Early on in the academic year (and the Jewish New Year!), I thought it would be a poignant time to remind you of why we engage in religious education.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, of course!”
Sorry, talmidim (students), but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just one step along life’s long journey of knowing and growing. Nonetheless, sometimes it is this step that not only confirms the road already taken but affirms the one still left to travel.
That was certainly the case for the recent Bar Mitzvah of Elijah Schulman. The ceremony took place last month, August 2013, at the nearly 150-year old congregation of Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. Selma is where Abraham Joshua Heschel artfully articulated the indelible words: “While marching in Selma with Dr. King, my feet were praying.”
Elijah did not grow up praying in Selma, but his great-great grandparents, Max and Hattie Erdreich, did. Elijah and his family now live in Bethesda, Maryland. He chose Selma for his celebration because becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a confirmation of continuing along a path established by those who came before you, and an affirmation to help shape the path for those who will come after you.
When the day arrived, I was with Elijah and his family in the social hall of the temple before the service. I asked if he was ready to sign his Bar Mitzvah certificate, pledging his life-long commitment to study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. As Elijah’s pen took aim, his father, Andrew, interjected before it could hit its mark.
“What if he doesn’t agree? What if he won’t sign? Will he not be considered a Bar Mitzvah?”
I’d never been asked that question before, as – prior to this moment – the signing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate had seemed merely functionary, a formality of the overall moment. So, I sat there… quiet… thinking. And, then, I answered:
“Sorry. No. I will not consider him a Bar Mitzvah, even with his Hebrew training. Because, being Jewish is more than knowing how to read Hebrew and lead a congregation in prayer. It takes a commitment to fill those words with meaning through our actions. So, if he chooses to not sign, he’ll still lead the service. He’s earned that right. But to truly be considered a son of the commandments, one has to be committed to living the words, not just reciting them.”
After a deep breath, as if inhaling the very weight of those words, Elijah signed. I don’t think there was ever a moment of hesitation; after all, in addition to preparing for the actual ceremony celebrating his Bar Mitzvah milestone, Elijah has already been fulfilling his commitment to the Jewish people through his actions.
The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, read a city resolution to Elijah during the service: “Elijah Schulman has already raised over $6,000 towards the preservation of this Selma Temple, and brought nationwide awareness of our great city… On behalf of Selma’s citizens, I present you with the Key to the City. May you always feel you’ve got a home here.”
That, my beloved talmidim, is the real reason you engage in religious education: not solely to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but to ensure a sense of belonging and responsibility to your Jewish community. For, in the near future, the keys of this home will quite literally be in your hands. The simple prayer of those who came before you is that you are willing to steer our congregations, our communities, and our world towards better and brighter things. We have great confidence you can and will do just that.
May God bless your educational journey!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
PS – If you would like to continue to help Elijah and the Mishkan Israel congregation in the restoration efforts of their historic building, you can email Mishkan Israel’s President, Ronnie Leet.
You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 3-4)
I’m wondering about “graven images.” Specifically, I’m wondering if Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille have helped or hindered us with their images.
When I taught 5th grade religious school, at the end of every class I took about 15 minutes to tell the story of the Torah portion of the week. And when Exodus came around, I used one entire class time to tell the story of Moses from his birth through the giving of the 10 Commandments. Though I am not a master storyteller, I did get quite good at this story, and each year took great pride in the wide eyes looking back at me.
Then one year, as I explained my vision of the golden calf (“imagine all the women in your family and your classmates’ families taking off their rings and bracelets and necklaces and melting them down to make this idol, it must have been about this big…”), and held my hands about two feet apart to demonstrate the size of the idol, a child interrupted me to tell me that I was “wrong” about the size. It was large enough to ride on, he said, and he knew this because he had seen it in the movie The Prince of Egypt!
Needless to say, we spent a long time that day discussing the difference between faith, and film, a religious vision, or someone else’s artistic vision, and that any one person’s vision is not necessarily “the truth.” I realized it’s not just that student’s generation that sees something onscreen, and then associates the film image with the Biblical story represented. I thought about my parents’ generation, and their ingrained vision of Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.
The images of God as an old man in the sky, or Charlton Heston as Moses, or a golden calf of a certain size in a movie, are all very Hollywood, and also childlike. The problem comes when we outgrow those images and do not grow into our own adult visions of faith. I think the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bath water. If you can’t believe anymore like you did as a kid, then for some it is hard to have faith in anything as Jewish adults.
So I ask you: are the images from Mr. Spielberg and Mr. DeMille “graven images”? And even if they are not technically “graven images,” are they helpful or hurtful?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!