I'm 27 now, preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Like other Jewish males, my first attempt was at 13. Imagine that, a 13 year old kid assuming responsibility for the moral fabric of an almost six thousand year old ancestral tradition. That's it, you know. That's what a Bar Mitzvah is. The phrase means son of mitzvah. Mitzvah is often mistranslated as commandment. A more appropriate word might be precept. Together the 613 precepts of Judaism amount to a moral claim. A claim as to what it is to live in covenant with the mystery of reality. The precepts are embedded in an ancient anthology of stories, the Torah, rich with symbolism, numerology, cosmology and mysticism. They form a rule book. And like all rule books they mean nothing until you're playing the game.
So the 13 year old boy is told that after a few weeks of instruction he will assume responsibility for his own actions, or more accurately, he will surrender to the wisdom of his ancestors and spend the rest of his life reconciling generations of codified experience with his own 80 or so years of on the ground practice. But there is a problem. He lives in a world where very few 13 year old boys are treated like anything but children. Unless of course he is a member of some sheltered sect hidden from secular society - and some are - but for most, like me, that isn't the case. So the boy becomes a man for a weekend and then on Monday the whole world reminds him that it was all a charade and gives him a bunch of other versions of manhood to choose from and most of those are rather shallow and require him to treat religion as if it were a book of fairytales (which it is - but he doesn't know how important fairytales are) and so he never digs deeper than a pseudo-historical interpretation and he seeks religious revelation in whatever he can get his hands on and with no elders to guide him he tends to choose unwisely until one day at 50 he is led to ask what its all for.
That was the road I walked for fourteen years following my first attempt at Bar Mitzvah. Not quite a boy, not quite a man, stuck in a liminal purgatory between old and new ways of being.
Imagine you go to a Fair. There is a Ferris Wheel. A sign reads, "One ride and you'll never be the same, new perspectives await! Only $2.50." You think sure, I have $2.50. So you take a ride. But halfway round the Ferris Wheel breaks down.
You turn to the woman next to you, she smiles, "Isn't this thing great!?" she says. Oomph. Now you have a choice. Because maybe she is right. Maybe this is great. Or maybe the Ferris Wheel is broken. If it's broken, well that's a scary choice to make. Because then its not so great. That's a tough pill to swallow.
But you're a hero and you swallow tough pills so you respond, "Actually, I think it's stuck." Oomph. Suddenly it kicks into gear. You look down and see the man at the controls is you. Oomph. Better write this one down in the morning.
This story lacks something crucial. That is, in the transition from boyhood to manhood, through liminal purgatory, one must ask, how am I to live? And there are lots of options. Because its the primary question of our species. Attempts at an answer are plastered on walls and threaded into screenplays, posted on the internet and gavelled into Law. And they are also teased out over thousands of years in the mythology of ancient culture.
So now there is another question, how to choose an answer? Well, one way is not to choose, to pretend they are are all equally valid and equally true. That kind of fundamentalism is short sighted and potentially dangerous. Because they aren't all equally true. One way to show that all answers are not equal is to peg the value of an answer to its staying power over time. Its why great books and films are read and watched long after the deaths of their makers. Its natural selection and the scientific process applied to ideas. The good ones last because they withstand the barrage of attempts to be proven wrong by an unpredictable world that will put them constantly to the test. The poor ones die. And those that have the best track record are the oldest ones. We know this. Its why we value, or at least are beginning to value, Aboriginal ways of being.
Of course one could argue, and many do, that these old stories are being proven wrong right now. That religious stories are causing problems. Well that's just not deep enough. Because these stories are really old. And like all stories they have multiple layers of meaning. And surface level pseudo-historical interpretations of any story are likely to result in some pretty strange behaviour. But deep knowing, wisdom, requires patient practice and contemplation.
And then there is the problem of purgatory. Men asking themselves, 'Why don't I feel like an adult?' Convincing themselves that there is no such thing, seeking religious experience in all manner of empty vessels. What if mythology offered a way to understand life transitions in a phenomenological sense?
Jewish people read the Torah story continuously. When the last page is finished they open at the first and begin again. Every Jewish community on the planet is reading the same part of the story at the same time. So every Bar Mitzvah takes place at a specific point in the story. Fourteen years ago the story of my Bar Mitzvah was that of Noach. A man who, on the instruction of God, builds an ark of precise measurements and proportions to house himself and his family. Then a flood cleanses the land of all those who have lost their way. This metaphor is staggering. The wayward desires of adolescence, washed away by a flood of ancestral potency, true Self safeguarded in an ark built of the moral fabric of a mystical tradition, a new world and the responsibility of forming the next generation awaits. Oomph.
Well, that brings me to the pointy end of my current thinking. Now, fourteen years out of sync with custom, I feel ready to accept the moral fabric of my ancestors, as handed down in the five books of Moses. I do not choose the literal interpretation. I choose the way of the poet mystic.
With the help of Transpersonal Art Therapy, as taught by Dr Raphael Locke, I've designed a ritual of intimate personal significance to be my Bar Mitzvah. It will take place on Thursday 22nd June. The ritual is non-traditional. Though I will don the traditional prayer shawl and leather prayer wraps, I will not be in a Synagogue. I will not read from the Torah. I will play You Want it Darker by Leonard Cohen. I will be witnessed by my peers and elders. They will take on symbolic roles in various elements of the ritual. I will leave room for improvisation so as to invite the unpredictable. In the weeks to come I will visit with a therapist, journal and reflect on the experience to help integrate it into my daily life.
It has been a long road to this point. I thank all of the teachers and guides along the path that have helped me. I thank my ancestors for their companionship, countenance and protection. I thank my family for their love and support and particularly their patience.
(not) the end.
I imagine that like me, other men feel a void in the authenticity of their adulthood. I encourage men in all communities to open discussion with one another about this. There are guides willing and able to facilitate rites of passage.
I would like to make special mention of the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and more recently, Jordan Peterson. These brilliant minds are among the ranks of those committed to illuminating the psychological significance of the Bible stories. If you're not listening to Jordan Peterson right now, you are not listening to the Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell of our time.