Orthodox Judaism Grapples with Bat Mitzvah

As girls have become the educational equals of boys in Orthodox Judaism, rabbis need to explore halakhah to create a normative bat mitzvah ceremony.

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When Jewish girls and boys reach puberty, both assume full religious responsibilities. Yet traditional Judaism defines these obligations differently for men and women. Whereas the boy will be taking on public communal obligations, like participating in a minyan (a quorum of ten) or wearing tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), the girl's new responsibilities are often more limited to the private and personal realm. Recently, several Modern Orthodox congregations in Israel and North America encourage Bat Mitzvah girls to select a Torah and haftarah portion to read publicly. In general, as many Orthodox girls now receive a religious education on a par with their male counterparts, some Orthodox women--including the author of this piece--are urging rabbis to develop normative public observances for a girl's coming of age that conform to Jewish law.

Several years ago, at a conference on the subject of a woman's role in Judaism, a middle-aged woman in the audience stood up to complain about Orthodox attitudes toward the bat mitzvah ceremony, "It is terrible how the Orthodox deny their girls public exposure at this important time."

 

The one-sidedness of her comment belied a misunderstanding both of the education of young Orthodox women and the role of this rite of passage for females and males. I, too, stood up somewhat uncharacteristically, and said that even without public fanfare, bat mitzvah age girls in the Orthodox tradition generally shared the ingredients that we most hope to impart to any child growing up in a faith-based community: knowledge, practice, commitment, and a strong Jewish identity that is tied to engagement with and a responsibility toward the community and Israel.

Ambivalence Toward Marking Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremonially

Neither bar nor bat mitzvah is mentioned explicitly as a ceremony in the Talmud. Boys and girls at the onset of puberty increase their performance of specific commandments, such as fasting or prayer.

In rabbinic literature, a celebration over this event was only occasioned in the 16th century. In Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the acceptance of commandments was part of a trajectory of religious development beginning with the study of Bible at age 5, the study of Mishnah at age 10, and "13 for mitzvot [commandments]." This list does not suggest anything remarkable about the age of 13 or a need to celebrate its arrival. It is merely part of the continuum of preparation for an active life of faith, study, and ritual.

A contemporary legal scholar who downplayed the role of bat mitzvah did not hesitate to add that he was gender-neutral in his dislike of today's practices. He would be happy to do without the elaborate parties that are often occasions for the desecration of Shabbat (the Sabbath) and other violations of Jewish law. The idea that one could make a bar or bat mitzvah and serve nonkosher food was an anathema to him and antithetical to the purpose of a bar and bat mitzvah, an age-sensitive assumption of commandment observance.

Nevertheless, the "quiet" aspects of Jewish commitment do not vitiate the significance of a young woman actively participating as a public persona when she reaches adulthood. Yet in several streams of Orthodoxy or ultra-Orthodoxy, a bat mitzvah is still a non-event. In such circles, it may sometimes be commemorated with a modest (ritual) meal, or seudat mitzvah, the blessing of shehecheyanu, or the wearing of nicer clothes. Few rabbis in this stream of Orthodoxy would place value on a synagogue-based event, and some explicitly forbid it.

A Public Ceremony Connotes Communal Affirmation

In the Centrist or Modern Orthodox movement, however, there have been many creative attempts at creating greater "outside" equality for this rite of passage. The inroads of feminism and the realization that girls need a Jewish education that matches the sophistication and standards of their secular studies have prompted a rash of makeshift solutions. In particular, more and more synagogues are finding ways to include the presentation of a drasha, or speech, as part of the service on the Shabbat that follows the girl's date of bat mitzvah. This kind of public address is usually the culmination of intensive study on her part and is an opportunity to share her scholarship and wisdom on a particular subject.

Some girls are intellectually and spiritually stretched to do more, and they may make a siyyum, which is a ceremony marking the completion of an entire book. They share this experience with the congregation in their drasha. At the very least, it is more common today for rabbis to address the bat mitzvah publicly, even if she is not speaking herself. Both his remarks and hers affirm that she occupies an important place in the community and that her learning and her person are valued.

Failure to address and welcome each child, boy or girl, into the adult world of commandments and community can convey a powerful message in its silence: as an individual you are not welcome here. You do not have a place. As parents and educators, we have to make sure that boys and girls on the cusp of adulthood find their place and that this place is marked by public acknowledgement.

Creativity Must Evolve Into Uniform Expectations

The makeshift solutions mentioned earlier allow for creative approaches to bat mitzvah, but sadly fail to communicate a solid and uniform custom and expectation for every Orthodox girl. In the absence of a uniform set of practices, some parents will insist on raising the bar (or the bat) and others will, unfortunately, lower it. For some girls, it is not the equality of the spiritual demands that has been evened out, but the excessiveness of the party. We mistakenly think that if we provide both our sons and our daughters with the same type of party that we are giving them the message that both girls and boys have an equal share in Judaism.

Instead, we need to think and act together as a community to find parallel expressions of spirituality. The Orthodox rabbinate should take a more proactive role in assigning meaning and legitimate customs to the bat mitzvah. This will both secure it as a practice and convey to every Jewish young adult that we have religious and communal expectations of them.

In six months, we will make a bat mitzvah for our oldest child. For us, it will not be a marker of a year's worth of study and practice but 12 years of educational and spiritual investment. The model of Pirke Avot is still the timeline we follow. At 5, Talia received her first set of Humash, or the five books of Moses. At 7, she completed them. At 10, she received her first set of Mishnah and completed the first book with hopes to progress further.

At 12, her acceptance of mitzvot is part of a natural and obvious course of active Jewish living. Our only concern is the next part of the rabbinic dictum: "At 18 for marriage." We're not quite ready for that and might have to investigate commentaries for a get-out clause!

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Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.