Bat Mitzvah: American Jewish Women
“The Friday night before the service my father decided what I was to do. I was to recite the blessings, read a portion of the Torah sidrah ... in Hebrew and in English and conclude with the blessing—and that was it.... And that was enough to shock a lot of people, including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles.”
So reminisced Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, about her 1922 bat mitzvah ceremony, widely considered the first to have occurred in America. The bat mitzvah is the female equivalent of a boy’s bar mitzvah, the ritual that signifies his entrance into religious majority at age thirteen. To mark the occasion, in the synagogue the boy is called to the Torah for the first time and, if the Sabbath is the chosen day, chants the haftarah, the prophetic portion of that week.
The bat mitzvah ritual was introduced into American Judaism as both an ethical and a pragmatic response to gender divisions in traditional Judaism. For boys, reaching religious majority occasioned a ritual ceremony in the synagogue, but for girls, attaining the status of adult received no communal attention. Jewish tradition declared a girl’s majority to begin at age twelve, but her transition from child to adult was not reflected in the synagogue because women had no part in the public reading of the Torah except as listeners, segregated in the women’s gallery. On the ethical plane, the new rite was designed to demonstrate that, in the modern age, women were considered equal with men. On the practical level, it provided a stimulus for educating women in Judaism as preparation for their presumed role as transmitters of Jewish culture and religious sensibility.
The bat mitzvah ceremony has its roots in developments in nineteenth-century Judaism of Western Europe and America. As Jews became exposed to Western culture in the nineteenth century, acquired a measure of political rights, and began the process of social integration, they adapted aspects of their religious tradition to the values of the larger society. Concerned that the limited roles of women within traditional Judaism might suggest that Jews were “orientals” rather than Westerners, Jewish leaders included girls in the new ceremony of group confirmation that they instituted. That ceremony generally took place as a ritual conclusion to one’s Jewish education. Confirmation was a regular feature of the American Reform Movement by the second half of the nineteenth century. Its growing popularity displaced the individual bar mitzvah rite.
Because the Reform Movement diminished the importance of the bar mitzvah and because Orthodox Jews accepted the gender segregation of the traditional synagogue as a divine mandate, it fell to the Conservative Movement to struggle with the issue of the bat mitzvah ceremony. Committed to both tradition and modernity, Conservative Judaism became the most popular denomination among American Jews in the interwar years, when the children of Eastern European immigrants became the predominant group in the Jewish community. Even within the Conservative Movement, however, Kaplan’s 1922 innovation had few immediate followers. A decade later, only a handful of synagogues had adopted the rite. By 1948, though, some form of bat mitzvah ceremony was held in about one-third of Conservative congregations, and by the 1960s, it had become a regular feature within the movement. Until the1980s and 1990s, the ritual was most often not a precise parallel of the bar mitzvah. It was often held at Friday night services, when the Torah is not read. Even Judith Kaplan, whose bat mitzvah took place on Sabbath morning, read a passage in Hebrew and English from the printed Humash (first five books of the Bible), rather than from the Torah scroll, after the completion of the regular Torah service.
Although it was designed simply to offer public recognition of a girl’s coming of age religiously, the bat mitzvah rite raised questions about the status of women within the synagogue. How could a girl be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah and then never have such an honor again? In 1955, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards discussed the issue of extending aliyyot (the honor of being called to the Torah) to women. A favorable minority opinion fostered the dissemination of this practice and paved the way for the full equality of women within the Conservative synagogue that gradually prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s.
Equality for women in the Reform Movement had sources other than the bat mitzvah, although there were some bat mitzvah ceremonies in Reform temples from 1931. The rehabilitation of ritual within Reform Judaism in recent decades has led to a greater attention to both the bat and bar mitzvah ceremonies as an important component of public worship. While in 1953 only thirty-five percent of Reform temples offered the bat mitzvah to their members, the ritual has since become close to universal.
