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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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.

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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.