What does a Rabbi tell a Bar Mitzvah in 2018?

It is natural that a lad be addressed on his Bar Mitzvah by the Rabbi. It is also expected that a lad  be more attuned to happenings in the modern secular world. A Rabbi’s holy task then, a most difficult task, is to bring the Parsha of the week, a Jewish happening, or an aligned Jewish teaching to the pulpit and to translate this into a modern, inspiring message using the language of the lad. Speeches at Bar Mitzvah ceremonies have witnessed a decaying level of Jewish content. This is manifest in “themes” that are invented and shallow.

Filling the Jewish void, is an unenviable task. It is one of the modern roles and challenges of the Rabbi. How can he steer the discussion to items of Jewish importance? It is after all a Bar Mitzvah, one of the classic days in the life of a Jewish male. The opportunity manifests itself at Shule. It’s not really the ideal place, but that’s the way it is. These days the Rabbi is unlikely to be invited to the party celebration; more evidence of Jewish decay. Imagine. The moment has come. The Rabbi has this unique and perhaps only chance to inject an authentic Jewish message into the ensuing celebration of ‘coming of Jewish age’.

It is also the week that physicist Professor Stephen Hawking dies. The Rabbi decides to couch his message in the framework of a Bar Mitzvah by adopting “role models”. Here is a great opportunity: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rivkah, Jacob, Rachel, Miriam, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and Deborah; there is no shortage of personality whose example can be taught as an inspiration. It is precisely the Rabbi, who is relatively deep in Torah learning, who is able to expertly weave these Jewish role models into the tapestry of society today.

For some inexplicable reason the Rabbi chooses not to employ a Jewish role model on the day a boy becomes Jewishly relevant! Instead Nelson Mandela and Stephen Hawking are revered on the pulpit. Elements of the audience, those who have a good working relationship with Judaism, are somewhat uncomfortable given that Mandela and Hawking are paraded as the “Torah’s message to a Bar Mitzvah”.

I’m not writing to “attack” Mandela or Hawking or anyone. The two had many fine attributes. For the Jew, however, in context, let’s consider the challenges these gentlemen present to a Rabbi, and a fortiori, a Bar Mitzvah.

  1. Mandela embraced the terror-king Arafat
  2. Mandela considered Zionism as Racism and the Palestinians as the indigenous “blacks of Palestine”.
  3. Since Mandela, South Africa boycotted trade with Israel
  4. Mandela laid a wreath on the grave of Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, warmly greeting his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
  5. In 1990. Mandela aroused the anger of Australian Jewish groups upon his arrival in Canberra, likening Israel to a “terrorist state” and accusing her of “slaughtering defenseless, innocent Arabs
  6. Two South African Jewish groups criticised Mandela’s meeting with Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam famous for anti-Semitic remarks in the U.S.
  7. South African Jews petitioned Mandela about his approval of a $650 million sale in tank-firing systems to Syria, a move that the U.S. said would threaten foreign aid to South Africa.
  8. Mandela’s relationship with Libya was criticised by the South African Board of Jewish Deputies.
  9. The American Jewish Committee canceled a luncheon honoring Mandela, after the former president’s statements in support of Iran’s trial of 13 Jews on spying charges.
  10. In Durban, Mandela retracted statements supporting the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and comments labelling Osama bin Laden a terrorist, upsetting the Jewish community.
  11. Of course, Mandela’s legacy is South African support for BDS.
  12. Stephen Hawking does not believe in God. (not an issue, but misplaced for a Bar Mitzvah!)
  13. Stephen Hawking decided to boycott Israel and Israeli goods whilst hypocritically only being able to function due to his use of Israeli technology (“Do as I say, not as I do”)
  14. Stephen Hawking had a macabre personal life where it is alleged he was involved in bondage style sexual machismo with his second wife.
  15. Professor Alan Dershowitz said: “Let me put it this way, Stephen Hawking would not refuse to attend a conference in a country that was equally oppressing another country, say China and Tibet, or Russia and Chechnya– it’s all about the fact that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. You cannot understand the hatred of Israel if you eliminate the fact that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. Is that anti-Semitism? You know– you name it, I’m describing it”
  16. Although many musicians and artists have declined to visit Israel as a way of showing solidarity with the Palestinians, Hawking was the first scientist of his stature to embrace the boycott movement.
  17. In 2009, in an interview with Al Jazeera, he condemned the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza, saying it was “plain out of proportion… The situation is like that of South Africa before 1990 and cannot continue.”
Stephen Hawking and Nelson Mandela

Now, to be fair, there will be those who consider Hawking “unwise” but not an anti-Semite, and those who will consider Mandela similarly. Perhaps this is something they discuss in Limud Oz.

