This mom wrote to my Mixed and Matched column about her desire for her child to have God in their life.
One of the things I felt strongly about was having God in my home. I agreed to raise my kids as Jews as long as we really practiced Judaism. Now my 12-year-old middle son says he doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t want a bar mitzvah. He has educational disabilities and I feel he needs the extra support of a faith in God. My husband doesn’t feel as I do and is willing to let him drop out. I’m furious with my husband and upset about my son. Where can I get some help?
— A Believer
Dear Believer: My heart goes out to you as you traverse this challenging time. Preadolescents and teens can be quite difficult to parent. It makes sense that you would want to offer your son comfort and support for his educational struggles.
It is also understandable that you want to give that support in the way that has worked for you. As hard as this is to swallow, your son may not be similar to you and may never feel close to God, or even have a God belief. Some kids, as one Jewish educator put it, are “organically spiritual,” and I’m guessing that applied to you as a kid and does so now.
As a believer myself I share your experience of being comforted by faith and prayer. But not everyone is like us. Many people — especially in the Jewish community— don’t believe in God and yet are quite content.
At age 12, your son is still a literal thinker. So while there are interesting writings about God’s existence penned by scientists, I wouldn’t suggest pushing them at this time. Your son is looking for tangible, provable facts.
Think about what it is that you believe a faith in God provides. Is it a strength beyond yourself? A great love? Someone who has your back? Proof that good will win out in the end? Some of this you yourself can give to your son.
Listen to his struggles. Point out the things you admire about him. Remind him that he is part of the Jewish community of your synagogue and beyond. Invite over adults who think well of your son and share some of his interests. Consider having a talk with him and the rabbi together. You and your community are the most solid provable support he has.
At the same time, you have a right to the comfort that you derive from your belief. You should continue to pray, go to synagogue — or church— as you normally do. Just as you are not telling your son what to say or believe, he must respect that you have your own belief system and intend to live by it.
Make an appointment to talk to your rabbi. He or she has experienced this issue so many times. Your rabbi can talk to you about the value of living a good life even without a God belief. That is what you are trying to give your son — an upbringing to become a mensch.
Having a bar mitzvah is about accepting responsibility in the Jewish community for your own actions. Discuss the ethical meaning of this public demonstration with your rabbi. Perhaps he or she can help you talk to your husband and son about having the bar mitzvah as a statement of his attaining the Jewish age of responsibility.
Do you think that your son’s educational difficulty is part of what makes him want to forgo a bar mitzvah? Could he feel like it is just too much to tackle? Many rabbis and congregations will adjust a bar mitzvah to fit the abilities of the child. If he is feeling overwhelmed by school and homework, it may be too much for him to add this time-consuming responsibility. Maybe scheduling a bar mitzvah for late next summer would allow him to practice and prepare during the summer rather than during the school year.
As for your husband, the two of you need to talk. He needs to grasp how important this is to you, and you need to understand why it is not the same for him. The two of you are a team. If your conversations have taken a downturn, consider seeing a therapist or going in to talk to your rabbi together.
Finally, let me give you a mantra: However things are going, good or bad, don’t get too attached because it will change.
There is no age limit to having a bar mitzvah. Your son may have his at age 18 or 35. Time changes all of us, and your son will mature. If he comes to you at age 21 and says, “Mom, why didn’t you make me have a bar mitzvah?!” Just be ready to say, “You had to come to it in your own time.”