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Judaism is quintessentially a historical religion. It sees human history as a reflection of the
desires and demands of God, and it understands itself to have been founded more than 3200
years ago at Mount Sinai, when a divine revelation was delivered through Moses to the people
Israel. The covenant, or agreement, with God that was sealed at Mount Sinai established a set of
moral and ritual obligations that continue to govern Judaism today.
Those obligations are reaffirmed every Saturday in the rituals that mark the coming of age of 13-
year-olds. The details of the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies (the Aramaic terms mean
son of the commandment and daughter of the commandment, respectively) reflect several of
the features that Jews consider most significant in their tradition generally.
The coming-of-age ritual is a regular part of every congregations weekly worship. Saturday for
Jews is the day of rest, called the Sabbath. It is a day for prayer and public assembly in the
synagogue, the Jewish house of worship and community meeting. The teenager reads 2
selections from the Hebrew Bible: one from the Pentateuch (1 of 5 books of Moses, which make
up the first section of the Bible) and one from the second section, called the Prophets.
The idea that adulthood begins at 13 is based on an ancient concept of legal majority that has
nothing to do with attaining adult status in the modern world: it will still be several years until a
13 year old is allowed to drive a car or cast a vote. Rather, what the ceremony signifies is arrival
at the age of ritual and moral responsibility.
The scripture from which the Bat or Bar Mitzvah reads in public for the first time is the Torah.
In the broadest sense, the Torah (religious law) can include both the entire Hebrew Bible and all
the commentaries on it, but here the term refers specifically to the 5 books of Moses.
The Torah that is proclaimed in synagogues is written entirely in ancient Hebrew, painstakingly
transcribed by hand onto a scroll that is treated with the utmost respect. The Torah is considered
the ultimate repository of religious truth, and Jews are expected to study as well as observe it
throughout their lives.
The blessings recited by the young person express the values of the community, which responds
by reaffirming them. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah then gives thanks for the scripture that has served
as a guide for the people Israel. In other respects the coming-of-age ceremony may differ
significantly from one congregation to another. Some conduct their services almost entirely in
the local language (English, French, etc). Others prefer a service largely or even wholly in
Hebrew. Others also include or even substitute essay-writing, social action, and good works for
some of the traditional requirements.
Although the most traditional synagogues continue to insist that only males can be called to the
Torah, they are the minority in North America today, and many of them now offer similar
(although not exactly equivalent) ceremonies to celebrate girls coming of age. After the serve the young persons family usually holds a luncheon or dinner for relatives and
friends to celebrate his or her success and the familys good fortune. It can be simple or grand
The ritual used to be a relatively simple matter between the rabbi and the youngster and could be
conducted on any of the days when the Torah is normally read in the synagogue (Monday,
Thursday, and Saturday). Now it is almost always part of the Sabbath service and the whole
congregation takes part in it.
The diversity of Judaism today is the product of historical circumstance. In the course of its
development Judaism gave rise to 2 other world religions. Christianity and Islam, like Judaism,
trace their spiritual lineage to the biblical patriarch Abraham. Judaism is by far the smallest of
the 3 traditions, yet its historical influence is far greater than its small numbers would suggest,
for it was with the Jewish people that monotheismbelief in one godoriginated.
Is the Jewish heritage by definition religious? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because it is
possible to join the Jewish community through conversion, and many people have done so. On
the other hand, the tradition is far more commonly inherited than chosen, and for that reason
Judaism is frequently considered an ethnic religion. Some Jews have said yes to their ethnic
identity while saying no to the religion. A substantial number of North Americans, Europeans,
and Israelis identify themselves as Jews but do not take part in the religious tradition.
Jews believe that God expects all human beings to follow the same fundamental moral code,
which was revealed in a covenant given to Noah after the primeval flood and is accessible to the
entire human race through reason. In addition, however, Jews understand themselves to be bound
by a subsequent covenant, delivered through the prophet Moses at Mount Sinai. God took the
Israelite people out of Egypt, and when he did, he again claimed them as his people. The promise
was confirmed at Mount Sinai, where the Hebrews (or Israelites, as they were known then) were
commanded to follow a number of special rules that set them apart from all other peoples. For
this reason Jews today think of themselves as Gods special people: not in the sense that they are
preferred above any other, but in the sense that they have been saved from slavery and elected to
fulfill a special responsibility, to serve as Gods priests in the world.
The first 11 chapters of Genesis describe the primeval history of the universe. In chapter 1, God
creates heaven and earth. Interestingly the text does not actually state that the universe was
created from nothing. What it says is that before creation, everything was chaotic and primal
waters covered the earth. God divided the light from the darkness and created different things
on each of the first six days, in a process that culminated in the creation of humanity, male and
female. Then, on the 7 day, God rested, setting the pattern of a weekly Sabbath.
Chapter 2 of Genesis, however, tells a different story. Here God creates a mist to rise from the
ground, out of which vegetation sprouts. He then creates the primal man, Adam, and plants a
garden in Eden, where he places the man before creating the animals, and finally, the woman,
In Genesis 2 Adam and Eve stand naked without shame, in a state of perfect innocence, peace,
and harmony. Genesis 3 shows how easily this state can be reversed. In fact, the couple do not
lack understanding or intelligence before they eat the forbidden fruit: what they lack is moralsense, or the ability to make moral distinctions. Afterall, the tree is not the tree of knowledge:
it is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Indeed, it is Eves sharp intelligence that appears to lead to her downfall. Easily tempted by the
serpent, she eats the fruit and Adam follows her lead without protest, even though both
understand that they are disobeying a direct order from God. The shame and guilt they
experience afterwards are 2 aspects of the knowledge of good and evilthat is, the moral
capacityacquired by eating the forbidden fruit.
Even though Adam and Eve have been banished from the paradise that was the immediate
presence of God, he continues to show his loving care while expelling them. Finally, it is
important to keep in mind that not all the consequences of the Adam and Eve story were negative
for humans. Among the positive benefits is the fact that humans ever since have had the moral
capacity to choose the good and to keep Gods laws. Making the correct choices is one of the
Bibles major themes.
The story of the flood was virtually universal in the mythologies of the ancient Near East. Thus
the Hebrews merely adopted a theme that was probably familiar to all the peoples with whom
they came in contact. In the dominant Mesopotamian accounts, the gods cause the flood because
they are disturbed by the din of human life (some scholars have suggested that this story points
to overpopulation). In the Hebrew version of the story, however, the motivation is moral: to
punish the evil that humans have perpetrated and clear the way for a fresh start, God floods the
earth, allowing only Noah and the creatures in his ark to survive. But human judgment is no