The pew is not a preacher’s normal perch for worship. Stranger still to find a Christian preacher in a Jewish temple pew. But just there I sat, stood, sang, prayed and praised with more than a thousand others last month at the bar mitzvah service for Jacob Stern of Temple Emanu-el.
Jacob, son of my friends David Stern and Nancy Kasten Stern – the impressive and irrepressible rabbis – turned 13 and took his turn at the bema. He recited a blessing over the Torah, read the Torah and haftarah portions of Scripture for that week, and delivered his first sermon as an adult member of the Jewish community. He became that Sabbath a son of the commandment – bar mitzvah. (Bat mitzvah likewise makes a girl to be a daughter of the commandment.)
The Jewish coming of age ritual is more than a rite of passage; it symbolically transfers responsibility before God from parent to child. The boy becomes a man in Jewish terms by accepting the obligations of Torah – the lifelong study of it, the lifelong doing of it, the lifelong loving of it within the religious community.
The law constitutes Jewish identity. From the time of Moses and the giving of the Ten Commandments, the people of God accept the way of the commandments as the burden that blesses. To obey the law of God is the way of life, to disobey the way of death.
The law functions for Jews in a similar way that Jesus functions for Christians. Jesus claimed that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He called himself the way, the truth and the life. As the one who fully embodies the law, following him is therefore tantamount to following the true life-giving way of God the law requires. Christians tend to reject law in favor of Christ, instead of more rightly accepting Christ as the way to understand and live the law of God.
Bar mitzvah is a beautiful beginning, not an exhausting end, of a life of faith and faithfulness. Christian baptism in the Baptist tradition, or confirmation in other Christian traditions, symbolizes a beginning of like kind. Families of blood and spirit come together in these moments to celebrate the transfer of faith to a new generation.
Whether anyone’s bar mitzvah, baptism or confirmation “takes,” so to speak, takes a lifetime to tell. Living like it “took” is what it really takes.