TWEAKING TRADITIONS

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Traditions are best described as habits of the heart.  They persist, define and dominate our lives even when they seem to have lost all reason for existence.  But, surely, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows not.

Christians celebrate the rite of Confirmation to mark the coming of age of boys and girls; the age varies somewhat with the denomination but girls, because they mature earlier, go through it a year earlier than boys.  Jews celebrate the historic Bar Mitzvah for boys when they turn 13 and, starting relatively recently, a Bat Mitzvah for girls at age 12.

Lifestyle-TWEAKING TRADITIONS-1Recently the New York Times featured a large spread starting on the front page with a challenging headline “Bar Mitzvahs Get New Look to Build Faith?”  It caught my attention – how could I a Sikh, member of a small minority faith community, overlook it?

In brief, when a Jewish boy turns 13, he shows that he can read from the Torah, and the community and friends greet him with a memorable bash.  Viola, he is now a young man.  And that’s the Bar Mitzvah.  Similarly for the girls and their Bat Mitzvah!

It is a rite of passage.  Most cultures have a rite to mark the coming of age of a young person. Just peruse the classic “Growing Up in Samoa” by Margaret Mead.

These days the Jews, like many others such as the Sikhs, face large scale attrition in their ranks.  How best to counteract it?  One possibility they are considering is to reinvent the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  On the table are age-old questions: should the insistence on Hebrew teaching remain, or should the required reading from the Torah – now the centerpiece of the ceremony — be shelved?  Is there a point to reading what the novitiate doesn’t understand in a language he or she does not really know?  Keep in mind that the present ritual emerged only recently from the 1930’s and 1940’s and it requires that children attend three or four years of Hebrew religious school.

The mystifying problem of how to bring in young parents and children and keep them connected to the faith is not unique to Jews; Christians face similar issues as do Sikhs and those of other faiths, not only in America but worldwide.

Lifestyle-TWEAKING TRADITIONS-2Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary says that more than a third of Jewish students at religious schools drop out by the seventh grade and virtually 85 percent do so a year or two later. (I am sure the statistics at our gurduara schools are not any better.)

Without engagement of a new generation, all religions – old and new – surely face stagnation.

So, in the Jews changes in programs are on the table and some seem dramatic.  Some Hebrew schools are experimenting with less time spent on memorizing Hebrew or prayers and more time “working as a group on sustained social action projects.”  Children are asked and helped to identify a social problem and come up with a program of work as “tikkun olam” Hebrew for “repairing the world.”  It is not because the world is broken but more to leave the world a little better.  Some interesting examples: one project involved writing new music for a prayer book, and another was volunteer work at a food pantry for the needy.

For the Sikh community as well the issues are not so different and we would do well to re-visit our traditions, needs and goals.

Historically, in Sikhi coming of age in India was and often still is marked by the ceremony of “Charni Lagna,” loosely translated as attaching to the Gurus’ feet, appropriately named for the humility that should mark the attitude.  It consisted of an adolescent boy or girl showcasing his/her newly acquired skill at reading and understanding Guru Granth by reciting a hymn from it; the fond hope here being that it becomes life’s defining practice.  This rite never was connected to a bash.  Usually it was a solemn undertaking in the presence of the Guru Granth and close family.

Lifestyle-TWEAKING TRADITIONS-3I don’t know about India, but outside it, Charni Lagna seems to have largely disappeared.  For boys it is being increasingly replaced by “Dastar Bandi” or donning a turban, marking the day that the novitiate boy from now onwards adopts the turban as a visible marker of the Sikh faith.  Usually it culminates by what becomes more of a memorable bash than anything else even though it is held within the framework of a religious service. The ceremony also is marked usually by a lecture on the historical importance of the turban.