With the emergence of Jewish feminism in the 1970s, the need to acknowledge the equality of women as Jews led to the adoption of some type of bat mitzvah ceremony by every American Jewish denomination from Reform to modern Orthodoxy. Because even within Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism women have generally enjoyed ritual equality for less than a generation, some adult women in the past fifteen years have also turned to the bat mitzvah ceremony as a way to expand their Jewish knowledge and skills and to signify their assumption of the rights and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood. Unlike younger celebrants, they often perform the ritual as members of a group.
The form of the bat mitzvah rite varies according to the custom of the particular denomination. In non-Orthodox synagogues the bat mitzvah, like her counterpart, may simply be called to the Torah and recite the haftarah or may also chant the Torah portion and deliver a devar Torah, a talk based on the weekly reading. In Orthodox synagogues, most rabbis understand the constraints of Jewish law as preventing a girl from being called to the Torah, leading to a vast range in the modes of commemoration of the bat mitzvah within Orthodox society. At the most liberal end of the spectrum, a few Orthodox congregations (beginning with Jerusalem’s Shirah Hadashah, founded by Dr. Tova Hartman Halbertal in 2002) follow a recently espoused lone opinion that permits women to read the Torah on behalf of both the men and women of the congregation. Here the bat mitzvah may be called to the Torah and read the portion of the week, just like her male counterpart. There are about one hundred women’s tefillah (prayer) groups [See Women’s Tefillah Movement] worldwide, in which the celebrant may perform all the roles of a non-Orthodox bat mitzvah, with the exception of reciting the blessings. With these exceptions, the Orthodox bat mitzvah does not replicate the bar mitzvah rite, as the female celebrant is not permitted to participate in a synagogue ceremony. In some synagogues the bat mitzvah is permitted to give a devar Torah after the conclusion of the service or at a festive meal. Mother-daughter learning programs, a siyyum (conclusion ceremony) for completion of a book of the Prophets or a tractate of Mishnah, and year-long hesed or study projects have also become de rigueur in the modern Orthodox community. A girl’s coming of age is now marked even in many (primarily non-Hasidic) haredi circles, generally with a party in the home at which the bat mitzvah girl gives a devar Torah; in Israel, haredi girls’ school hold an annual school celebration for their twelve-year-old students (attended by women only), and some mothers bring their daughters for a blessing from Rebbetzin Brahah Kanievsky, wife and daughter of Orthodox rabbis and considered a spiritual leader in her own right.
How a bat mitzvah is celebrated has become indicative of the degree of openness of a Jewish community, but even the most traditional now mark this milestone in some way. The once-radical innovation of the bat mitzvah has become widely accepted in American Judaism and symbolizes the changing roles of women in the American Jewish religious community.
There has been little scholarly investigation of the bat mitzvah ceremony. For a historical study, see Paula E. Hyman, “The Introduction of Bat Mitzvah in Conservative Judaism in Postwar America.” YIVO Annual 19 (1990): 133–146. For sociological studies of adult bat mitzvah experiences, see Stuart Schoenfeld, “Integration in the Group and Sacred Uniqueness: An Analysis of Adult Bat Mitzvah,” in Persistence and Flexibility: Anthropological Perspectives on the American Jewish Experience, ed. Walter Zenner (1989), 117–133, and “Ritual and Role Transition: Adult Bat Mitzvah as a Successful Rite of Passage,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer (1992), 349–376. For one version of Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s reflections on her bat mitzvah, see Eyewitnesses to American Jewish History 4, ed. Azriel Eisenberg (1982), 30–32. On the educational impact of bat mitzvah, see Cherie Koller-Fox, “Women and Jewish Education: A New Look at Bat Mitzvah,” in The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, ed. Elizabeth Koltun (1976), 31–42. For a personal description of the new range of options for an Orthodox bat mitzvah, see “Towards a Meaningful Bat Mitzvah,” ed. Nancy Wolfson-Moche, intro. Blu Greenberg.