Bat Mitzvah ceremony a 90
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Bat Mitzvah ceremony a 90

It's not just about boys anymore

Ninety years ago, on March 18, 1922, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan brought his daughter Judith up to the bima to make a blessing and read from a Torah scroll. Judith had just turned 12 years old. The idea for the ceremony came to him a few months earlier, during a visit to a Rome synagogue, where he saw a father escort his 12-year-old daughter to the bima to make the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Ten years earlier, Kaplan and Rabbi Israel Friedlander founded the Young Israel movement. He had only just founded the institution that would become the cornerstone of the Reconstructionist Movement – the Society for the Advancement of Judaism – when Judith was called to the Torah.

After observing the Rome ritual, Kaplan discovered that b’not mitzvah ceremonies of a sort had been around in Sephardi communities since the 19th century. He wanted something he considered more meaningfully Jewish to mark his own daughter’s reaching the age of bat mitzvah.

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Judith Kaplan Eisenstein at the 70th anniversary of her bat mitzvah, 1992. Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, courtesy National Museum of American Jewish History

Thus are traditions born. Until Judith Kaplan was called to the Torah that Shabbat morning, the bat mitzvah ceremony was unknown here.

Even the elaborate ceremonies and elegant parties that are part of the bar mitzvah ritual as it exists today were rare events nearly a century ago. That is because becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is automatic, according to Jewish law. It happens when a girl reaches the day after her 12th birthday and when a boy reaches age 13 plus a day. There is no ceremony needed and none prescribed. In fact, the Talmud states that minors may be called up to the Torah, so there is technically nothing ritually significant about a bar mitzvah receiving an aliyah. Nevertheless, b’nai mitzvah ceremonies do begin to appear in the 15th century.

Sephardim were the first to elevate a girl’s becoming a bat mitzvah into something worth commemorating.

The idea originated with the 19th century halachist known as the Ben Ish Chai, the Chacham Joseph Hayim ben Elijah of Baghdad. He suggested that parents buy young girls new dresses when they became b’not mitzvah and have celebrations in their honor. Today, girls in non-Orthodox synagogues and Orthodox women’s minyanim are permitted to do everything boys are allowed to do at their ceremonies, or they can create brand new traditions meaningful to themselves.

By 1948, one-third of Conservative congregations permitted b’not mitzvah ceremonies. For most Reform congregations, there was no issue because the bar mitzvah ceremony itself had been eliminated and replaced by the confirmation ceremony at age 16 (or even later).

By the 1960s, no one in Conservative Judaism gave b’not mitzvah ceremonies a second thought. Those ceremonies, however, were not egalitarian. A bat mitzvah commemoration would normally take place on Friday nights, when there was no reading of the Torah (some modern Orthodox synagogues adopted the practice, as well, permitting Friday night commemorations in rooms other than the sanctuary itself). If a bat mitzvah commemoration did take place on Shabbat morning, the girls would read from a book, not a scroll.

Eventually, girls were even allowed to read from a scroll, thereby creating a paradox for Conservative (and many Reform) Jews. The online Jewish Virtual Library quotes the late historian Paula Hyman as asking, “How could a girl be called to Torah as a bat mitzvah and then never have such an honor again?”

By the late 1960s, one-third of Reform synagogues had returned to the bar-bat mitzvah ritual. Within a decade, nearly all Reform synagogues had done so.

Reform and Conservative congregations dealt with the paradox by establishing egalitarian services in the mid-1970s. In the Orthodox world, the pressure also began to be felt. Some girls concentrated their efforts on chesed projects and celebrated at women-only gatherings. Some joined in groups and traveled to Israel, paying a special visit to Rachel’s Tomb.

In traditional and more modern Orthodox congregations, girls were even permitted to deliver talks on the Torah portion or some other religious topic, either at a kiddush following services or from the bima itself, once services had ended. Today, in Orthodox women’s prayer groups, b’not mitzvah are even called to the Torah.

The story of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah celebration and many other b’not mitzvah stories grace the newly published “Today I am a Woman, Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World,” by Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz (of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute for Women’s Studies). The volume details the history of b’not mitzvah, and was published to coincide with the ceremony’s 90th anniversary in the United States. It is an anthology of anecdotes and reactions from women and girls, family members and friends from every continent and every denomination.

It is a worthy and inspiring read, regardless of which stream of Judaism one adheres to.

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