Did you know that the noun “adult” now has a verb (gerund) form?  The word “adulting” was coined over the last few years to describe the mostly mundane things that millennials had to start doing after leaving college or their parents’ homes.  As a noun it is fairly clear, but as a verb, even though it is actually in the dictionary, I think the definition could use another look.

The linguistics Journal American Speech offered the following:

  1. to behave in an adult manner; engage in activities associated with adulthood

That’s pretty lame – even our youngest elementary students know that you can’t use the word itself in the definition!  I often use this space to discuss the application of a Jewish lens to issues related to parenting, childhood, education, and ethical behavior.  I’d like to see what happens when we apply that lens to the concept of “adulting.”

First of all, Judaism already has a technical definition of who is an adult and what that means that is far more precise than our vague Western notion.  It is ancient, so perhaps having this concept encounter modernity meaningfully is important for Judaism, too.  Jews become adults upon reaching the age of 12 for women, and 13 for men, and the term we use for the transition is Bat (daughter of) or Bar (son of) Mitzvah (commandment).  The Jewish lens, therefore, is that an adult is someone who is obligated to observe commandments.

I’m a text person, so now we have to look at the words.  First, why is adulthood described using “son of” or “daughter of”?  If it is adulthood, isn’t this when we shed the concept of child?  Not in Judaism.  First, there is the idea that we all have a universal parent in the divine.  Second, perhaps it is upon reaching the age and role of becoming an obligated member of the community that we truly join our own actual parents and families by taking up the mantle of leadership and participation.  This is when we really finally own being the daughter or son of our parents and their ancestors.

This is radically different from the modern conception, which is about breaking away, finding your identity separately, and choosing what in some ways becomes your new family in your group of adult friends.  There is even a word for the way Thanksgiving is celebrated with them – Friendsgiving.

As a parent and educator, I’m grateful for the Jewish lens.  It helps me understand the relationship between obligation, community, adulthood, and living meaningfully.  It offers me some guidance in how to raise children that will understand that relationship, too, and won’t have a false sense that finding themselves means rejection of their ancestry or cultural identity.  In fact, they will have the tools and deep connection with their history required to construct an adult identity that is centered around obligation, rather than material desires or artificially constructed meaning, and that sense of obligation will guide them towards meaning and ethical action.

Each Jewish generation has to take this tradition and wisdom and own it themselves, because if they don’t see themselves as obligated to do so, then the tradition will not be passed on to their children.  Today, that means taking the modern world as it is, not pretending that it doesn’t exist, and using this holy, unique lens to move through the world in ways that make it better.

This Shabbat, I encourage you to have a conversation with your loved ones about what they think it means to be an adult.  Ask them for their definition, and ask them why they think what they do.

Shabbat Shalom,