it is part of Jewish thinking that behavior not in accord with one’s beliefs can have the effect of changing those internal beliefs, in this case for the better.

Reading the second half of your post reminded me of an article I read about Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler), who is a Jewish atheist. He doesn’t believe in God (and neither does his wife), hints that his characters are atheists, yet insists on celebrating Jewish holidays, including rabbis and bar mitzvahs in his stories and sending his child to a Jewish school where they will without a doubt indoctrinate him with Jewish beliefs. It seems a bit contradictory to me, as you pointed out in your last paragraph. :shrug:

A lot of practices and beliefs in Judaism seem contradictory unless you are brought up in Jewish culture. For example, I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home (midway between Orthodox and Reform). My mother kept a kosher home, lit the Sabbath candles, and we attended an Orthodox synagogue and celebrated the holidays but, at the same time, we ate out in the Chinese restaurant and my father worked on the Sabbath. Go figure! But it all seemed fine to me as a child and still does decades later, although I identify more as a Reform Jew today.

I think it would be like the many people who celebrate Christmas, but don’t really follow Christ. Nevertheless, the Torah portion he will be reading is the word of God. You can pray that God’s Spirit will touch his heart and that he will come to believe and follow after the God of his Fathers.

Oh, very interesting! Thank you for your input. :slight_smile:

No discussion on Judaism would be complete without you meltzerboy!:thumbsup: I dated a Jewish lady once. She took me to Reconstructionist and Reform temples. Quite a fascinating experience! Someone at the Reconstructionist Temple told me that half the people there were agnostic or atheist. I understand it because of the “deed before creed” sentiment. My take on Judaism is that it is a code that one lives by in order to honor G-d and his creations. The Talmud, from what little I have read [a guide of course] seems to be a book of religious laws and practices.
Two questions I have for you are: The Jews that take the Torah literally… is there room for this and being agnostic at the same time? and secondly, do agnostic Jews tend to prefer one denomination over another?
Thanks,
You rock!
-E

I’ve met “liberal” Christian and Jewish religious figures…but I’ve never heard them speak in public at a religious ritual or sermon or mass and say words to include all, including those who don’t believe in God. They may believe it, but I’ve never heard them specify it in the words the OP says this rabbi will.
Have you?

I’ve never heard any “pander”, that’s true.
The ones I’ve heard speak in ways to be inclusive of all people and their beliefs truly believe and want to include others with open arms. They don’t have some other negative motive.

Oh wait! Perhaps I have heard some speak this way in public.
I wouldn’t call the pope “liberal” of course–au contraire…but to use him as an example, he himself spoke this way in recent interviews/speeches when he mentioned atheists and homosexuals and judging/heaven/salvation etc–he was very inclusive in his wording.

I wouldn’t call that “pandering” though; I’d call that loving others with an open heart.
I don’t feel he was pandering at all.
(Do you??)

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I politely disagree with you on that, at least from my experience, yours may differ. The Reconstructionist Rabbi I met was as about as liberal as you could get and still be a Rabbi. He however in no way gave me the “all religions are the same.” schpeel. I have never met a liberal Protestant, though I am sure they exist somewhere, so I can’t speak to that.

It all depends on what you mean by “(taking) the Torah literally.” I think you mean following the commandments since there are complex passages in the Torah that some of the most Orthodox Jews would assuredly NOT take literally (except for the Karaites), but instead metaphorically or didactically with a homiletic or midrashic interpretation. It would be difficult for much less orthodox Jews, particularly those who are agnostic, to follow the commandments to the letter. There would no doubt have to be a really different interpretation of the meaning of many of the commandments so as not to be internally inconsistent in their thinking. I would say agnostic Jews tend to be non-denominational but this also depends on just how agnostic they are. IOW one may at times have doubts about G-d or one may doubt either His existence or omnipotence or omniscience all the time. It’s hard to generalize about Jews (or about Jesuits, I’m told). Further, the whole notion of denominations is denied among the so-called Orthodox or Torah Jews, who prefer to call Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews “less orthodox.”

Thank you so much, esieffe, for the compliment!

DaddyGirl - Thanks for your responses - they are very thoughtful and give me a fresh perspective.

I can understand being a non-religious Catholic, Jew, etc. It is the seeking out of what I would consider a religious ceremony that throws me off.
For example, an atheist Catholic wanting their child to make their First Communion.

I can see why they might want to combine their actual beliefs (atheism) with a right-of-passage ritual (becoming a man) that is linked with what they were brought up with.
And what they propose for the rabbi to say makes sense, too…in order to include everyone in the temple and their varied beliefs.

I understand having a coming of age party. I don’t know why an atheist would want any type of religious ceremony. As far as I know, it is a religious ceremony.

What would amaze me is if the rabbi actually said those words to the attendees.
I mean, I think it would be very loving of him to say those words…and I would applaud him to…but I’ve never heard a priest or rabbi acknowledging the possible different beliefs of those in the room, and giving respect to them in such a way.
That would be very progressive and all-loving of him.

I agree. I have been to six or more bar/bat mitzvah’s, Jewish weddings, etc. and I have never heard this before. It will be interesting to hear what he actually says/does.