For girls the public ceremony is rare or none, even though many, including I, have called for gender equivalency whenever we have had the occasion.  In India if there is none I can almost understand it even though I do not like it; in Indian culture there has been a centuries-old bias against girls, even though Sikhi teaches against it.  Unfortunately, dowry system and female feticide are as much a part of Sikh practice as of many other communities in India.

Having attended almost a score of dastar bandis I have a strong feeling that quite expectedly the neo-adolescent Sikh boy and his friends remain singularly unmoved by the ritual lecture of explanation.  The proceedings, including the lecture, are often in Punjabi alone which does not help in building trans-generational bridges of communication with the young. The lecture full of historic detail and references in Punjabi becomes a memorable turnoff for the young honoree and his friends.  I know for I have, at times, been asked to render that material in English.

Going back to what I just mentioned: the incorporation of social projects that some Jews are exploring in their rite of coming of age.   For young Sikhs growing up in North America, for instance, there are many avenues of public and community service that are easily available and crying for help.

Lifestyle-TWEAKING TRADITIONS-4For example, teaching or assistance in ESL programs that parts of our community badly need, as also meals for the hungry, or assistance with interpretation in medical, social, counseling or legal services that would help, and so on.  I can also add here help with understanding a little of American Constitutional history that many immigrants, both in our own community and others, need particularly when they are in the process of acquiring citizenship. Believe me these are just the starting point for an endless list.

The icing on the cake is that young Sikh boys and girls involved in such community services will become better connected to Sikh traditions and practices and would be the greatest reforming influence on the community in moving it into a new century.

Just look at the many initiatives, all started by young Sikhs, such as SALDEF, Sikh Coalition, United Sikhs, Sikhs for Justice, Ensaaf, SikhRI, Khalsa Aid and the Jaikara Movement for the many possible options — and there are many more than I can list here. Most of these institutions offer internships and other opportunities for voluntary community service to young people: a good way to learn about Sikhi while making a difference in the world we live in.

Lifestyle-TWEAKING TRADITIONS-5Somewhat like “tikkun olam” that I mentioned as the possible new wave in young Jews I suggest that we personalize and integrate the Sikh teaching “sarbat da bhala” meaning welfare of all humanity, indeed of all creation, as the operative idea in our projects.

Even so, further to the Jewish rethinking about the fundamentals of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, some readers of the New York Times were quite irate about the attempts to “tamper” with tradition.  I imagine my loud thinking about our Sikh ways would likely attract similar outrage to a degree. That’s why I started this essay with an analogy of traditions to habits of the heart.  For us, many flow naturally from Sikh teachings and practices while some arise as cultural accretions.  This distinction is important; those that are rooted in the fundamentals need to be nurtured for they connect us to the basics of Sikhi and the values that shape us.  Cultural habits will get tweaked.

It is essential, therefore, to keep in mind that I am not upending Sikh traditions but merely enlarging and extending their relevancy to our lives today while remaining consistent with our time-tested values.

Lifestyle-TWEAKING TRADITIONS-6Let me be clear:  The scriptural part, however brief, must NOT be diminished like some Jews are thinking about their ways.  What I am doing here is recommending the addition of some balancing societal seva as the imperative.  In such activity Sikh adolescents would learn the meaning of community service without regard to the religious identity, if any, of the needy; it is this seva, which is a fundamental of the Sikh faith.  Social responsibility is at the core of Sikh belief and practice.  In connecting such seva to their lives young Sikhs would forge an unshakable bond with Sikhi.

Remember that even the most sacred traditions had a starting point sometime somewhere in the past; it was time, relevance and practice that sanctified them.  What seems new today will become old, hoary and venerated soon enough.

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About I. J Singh

Dr. I. J. Singh has written a thoughtful series of essays on issues and problems confronting Sikhs at the turn of the millennium. He has published five books. I. J. Singh was born in Gujranwala, and educated in India at Simla and Amritsar and in the United States at the University of Oregon Medical School and Columbia University. At present he is Professor Emeritus of Anatomy at New York University.

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