In This Place and Time–New Traditional Bat Mitzvah

The women's prayer service is becoming the choice venue for a bat mitzvah in Orthodox synagogues that value egalitarianism and learning.

Within traditional Judaism, the bat mitzvah has traditionally been a private, home observance rather than a ritual celebration in the synagogue. Over the last three decades, with the growth of feminism and other societal changes, the bat mitzvah has taken steps toward the synagogue, sometimes giant steps in more liberal Orthodox communities. Developing in tandem with increasing recognition of the bat mitzvah are separate prayer groups for women. These groups allow women to lead prayers and to read Torah and haftarah (the reading from the Prophets) publicly. In the author’s synagogue, she finds that these prayer groups are a particularly apt locale for a bat mitzvah, because the participants model the value of learning and of a personal relationship with God.

Today we change places. The crowd of women and girls is filling up the larger section of the sanctuary, the side that holds the ark, the menorah, a raised platform with the reader’s table, a lectern: what is usually the men’s section. Meanwhile a handful of men–a father, grandfathers, perhaps uncles and brothers, fewer than the ten men required for a traditional minyan (prayer quorum)–is scattered sparsely behind a curtain in a slightly smaller area filled with chairs, which is usually the women’s section.

This is the setting for the most popular bat mitzvah option at our shul (synagogue), a women’s Shabbat afternoon service. Our synagogue community encourages maximal women’s observance and participation within the legal framework of Orthodox Judaism. For women who have always been Orthodox, it represents a high point of modernity and participation. In synagogues like mine, women’s services and ritual bat mitzvahs for girls have developed hand in hand, with each bolstering the other.

Bat Mitzvah at the Women’s Afternoon Service

The bat mitzvah will lead the Mincha (afternoon) service, whose sweet, yet sad melodies fill the stillest hour of the week and will haunt us through the week to come. The singing is plentiful and beautiful, but a careful observer will note differences from the standard afternoon service beyond its leisurely, unhurried pace. In the absence of a minyan of men, the service and Torah blessings will omit barkhu, the ancient communal invocation; nor will we repeat the silent prayer, or say kaddish. Our women’s service also adds a prayer for agunot, women chained to husbands who deny them a Jewish divorce, and little girls open and close the ark and lead Alenu and Yigdal, the final prayers.

In traditional Jewish law, women can never constitute a minyan, but are always praying in a solitary state. How paradoxical it is, considering our deeply collaborative and social instincts, that when we pray, we do so alone, voices crying in a wilderness. Or perhaps not so paradoxical, if you think of prayer as an act of dialogue with the divine that engages places in the self as far removed as possible from quotidian reality.

Just as Orthodox women always, technically, pray alone, we read and don’t "read" Torah, we study Torah, and never quite–again in the technical sense–attain to reading it, whatever that means. Sometimes we seem to inhabit an existential state like the mythical Sisyphus, who pushed boulders uphill forever, but with an important difference: learning, unlike pushing rocks, is a labor of joy.

To emphasize the value we place on learning, we supplement the traditional Torah blessings (minus the initial barkhu invocation) with a final blessing at the conclusion of the reading, "Blessed are you Adonai, ruler of the universe, who has commanded us to engage in Torah study," together with the passages from Torah and Talmud that follow the Torah study blessings in the preliminary morning service. Thus the blessings on each aliyah (blessing on the Torah) actually function as blessings for Torah study.

Before and after the bat mitzvah reads from the Torah, she will carry it around the room, making sure everyone has a chance to kiss it. If she hasn’t already delivered a formal talk after the morning service, she’ll usually speak either during or after the afternoon service (if after, more men may turn up to listen). The bat mitzvah has studied for months with her mother, or the rabbi, or another teacher, and her talk will reflect that, usually starting out from the week’s Torah portion and commentaries, sometimes ranging far beyond that. She may also speak about her interests, her values, and her dreams for the future.

Quite likely her mother, and perhaps an aunt or grandmother as well, will share interesting pieces of family history and tradition. How many fascinating tales of family survival, Jewish life around the globe, coming to America, have I heard here!

