April 30th, 2015

What’s a Bar Mitzvah? (Asks the judge…)

Bat Mitzvah - Masada 1

A young lady becomes a bat mitzvah in Israel after hiking up Masada.

When a judge writes a decision trying to figure out what, exactly, a bar mitzvah is, someone ought to take note. Especially when he uses an old Hasidic parable in order to render a decision. And given that no one has yet brought this November decision to light, it seems that it’s up to me.

The six-page decision comes out of Rye City Court, a small claims court in suburban Westchester County, not far from where I live. And the judge noted that, while the court’s jurisdiction was somewhat limited, it doesn’t mean that it can’t wrestle with “geo-political issues, gender conflicts or theological dilemmas.” And not only that, but in addition to contract law issues, the court was “presented with the question of what is prayer and who decides what prayer is appropriate.”

Yeah, that does seem like an awful lot to ask for small claims court. But at its core, Judge Joseph L. Latwin had to decide who wins a contract dispute, when training a young man to become a bar mitzvah is the subject of the contract. That training revolves around learning to read Hebrew and learning the prayers associated with the service in which the kid will participate after he turns 13.

In Zyngier v Lurie, the claimant is the father of the boy preparing for his bar mitzvah service, and sought a refund of the downpayment for bar mitzvah lessons/training. The defendants are a rabbi and cantor who were teaching him, who have counterclaimed for the work that they performed. They were eight months into the training and just six weeks from The Big Day, when trouble erupted.

The problem was that the parents didn’t like parts of the service that the rabbi/cantor said needed to be done. Specifically, they objected to two English language prayers, one for the United States and one for Israel.

Why object? The mother is Lebanese-Christian and lost family in wars with Israel. The father is Brazilian (and presumably Jewish). Thus, there was no ancestral tie to the U.S., and the mother was uncomfortable with the prayer for Israel based on her personal history.

And there was a third issue — I did write, after all, that gender conflicts were part of this. The prayers that were being taught were egalitarian in nature. Thus, a central prayer in the service that is devoted to honoring the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) now also includes in some of the more liberal synagogues the corresponding matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah).

The problem? The mother of the bar mitzvah boy wasn’t Jewish and the parents didn’t want to highlight this fact by including the matriarchs, and they wanted the prayer omitted.

Oy! What’s a judge to do? And the answer? Bring up an old Hasidic parable, of course, one that is often used to illustrate the essence of prayer. Isn’t that what you would do?

In this story, a young shepherd boy that doesn’t know how to pray finds himself in a synagogue on a holiday. Since he doesn’t know how to pray, but really wants to, he whistles his prayers to God. But while chastised by his father, the gates of heaven burst open. Because, the story goes, it wasn’t the specific words or form of prayer that were important, but the sincerity and spirit behind them that actually mattered.

The court then observes that:

The Court is aware that there is no biblical prescription of what prayers are required to be said at a bar mitzvah service. Other than the prayers before and after the reading of Torah and Haftorah, none of the prayers are mandatory, although many traditional prayer are bible based and overwhelmingly offered. A congregant from New York could likely walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world and not find much variation (except that translated prayer would be in the native language, not necessarily in English). Virtually the same prayers would be said in virtually the same order. This is a matter of tradition established over the 5775 years.

This Court is not the proper forum, nor is it capable of determining what prayer anyone should say or how it is to be said. The Court has little insight as to whether certain words, heartfelt whistling, or other mode of communication will find favor with any particular deity. That is better left to theologians. Nor will the Court impose any prayer regimen on either the claimant or the defendants. That is their personal choices – not an issue of secular law.

Masada Bat Mitzvah

Hoisted in the air in celebration, post bat mitzvah service.

But things do change. There was no prayer for the United States as part of the service, for example, until recently, and you wouldn’t expect a synagogue in Brazil to use it.

And the adding of matriarchs is not only recent, but only observed in some congregations. Judge Latwin knew that he couldn’t be placed in the position of deciding which prayer was proper and which was not. We still have that separation of church and state thing going on, even when the church is a synagogue.

So what does he do? Basic contact law:

A court cannot enforce a contract unless it is able to determine what the parties actually agreed to. If an agreement is not reasonably certain in its material terms, there can be no legally enforceable contract.

Here, there was no meeting of the minds for what the service was to entail. The contact stated that the defendants were to provide “all liturgical and Torah text for custom prayer book,” which tells us nothing of the important details that were at issue. From the court:

There is no discussion as to whom if anyone has final editorial say on the content of the custom prayer book or how any dispute over the content was to be resolved. It appears to not have been contemplated by the parties and not a part of any agreement between them. Thus, the contract lacks the essential element of a meeting of the minds on this issue and the contract must fail.

And the decision: The defendants rabbi and cantor were entitled to the fair value of the 25 hours that they had spent with the kid up until it was realized that there was no meeting of the minds.

There was no discussion as to whether the young man ever had his chance to participate in the service.

(hat tip to Jeff Stillman)