(If you haven’t already, read here how I got myself into this mess. )
♦ ♦ ♦
I had resolved to tell my father-in-law that his grandson would not be celebrating a bar mitzvah.
And I had resolved to tell him only that.
He knows well enough that we are not religious—that’s why he’s been bringing Noah up to his house to meet with a Hebrew tutor. And that’s why he didn’t even speak to his son or me (i.e., Noah’s parents) before deciding Noah was going to be bar mitzvah in October.
In other words, my “no” would be a blow but not a shock. And trying to soften that blow—with explanations, justifications, apologies—might simply confuse the matter (or me). I had to be clear.
So after a pleasant exchange about our chickens’ current egg production, with the kitchen counter between us, and with my heart pounding, I said, “It’s fine for Noah to be learning some Hebrew, but he is not going to have a bar mitzvah.”
His smile froze and his eyes narrowed. “What’s going on here?”
All my careful reasoning swirled through my careful head. All the things I could say. At best, it would be meaningless for Noah to celebrate a bar mitzvah; at worst, it’s dishonest. Noah can bond with his Grandpa in other ways. He can always bar mitzvah as a grown-up if he so chooses. According to Jewish rules, he already is “bar mitzvah” (son of the commandment)—just turning 13 does that.
And of course the most fundamental reason of all: Reason.
I’m not letting my son stand up in a synagogue to praise an imaginary being and officially undertake to uphold the laws of a people who worship Him—even though he doesn’t believe in the being or subscribe to the laws.
There is no scriptural law that says Noah has to celebrate a bar mitzvah; it’s a cultural thing. But the first of all the (613) Jewish laws is “To know that God exists.” The twelfth is “To learn Torah and teach it.” Obviously, I do not subscribe to these laws. And yet, I somehow still feel guilty for breaking them. In the face of my father-in-law’s disapproval, I really really want to explain myself, defend myself, exonerate myself. I’m uncomfortable being in the wrong, even if “the wrong” I’m in is actually right.
I remember once jogging with my father in Spain, and feeling terribly unnerved not because the street cops carried submachine guns but because the old ladies hissed with disapproval at the sight of my bare legs in running shorts. I was twelve. Later, visiting Italian relatives when I was a college student, I was deeply embarrassed when my cousin, an observant Jew, found me writing a letter on a Saturday; writing is working, and I wasn’t supposed to be working on the Sabbath. I still feel self-conscious if my father-in-law comes over during Passover while I am making the kids a not-matzoh sandwich.
That’s crazy, of course. There is no moral basis for these rules, and, since there is no God-who-disapproves-of-bare-legs-or-leavening outside of our collective imagination, there is actually no basis for them at all.
It is likewise crazy that—absent belief, absent observance, absent participation in Jewish life, absent parental input—Noah’s bar mitzvah should be the expected thing, and that not doing it requires an explanation.
It’s backwards. But atheists live in a backwards world, where there’s a special name for people who do not grant the existence of a creature no one can see or hear or prove exists. And we get used to pretending we do believe, or might; we get used to soft-pedaling our disbelief, or apologizing for it.
A backwards world.
Standing in my kitchen, I make the tiniest effort to set it right.
“What’s going on here?” he asked again.
“Noah is not going to bar mitzvah,” I said. For the second time and not for the last.