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Jewesses with Attitude

Kagan and bat mitzvah innovation

I've been loving the coverage of Elena Kagan's youthful challenge of her rabbi over her right to have a bat mitzvah. I love it because it confirms what I've always believed -- that the chutzpah of young girls is not just pre-teen attitude but a sign of inner strength and a harbinger of great things to come (and I say this not only in a self-serving way as a former obnoxious girl-child or as the mother of a burgeoning one).

I also love it because it places Kagan in a long line of daring Jewish women who, early on in life, honed their sense of justice and right to protest in confrontation with religious leaders. I'm thinking of Bella Abzug, who at age 12, insisted on saying kaddish for her father despite the fact that it was customarily recited only by sons. Or Emma Goldman, who chafed openly against the authority of the teachers at her religious elementary school in Königsberg.

But one of the other things that has struck me in the coverage of Kagan's bat mitzvah is that men in power often get the credit for changes sparked by a young woman's chutzpah. In this case, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue at the time of Kagan's bat mitzvah in 1973, is widely credited with "inventing" the Orthodox bat mitzvah (by both supporters and detractors). He readily admits in the recent articles, however, that the impetus for this innovation came from Kagan: "Elena Kagan felt very strongly that there should be ritual bat mitzvah in the synagogue, no less important than the ritual bar mitzvah... This was really the first formal bat mitzvah we had... she certainly raised my consciousness." He also remembers that "After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time. ... She was part of my education. This was for us a watershed moment."

Funny, I had never heard the story described that way before. And how the story is told makes an important statement about how change happens in religious life -- in this case, from the grassroots, not from the top-down generosity of religious leadership (though, of course, Riskin's willingness to listen to Kagan and to accommodate her wishes, however partially, was clearly also a factor).

And I can't help but wonder, what other "watershed moments" in American Jewish life were actually initiated by bold Jewish girls and women, with the credit for innovation going to the men in power whom they challenged?

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Kagan and bat mitzvah innovation." 13 May 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/kaganbatmitzvah>.

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