Why ‘Jacob the bar mitzvah boy’ mattered

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Jacob the bar mitzvah boy, played by Vanessa Bayer, with Seth Meyers.

I have rarely missed an Saturday Night Live star like I miss Vanessa Bayer.


Because she is the creator of Jacob the bar mitzvah boy, who made regular appearances on “Weekend Update.”

Jacob sat before the camera, and whenever co-anchor Michael Che would pose a question, or attempt to engage “him” in conversation, Jacob would retreat into his carefully scripted bar mitzvah speech — complete with knowing, self-consciously cute asides meant for the benefit of his family.

Why did I love Jacob so much?

First, because I’ve encountered many like him, and his female counterparts, during my rabbinate. No doubt that Vanessa, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family in the Cleveland area, went to her share of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, and saw “Jacob” as well.

And second, his fictional character stands as a critique of much of what happens in American Judaism.

It is scripted, controlled, overly self-conscious — and lacking in spontaneity and spirituality.

Too much of Jewish education has been focused on teaching kids how to read Hebrew prayers.

But, it is not about praying. and it is not about prayer as a goal for its own sake.

If our end product winds up being a succession of Jacob the bar mitzvah boy clones, reading prayers like bots — we are in trouble.

I’m a Reform rabbi. I am a product of the American Reform movement.

For more than a century, American Reform has maintained the notion that it represents “prophetic Judaism.”

By this, we have meant that our movement emphasizes social justice; ethics, even and especially at the expense of ritual punctiliousness, and “speaking truth to power.” Reform Jewish history is filled with exemplars of that religious model.

But, lately I’ve been thinking about this thing about being a prophet, or being prophetic, or about being a prophetic movement.

Maybe because I’m teach a Shabbat morning course called “Haftarah Will Travel” at my synagogue, Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, which focuses on the words of the biblical prophets.

Maybe it’s because my new book, The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, has essays on the words of the prophets.

I have to say: I love the prophets. The Protestant writer, Frederick Buechner, said: “There is no evidence of any prophet being invited back a second time for dinner.”

No question about it. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos: these were not fun guys.

What is it about the prophetic temperament that attracts me?

It isn’t only social justice.

It is liturgical justice. It is what we are supposed to do with our selves when we pray.

It goes back to the prophet Isaiah. He saw people coming to the ancient Temple with their sacrifices, and they were merely sleep walking.

He railed against those who “with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment of man learned by rote.” (Isaiah 29:13).

The emptiness of prayer was at the very heart of the Hasidic critique of spiritual emptiness.

Once, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, while visiting a city, went to a synagogue. Arriving at the gate, he refused to enter. When his disciples inquired what was wrong with the synagogue, he said: “The synagogue is full of words of prayer.” This seemed the highest praise to his disciples, and even more reason to enter the synagogue. When they questioned him further, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explained: “Words uttered without fear, uttered without love, do not rise to heaven. The prayers simply pile up. That is why the synagogue is full of prayer. The prayers have not gone anywhere.”

Finally, the contemporary theologian and social activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it this way:

Services are conducted with dignity and precision. The rendition of the liturgy is smooth. Everything is present: decorum, voice, ceremony. But one thing is missing: Life. One knows in advance what will ensue. There will be no surprise. Nothing is going to happen to the soul.

One of the best commentaries on the state of prayer in contemporary Jewish life began as a Freudian slip.

A rabbi was giving a sermon, in which she was extolling the great virtues of “Jewish lethargy.”

She meant “liturgy,” of course.

Whether the rabbi knew it or not, she was describing one of the most pervasive issues in Jewish prayer – the loss of kavannah, sacred intention and focus — the sense that one is standing in the presence of God, and that one is aware of the words of prayer that he or she utters.

Every spiritual revolution in Jewish history – the prophets, the ancient rabbis, mysticism, Hasidism, contemporary Jewish revival – starts with the essential premise that nothing is happening to the soul, and that something must happen to the soul.

I need to change that. That’s why our synagogue decided to change its educational focus. We are focusing, well, on focus — on kavannah, on getting kids, and maybe even adults, to internalize what the prayers could mean.

It’s not only about kids going through the prayers. It’s about the prayers going though the kids.

And through their parents, and grandparents, as well.