Atheist son doesn’t want bar mitzvah

My wife and I belong to a Conservative synagogue where we send our two sons (ages 8 and 11) to Hebrew school and attend services on holidays and many Shabbats. We have friends in the community, enjoy our Jewish life, and are very much looking forward to our oldest son’s bar mitzvah — or at least we were looking forward to it. Our problem is he has suddenly and rather emphatically declared himself an atheist and says he does not want to have a bar mitzvah. Our son is incredibly interested in science and insists it is unscientific and superstitious to believe in God. Also, the young rabbi our son had been training with took a position in another city and my son has not formed a bond with his replacement, who is much older. I fear this is a problem that will not solve itself. Any advice, Mensch? — Stumped in Oakland

Dear Stumped: First off, a number of rabbis have assured Mensch that your son’s onset of recalcitrance at this age is not at all uncommon. How else should a 13-year-old boy respond to the prospect of stuffing himself into a suit and reading ancient Hebrew text in front of weird Uncle Saul and old Aunt Helen?

The fact is, what we now experience as the modern bar mitzvah ceremony, in which a 13-year-old boy enters manhood through a synagogue ritual and community seudot (meal), did not begin to take shape until the Middle Ages. The more contemporary incarnation involving hotel ballrooms, chopped liver sculptures and other excesses befitting a coronation is far from anything called for by the sages. So Mensch suggests you and your wife begin your search for a solution by putting serious thought and consideration into the experience and values you want to impart to your son through this significant rite of passage.

Of course, if your son was proceeding more enthusiastically under the tutelage of his former rabbi, do not underestimate the effect that rabbi’s departure may have had. A change in rabbis is a big deal. And if your son is having trouble connecting with his new one, there are steps you can take to improve the situation. Perhaps you can find another rabbi or lay leader, closer to your son’s age or more familiar to him, who will inspire him to reapply himself to his learning. Also, it is quite common these days for rabbis and students to study using modern technology when proximity is an issue. Ask your former rabbi if he would be willing to work with your son over Skype.

That your son is turned on by science and may incorporate it into his life is something to be encouraged. Mazel tov. Indeed, the list of accomplished Jewish men and women of science is long and illustrious. Perhaps there are individuals in your own community who can speak with your son or inspire him by their example.

An Orthodox rabbi recommended that you get your son a recent book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly chief rabbi of Great Britain, titled “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning,” which asserts that the study of science and religion are complimentary and equally necessary.

If your son’s identification with atheism proves intractable for the moment (and even then it may well be a phase), you might consider de-emphasizing the religious aspects of the event in favor of cultural ones. Through his bar mitzvah, your son can affirm his place in the very long history and rich culture of the Jewish people. Furthermore, he will be honoring his parents, grandparents and community. Appealing to his sense of honor and tradition may allay his objections.

Mensch has attended too many bar mitzvahs where the celebrant’s reading of the Haftorah resembles the forced confession of a POW. So be proud that your son is demonstrating independence and a level of fortitude, and approach this challenge as an opportunity to enrich his Jewish life by widening its scope.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at advicemensch@gmail.com.