Thursday, August 1, 2013

Do Bar Mitzvahs Promote Teenage Violence?

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Question of the Week:  


Here's a question I struggle with: every year 13-year old bar mitzvah boys in synagogues around the world will intonate the Torah's commandment to stone people to death, including rebellious sons who fail to yield to their parents commands (however unreasonable they may be, Deut 22:18-21); and our "very own brother, son or daughter, or beloved wife" if they suggest worshipping alternate gods" (however that may be proven, Deut 13:6-11).


I struggle with these passages because they promote such incommensurate violence. If I am blessed with a son and he has to read one of these verses for his bar mitzvah, I will find myself seriously conflicted. Even if there is an alternate, non-literal interpretation to these passages, a 13-year old boy may not have the maturity to understand it. Aren't we teaching our sons to be violent?




Bar mitzvah boys have been reading these passages that you say "promote incommensurate violence" for the last 3000 years. This is not a new phenomenon. So let's examine, what affect has that had on them? Are boys who read these passages more violent than those who don't have a bar mitzvah at all? Has Torah study been a negative influence on them? Have violent acts of crime been attributed to the negative impact of bar mitzvah lessons?


It can be easily proven that even you don't believe this. Imagine you were walking down a dark alley alone late at night, and a bunch of youths came out of a building just ahead of you and were walking your way. Would it calm you or alarm you to find that they were a group of yeshiva students who study Torah all day long just leaving a lecture? Can you honestly say that you would not breathe a sigh of relief if you saw Torah books under their arms, books containing the very verses you quoted? When it comes to your basic survival instinct, I think you would agree that you would feel safe.


But we don't need to rely on such anecdotal evidence to prove that Torah promotes goodness and not violence. We have statistics. The city with the highest poverty rate in the entire United States is Kiryas Joel, an entirely Chasidic enclave in upstate New York with a population of 21000. Yet violent crime is almost non-existent among the teenagers of that community. And there are a lot of bar mitzvah boys in Kiryas Joel. Almost 60% of its population is under 18, and they all learn Torah. I am not suggesting Kiryas Joel is utopia and it certainly has its share of social issues, but teenage violence is not one of them.


It is easy to pluck a verse out of context and show how violent Torah is. It is much harder to find people who have become violent from learning Torah. Religion is all in the teaching. What seems like a religion of peace can turn into a cult of death, and what looks like a book of violence can be interpreted as a masterpiece of kindness. The application of the law, not the letter or the law, is what counts. It's not what's in the books, its what's in people's hearts. 


Of all the influences in a teenage boy's life, his bar mitzvah lessons are far more likely to temper his aggression than aggravate it. If your son does end up learning one of those passages for his bar mitzvah, I would have no qualms meeting him in a dark alley any time.


Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Moss 


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