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The tragedy of the Stern-Sandler bar mitzvahs

By ReligionOctober, 2018January 19th, 20244 min read
Who’d have guessed these celebs know the Torah blessing perfectly? Sadly, that may be all they were taught

As the video of Howard Stern and Adam Sandler reciting their bar mitzvah Torah blessings makes its way around social media, how might a Jew respond?

You might find a source of pride in two largely unaffiliated Jews publicly talking about Jewish rituals (other than making bris jokes) to a national audience. You might find it amazing that they recall the brachot perfectly after so many years.

While I’m usually one to look at the positives, I feel that this brief episode epitomizes everything that is wrong with US Jewish education. The bar mitzvah education of these two men consisted of rote learning some phrases in a “secret language” where they “don’t know a f**king thing what it means.” Given the proficiency with which they recited the brachot decades later, their teachers must have been good at something. But is that the only impression left on them by the experience?

The irony of what they recited — the brachot on the Torah — is not lost on me.

  • “Let’s bless God!” (God? Who is that anyway? Are we supposed to, like, believe in Him and all those wacky Bible stories?)
  • “… who chose us from all the nations” (chosen for what? To have to attend months of boring bar mitzvah classes? Besides, as a liberal, the idea of being chosen and special and better than everyone else goes against everything I really believe in)
  • “… and gave us His Torah” (the Torah? What exactly is that anyway? All that stuff funny-looking guys in beards sit all day studying? Or the words I can’t read or understand but need to read from an antiquated scroll?)

I don’t know how much else they retained from their bar mitzvah classes, nor the extent to which this type of bar mitzvah education is still prevalent across America. What I can see are the results of this approach to Jewish education: generations of Jews who have no meaningful way to understand belief in God so they don’t, who were never taught to reconcile the notion of being a “chosen people” with their liberal and egalitarian values, so have rejected chosenness outright in favour of assimilation, and who were never given enough of a taste of the Torah so it remains an archaic closed book to them. And that kind of Jewish education is a tragedy in the making.

It’s actually worse than that. As evidenced by Pew surveys, their notion of Jewish identity is primarily based on values that are either negative (fighting anti-Semitism, remembering the Holocaust), or universal (social justice). While those values have a basis in Judaism, making them the primary sources of Jewish identity is akin to Jake from the Blues Brothers judging the new car by its cigarette lighter.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We shouldn’t be turning the mice in the synagogue joke into the story of the demise of American Jewry! There is so much more to Judaism — a timeless values system and centuries of scholarship. They don’t call us the People of the Book for nothing. But if we continue to feed our children a watered-down version of Judaism, then we shouldn’t be surprised when they have no reason to want to stay Jewish.

In response to a video of Howard Stern and Adam Sandler repeating their Barmitzvah blessings live on nationally syndicated radio, David looks at the story within the story – what this tells us about the shape of US Jewish education.

This article was a featured post on Times of Israel.

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