Contemporary Issues in Bar/Bat Mitzvah

The sociological forces underpinning much of modern life–feminism, egalitarianism, individualism, and assimilation–are reshaping the modern bar/bat mitzvah ceremony and sometimes raising difficult questions for parents.

Feminism

Bat Mitzvah GirlAs women have moved toward equality with men in many areas, the bat mitzvah has adapted itself to these new role expectations. In most liberal congregations, bar and bat mitzvah today are identical, and even within traditional Judaism, the bat mitzvah ceremony is evolving. Only in the strictest Orthodox circles has there been little change, and a girl’s coming of age is still either recognized simply–with a modest meal at home, a blessing of thanks, or the donning of nice clothes–or any observance is forbidden altogether.

In more liberal Orthodox communities, where the girls receive Jewish educations nearly identically to those of their male counterparts, girls and their mothers are pressing for a more public recognition of the bat mitzvah. Many girls now publicly present a drasha, a talk representing the culmination of a period of intensive study, either during or after the congregational service. Even if the bat mitzvah does not speak in the synagogue, some rabbis are addressing the bat mitzvah from the pulpit, thereby publicly welcoming her into the community of adult obligation. A few liberal Orthodox synagogues in Israel and North American have permitted girls to read from the Torah and recite a portion from the prophets (or Haftarah), something that would have been unheard of several decades earlier.

In tandem with the need for some kind of public bat mitzvah for Orthodox girls has been the development of women’s prayer groups, where women assume ritual roles usually reserved for men. They lead services (modified so that women do not say prayers requiring a minyan, quorum of ten men) and chant from the Torah or the weekly prophetic portion, the haftarah. These services are offering new role models to Orthodox girls at the same time as they are providing a comfortable environment for Orthodox bat mitzvah ceremonies.

Disabilities

Another side effect of egalitarianism has been the press for equal rights for people with disabilities. Although a physical disability was presumably never considered an obstacle to a bar/bat mitzvah, a developmentally disabled child was often hidden away and was certainly not given the opportunity for a coming-of-age ceremony. Today synagogues here and in Israel are developing ceremonies appropriate to the capabilities of these young Jews.

Individualism

In liberal synagogues, the social force that has probably had the greatest effect on the evolution of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony is the heightened focus on individual needs and desires over communal rights and privileges. The trend toward more individual, humanistic expressions of spirituality and religion has, in some liberal synagogues, made the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony more an exaltation of the child than a recognition of his or her new communal responsibilities.

Even though the bar/bat mitzvah child has traditionally played a number of roles in the service–having an aliyah, chanting from the Torah and haftarah, delivering a short talk–the spotlight on the child was muted. This understatement of the child’s personal (as opposed to communal) importance recognized the communal Shabbat service as the central experience of the day. But the focus has shifted, often with “bright lights” on the bar/bat mitzvah and his or her family, including long speeches extolling the participants, tallit ceremonies, the sharing of personal feelings, bar mitzvah pledges, and special prayers. This new focus raises two questions: Has the meaning of the event changed along with its form? Has the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony usurped the service from its rightful owners, the regular congregants?

Adoption

Another issue in which a bar/bat mitzvah family may find itself at loggerheads with communal norms is when an adopted child has not been converted to Judaism. Many adoptive parents assume that if they are Jewish and their adopted child is raised in their home, then the child is automatically a Jew, but Jewish legal norms mandate that these children must undergo a formal conversion to become Jews. This can cause problems when the child is ready to be a bar/bat mitzvah, and the rabbi is put in the awkward position of telling the family that the child is not, legally, Jewish.

Interfaith Families

In the past, the Jewish community used to look at Interfaith families as a challenge to Jewish continuity (at best) and a threat to Jewish survival (at worst). Today, many synagogues have welcomed interfaith families into the synagogue community with open arms and see this “open door policy” as a tactical way of supporting interfaith couples to make Jewish choices for their children (as opposed to closing the door to them and thereby turning them off to the Jewish community and the possibility of raising Jewish children.) While many liberal synagogues have thrust the door open, each synagogue differs regarding the “red lines” the rabbi/ ritual committee establishes regarding how involved the non-Jewish spouse can be in the Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony. While they want to include them, they do not want to be disingenuous regarding saying prayers, for example, that articulate a sense of “commandedness” (which aliyot to the Torah do) which is reserved for people who see themselves as inside the Jewish faith.

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