Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations affirm the desire of adults to recommit to their Jewish lives anew. By contrast, many 12 and 13 year olds, once they attain the age and become a Bar/Bat mitzvah see it as a graduation ceremony as opposed to a new beginning.
Adult bar/bat mitzvah is a contemporary adaptation of a well-established Jewish ritual of early adolescence that became common in the late Middle Ages. This new form developed as a local practice rather than at the initiative of any of the Jewish movements, and it spread because of its popularity.
Men Felt Jewishly Incomplete
The initial desire for a belated bar mitzvah was expressed by men who felt that their Jewish identities were incomplete because they had not had bar mitzvah ceremonies. Their sense of cultural deficiency even made its way into popular culture. A television drama in the 1950s used this as a plot device, as did an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
This feeling of having missed something, however, has no basis in Jewish tradition, as a youth becomes bar mitzvah at age 13 with or without a ceremony. Yet rabbis welcomed men who came in search of a ritual confirmation of their Jewish identities. They created opportunities for these men to study and applied the name “bar mitzvah” metaphorically to the adult ritual. Rabbi Albert Axelrad at Brandeis University held the first “belated” bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in the early 1970s. His approach became well known and was a source of encouragement to individuals and rabbis in all branches of Judaism.
In those settings where the movement for gender equality in Judaism had been successful, women were welcomed. Adult bat mitzvah developed at the same time that women were becoming rabbis and cantors and taking a more active role in the synagogue service. Many women have responded to this new ritual, using it as a way to develop the skills to be equal participants in the synagogue.
Challenges and Satisfactions Different for Adults
As with the adolescent ceremonies, adult bar/bat mitzvah means more than simply being called for an aliyah to the Torah and reciting the appropriate blessings. It also requires reading from the Torah and chanting the haftarah, the prophetic portion. But the prerequisite for these tasks, mastering the phonetics of the Hebrew language, often feels like a major educational and psychological challenge for adults who are acutely conscious that the newly acquired Hebrew will be used in a public ritual before the congregation.