My question though is, does a Bar Mitzvah have any knowledge about these issues? Are these going to build his authentic Jewish identity? Why does an Orthodox Rabbi not use other strings to his bow when trying to unearth a role model for a Jewish boy’s coming of age–as a person who is now commanded to keep Torah and Mitzvos.

Yes, Stephen Hawking was a brilliant physicist, but let’s keep things in perspective, perhaps? We know that Jews have been recipients of more Nobel prizes in science than any other minority group on the face of the planet! Some examples are Adolf von Baeyer, Robert Lefkowitz and Serge Haroche. As for development of contributions to science, Hawking knew all about the great Jewish scientific minds, including Albert Einstein, John Von Neumann, and Leó Szilard. Indeed, Hawking’s arguably most important result was through the modern orthodox, Kippah wearing Jew, Professor Jacob Bekenstein ז׳ל! Some consider the young Bekenstein the man who “taught Hawking a thing or two about black holes“. Hawking detracted Bekenstein’s PhD thesis at a conference and ganged up on him with two others to berate Bekenstein that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Eventually Hawking embraced the Israeli scientist’s groundbreaking ideas, which served as the basis for his own revolutionary theory that black holes give off radiation. That’s not to minimise Hawking’s contribution!

Likely, the Rabbi wanted to use Hawking as an example of someone able to overcome horrible physical constraints? Sadly, Israel has a  myriad of institutions set up to aid both financially and technologically, the disabled and maimed of Israel? These are over represented because of War. Perhaps the people who run these institutions or finance them or serve in them are inspiring examples that someone blessed to be able to walk unaided and talk unaided should follow?

Why Mandela? Was it because he sat in prison due to the fact that he was not white? Yes, that’s something we can respect: courage and commitment. In context though, I wonder if one could have used, say, the example of Chief Rabbi Lau and his imprisonment as a Jewish child in Buchenwald? The story of Rabbi Nisan Mangel in Auschwitz is another horror story of triumph. Perhaps the boy could have been encouraged to seek out and together with his friends (who will be celebrating their Bar Mitzvah in the year) support those Israelis who spent time, long time, in dark, terrorist prisons? Perhaps telling the young Bar Mitzvah boy the story of Gilad Shalit and contrasting his prison conditions to Mandelas? I have specifically mentioned examples that are recent. No doubt there are better suggestions than the ones I have mentioned. What about re-telling the towering, inspirational story of the famed Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg and his personal refusal to be freed for money.

From my vantage point it seems as if some Rabbis feel there is “no personality that is worthwhile” from an authentic Jewish religious experience that is seen fit to be employed as part of a modern sermon. Please tell me I’m wrong?

[Postscript. One of my readers and contributors, R’ Meir Deutsch davened in the same Shule as Professor Bekenstein ז׳ל and he relayed the following vignette]

I just want to mention Prof. Beckenstein who was a member of our synagogue. Had he not died suddenly he probably would have been nominated for the Nobel Prize.

During one of my lectures in the synagogue on Parashat Bereshit, I asked for his acknowledgment of some facts. Here is the interchange:

As the liturgical poet ר’ משולם ברבי קלונימוס wrote:

“אך יסדת תבל על בלימה: בהיות עולם חושך וצלמוות.”  
“Even the foundation of the world is on the brink: the world of darkness and the shadow of death.”

Chazal said (Haggiga 11: 2):
אין דורשין בעריות בשלושה, ולא במעשה בראשית בשניים”
Our Sages also say (ibid.): “Anyone who investigates  four certain things, it is better if he did not come into the world: [what are the four?] what is above, what is below, what is ahead and what is at the back.”

Tosafot interpret there “what is ahead as what was before the world was created“.
Neither the physicists nor the cosmologists know or discuss what happened before the big bang.
Professor Bekenstein!
Is it true that the whole theory begins only when the dense and hot body disintegrated and began to disperse and cool?
Professor Bekenstein responded:
“I do not want to go over Chazal’s words, so I will not discuss the subject, but I will only try to think about it.”

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

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