Mark Zilberman / Flickr
Mark Zilberman / Flickr
Navigate to News section

Torah Learning for Jewish Youth

A review of Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s new ‘B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary,’ which sometimes feels uninspired and out of touch

Mark Oppenheimer
April 14, 2017
Mark Zilberman / Flickr
Mark Zilberman / Flickr

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin’s Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (1993) is, for many Jewish parents, sort of a sequel to What to Expect When You’re Expecting. A couple buys—or receives as a gift, or picks up cheaply as a tag sale—WTEWYE when they announce that they are expecting a baby, then 11 or 12 years later gets PGOTGL. In each case the book goes half-read, is tremendously helpful for some families and terribly stressful for others, and never gets consulted for the second or third child.

Salkin—or, as I think of him, Professor PGOTGL (rhymes with “McGonagall”)—was the first rabbi to say, in book form, what rabbis and parents had complained about to each other for a century, which is that the bar or bat mitzvah party can easily get out of control and overshadow the religious meaning of the event. PGOTGL has never been out of print; it has spawned a mini-industry that includes For Kids: Putting God on Your Guest List, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Basics, and The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Memory Book; and it has been one important weapon in the communal rebellion against de trop bar mitzvah parties. It’s not that PGOTGL spelled an end to chopped-liver busts, ice sculptures, or celebrity appearances—indeed, the rise in hired dancers, or “party motivators,” came after his book appeared. But the pendulum has swung back, and rabbis now see it as part of their job to remind families that the party is an afterthought to the ceremony.

So Salkin (but don’t forget: Professor PGOTGL) is the right man to write the new JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, just published by the Jewish Publication Society. In this commentary, he shifts the action from the night-time to the morning, leaving the party behind and focusing on one of the two big tests, after Torah and haftarah reading, that precedes it: delivering a decent bar or bat mitzvah speech. The commentary includes brief summaries of all the parashot, the sections into which the Torah is divided, one of which the boy or girl has to read from; shorter synopses of the haftarot, the readings from the Prophets that some boys or girls also chant in Hebrew; for the parashot, bullet-pointed lists of the “big ideas” in each; ideas for “connections” to contemporary life; and two sample divrei Torah, or speeches.

Let’s admit up front that, if nothing else, Salkin has produced the best cheat sheet for Jews of any age who have to say a few words about the weekly portion, whether in front of a congregation, at a Friday dinner, in an address to the Sisterhood, or to start off a synagogue board meeting. His summaries, each about 20 lines long, are pithier and clearer than anything to be found in the hundreds of commentaries on the Torah reading cycle produced by rabbis through the ages. They’ll be great for all of us, brand-new-adult and seasoned-adult alike, who can grow impatient with the actual text of Torah.

His “big ideas,” too, are well chosen. To take one example, here are some of the big ideas Salkin finds in Va-yeshev, the story of Joseph:

— Parents should treat their children equally. Parents should not play favorites. Jacob made it clear to everyone that he loved Joseph best, and this created terrible jealousy within his family.

— Even seemingly “small” actions can have massive consequences. Jacob spoiled Joseph. While this might have appeared to be a small matter at the time, it had terrible results. It ultimately resulted in the entire Jewish people becoming enslaved in Egypt. The small stuff counts.

— Dreams are important. Our dreams tell us a lot about what is going on inside our heads …

You get the idea. Good stuff all around. I’ll hold on to this book; it’s too useful not to. But every time I guiltily take if off the shelf, I’ll think of how it could have been so much more.

First, Salkin’s nine-page introduction offers absolutely nothing on the history of the bar mitzvah ceremony; the Talmudical background; the feminist struggles to create an equivalent ceremony; or the variety of creative alternatives or innovations that characterize the contemporary Jewish coming-of-age ritual. On the question of why bother to do this at all, he offers only the uninspired boilerplate that “the most important thing about becoming bar or bat mitzvah is sharing Torah with the congregation. And why is that? Because of all Jewish skills, that is the most important one.”

Well, I disagree. But even if I agreed, I couldn’t recommend Salkin as a guide. While his parashah summaries are, as I said, useful, his sample bar mitzvah speeches read like an old person’s idea of a young person. They are formulaic, by design. As he promises in his introduction, nearly all of them quote from an ancient source and a modern source. But the modern sources don’t exactly scream relevance to a middle-schooler. Salkin’s idea of a good bar mitzvah speech is one that pivots from Rabbi Akiva (ancient source) to Marshall Meyer (mid-century American source). Or from Nachmanides to Cantor Sarah Sager. Salkin’s idea of a hip, hip reference is Mel Brooks (who is, to be clear, a genius, but a two-thousand-year-old one).

So it’s hard to say which is more worrisome: that 12- and 13-year-olds might just plagiarize one of Salkin’s pre-fab divrei Torah, or that they might be inspired to do original work but following his models. Nothing against Art Green, Daniel Gordis, or Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, but quoting Salkin’s rabbinic contemporaries is not the best way to craft a memorable, or meaningful, dvar Torah. And the ability to give a good speech, even to teach Torah, is not the best test of Jewish adulthood. But Salkin has been a congregational rabbi for a very long time, and from where he sits pulling kids across this particular finish line is nearly the most important part of the job. I can’t blame him for writing a book that will surely make his own job easier.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.