It goes without saying that lots of hugging and kissing happens right up on the bimah (pulpit), as the bat mitzvah is feted with song and maybe pelted with candy.

At the service that Shabbat morning, the bat mitzvah may step up after Adon Olam is sung and the tallitot (prayer shawls) are folded away, to speak then from the platform. At this time, the sanctuary becomes a place of assembly, separation of the sexes ends, and women may speak. During the service, her father, perhaps grandfathers, brothers, uncles, were called to the Torah reading in her honor, and younger brothers and cousins opened the ark or led the formal prayers.

Increasing Jewish Education for Women

The most important fact about our bat mitzvah celebrations is that they have emerged, alongside women’s services and Torah readings, from a background of maximum Jewish learning for women and girls. Some women, especially in rabbinic families, had always studied at home, although they were mostly, but not entirely, kept away from Talmud. But at the beginning of the 20th century, religious schools for girls were founded in Europe, amid fears that women who were already obtaining advanced secular education and often no Jewish education, might turn away, and turn their families away, from Judaism.

Religious education for Orthodox women became ever more intense, although, until fairly late in the 20th century, most Orthodox day schools still stopped short of teaching Talmud to women. A far cry from today, when the observant world brims over with women’s study centers and yeshivot teaching every area of advanced Jewish study!

Looking Back

When I was a girl in the 1950s, Orthodox synagogues (and families), while acknowledging the legal fact of bat mitzvah at age 12, did not celebrate bat mitzvah as an event at all. Reluctant to introduce change, they were also sensitive to its ancient role as signaling the age of marriage, not a message they wanted to endorse.

Bat mitzvah emerged at first in liberal Jewish circles. Only very slowly did it become a practice in Modern Orthodox circles, although girls had been studying intensely for a long time.

Only in a few places, one by one, have either more ceremonial bat mitzvahs, or women’s prayer groups, been allowed inside the Orthodox synagogue. One has nurtured the other, as an ever-rising reservoir of shul and Torah skills builds up. In the early years of our shul, both a Simchat Torah reading by and for women, and bat mitzvah services, preceded the establishment of scheduled prayer groups, but this is not the universal case.

Developing since the last quarter of the 20th century, women’s prayer groups have provided a context for developing Torah reading and leadership skills for prayer. Even now, few of these prayer groups actually meet in shuls, still considered men’s territory in many places. In some places, they are anathema. Many communities are quite happy to have women hold prayer services anywhere but in the shul, and these groups lead a nomadic existence, in a sense freer, because as unofficial groups they are not subject to the rabbi’s decisions, but obviously marginal.

Even in our synagogue, less than 20 years old and founded with ideals of maximum women’s participation, a few congregants still don’t understand why our women’s prayer group needs to meet in shul. And someone like me, who has been in the past a full participant in an egalitarian minyan (one which treats men and women equally for ritual and liturgical purposes) must ask, how can it be that I find joy in something so different, in these relatively circumscribed ladies’ events?

Though reasons for separating men and women at prayer are traditionally given in terms of the needs and problems of men, creating women’s space releases positive energies. We can hear ourselves sing and pay better attention to our thoughts and prayers, in a space free from louder men’s voices. In social space, status considerations are muted, and women develop a keen eye to who’s new, what’s happening, who’s here, who’s gone, who knows what, who needs what…. We form special ties with the women we regularly sit with and their families, but we also have relationships with many women and girls we rarely see outside of shul. We feel an intensity of commitment that brings out surprising numbers of women, away from their guests and dinner tables, even on the shortest and coldest of winter afternoons.

The bat mitzvah will be seen in our midst week after week, and we anticipate her ongoing participation in the women’s service, as we watch her continue to grow and learn. Just as the women with their developing synagogue and Torah reading skills have served as role models for her, she becomes a role model for the girls behind her. And just as I find an extra sense of friendship and community in the women’s section–a special intensity, sweetness and warmth–I feel a concentration of powerful connections both with generations of women and with the bat mitzvahs that happen in this powerful female space.

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