In answer to your questions:

  1. Since they are saying they are “cultural” Jews, whether this is true or not wouldn’t matter to them.
  2. I don’t think the rabbi would be suggesting there is no God…he would be acknowledging that there may be some in the room who don’t believe, but he is inviting them to pray any way they feel comfortable.
  3. Sure an atheist can read from the Torah. He will be interpreting it in his own way, as a ritual of a group of people to which he feels a part of.
  4. I don’t know this one…we need to get Melzterboy to answer these…
  5. I can’t see why it would be “wrong”. If you are indeed religious, you can still look at it as a way to support the Jewish faith, if that makes you feel more comfortable. And there may be many in the room who are religious, who belief in the ritual and religion, and will take it seriously.
    .
  1. This question is of the utmost importance. Either one is Jewish because of their history or they are not.
  2. That is true and he may handle it in this way.
  3. Of course an atheist can read from the Torah but it does not mean they should.
  4. :slight_smile:
  5. I would like to support my nephew - he has had a hard life. However, I don’t know if this is what a Bar Mitzvah is meant to be or, if as my husband says, it is just an excuse for a party.

Okay, I still do not understand how a group of people who came into being because of their belief in One God can now say there is, and therefore never was, a God. :shrug:

Secular Americans celebrate Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick–all without claiming to be Catholic or Christian–why some even of these even claim to be (dare I say it?) atheists!

What do you mean celebrate? Putting out Easter eggs? Drinking beer?
These are not religious activities so I do not connect it with a Bar Mitzvah. I think of a Bar Mitzvah as Catholic Confirmation in a way.

Customs are customs, even when it sounds a bit odd for an atheist to want to be known as “bar mitzvah” or “son of the Law” that comes from a God he claims he doesn’t believe in. Most secular Jews probably don’t go so far because it is paradox that makes one into an enigma in the eyes of some, but try to explain that to non-religious people who line up in droves to celebrate things like Mardi Gras, Halloween, Twelfth Night, etc.

A custom yes, but a religious ceremony, no. How is Halloween like a religious ceremony?

Thank you for your thoughtful post!! :slight_smile:

I know you did not direct your post to me, but I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a couple of questions.
If one does not believe in God how can you practice His Commandments? Where did the Commandments come from?

Can an atheist Jew have a bar or bat mitzvah? As I explained above, the responsibility is present whether or not one participates in the ritual. Since in Judaism “deed comes before creed” and moreover, one is regarded as a Jew provided one is born of a Jewish mother (for Reform Jews, even this is not a prerequisite so long as one is raised Jewish, as by a Jewish father), I see nothing wrong with a Jewish boy or girl reading from the Torah regardless of their personal religious belief. In fact, it is part of Jewish thinking that behavior not in accord with one’s beliefs can have the effect of changing those internal beliefs, in this case for the better.

This is an interesting point.

Thank you very much for your input!

I know that my Jewish in-laws pride themselves on being “liberal” (their words) and that they have come to a point where there are no rules for anything anymore. Therefore, an atheist Bar Mitzvah is “no big deal” to them.

But how do you think God looks upon a Bar Mitzvah that does not have a religious foundation?

Liberal Protestant ministers will sometimes go out of their way to make that point, especially if they are both a practicing Christian minister and a Muslim convert (I didn’t make that up).

I can’t say I’ve heard a rabbi do so in a liturgical context. The only rabbi I know personally works in a university context, so she may not be representative of the typical “liberal” rabbi. That class was quite awkward because we had a student who was a secular Jew but raised orthodox always trying to “correct” the professor/rabbi.

You don’t have to have negative motives in order for your actions to be negative. I think there is something inconsistent when people are invited to pray to whatever they believe in while in a house of worship dedicated to a monotheistic deity.

No. I actually agree with the Pope. Loving atheists and homosexuals has nothing to do with equating other religions with Christianity, so I don’t really see how that’s relevant.

That’s a good point.

Sounds like a paradox, but what does that make me? I’m a Jew. I’m a Catholic. Do I stop being a Jew just because I believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah? Does a Jew stop being a Jew because they don’t believe in God? The Nazis didn’t care if you were Catholic or a practicing Jew or atheist–if you were of Jewish heritage you were their target. Take note of the example of Edit Stein–practicing Catholic, but sent to die in Auschwitz for being a Jew.

Just because we might not agree with the way a person observes a certain day doesn’t mean they don’t consider themselves celebrating the day. Who are we to say that if other people don’t celebrate a day the way we think they should that it doesn’t count as a valid observance of the day? Have you never the Scripture that says: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.”–See the entire chapter of Romans 14.

Halloween is a holy day in that when sunset occurs on October 31st, it is the time for the first Evening Prayer of All Saints or All Hallows Day (see The Liturgy of the Hours, volume IV, All Saints, Evening Prayer I). Vigil Masses for All Hallows Eve can begin, and from that moment on all Catholics are under obligation to observe the day as one would the Lord’s Day.–See Catechism of Catholic Church, 2185.

The customs associated with Halloween are no more a religious ceremony than is hanging holly or most other customs associated with Christmas, but one is still celebrating the day with a non-religious custom, whether it be placing a candle in a pumpkin or decorating a Christmas tree—non-liturgical, true, but no less celebrating.

That is all that I was saying. It may not fit your definition of what you consider to be valid in regard to these things, but as I do not have the ability to see within your own mind and know how you judge things, how was I to make my comments meet your criteria beforehand? :wink:

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