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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?

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Amazing how Kagan's nomination has made bat mitzvahs big news!

Judith, Your take on Elena Kagan's long-ago fight for the right to have a bat mitzvah is on the mark. To me, Kagan's story is a loud reminder that Jewish women -- mostly, Orthodox Jews - are still striving for equality on the bimah. Kagan also reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to participate as much or as little as I want in my own Reform congregation.

I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah in 2006 - at age 41 - because I passed up on the opportunity as a teen. I later researched the experiences of women of all of Judaism's branches and found many still trying to figure out how to juggle Orthodoxy with a desire to chant from the Torah. I was motivated, too, to blog about Kagan's Bat Mitzvah in an entry I call, "Elena Kagan's Fight for Bat Mitzvah Creates Guilt Trip." You can find it on the Jewish Muse blog at http://www.lindakwertheimer.co...

Again, thank you for a provocative read.

I loved this piece, Judith, and the conversations it sparked.

Like so many changes, bat mitzvah was largely fought for by one girl, one family, one synagogue, one community at a time (as the earlier comment reminds us). Once congregations allowed girls to become bat mitzvah, there was still the question of what it would look like, and in many cases -- including Kagan's -- the bat mitzvah ceremonies of girls did not mirror the bar mitzvah ceremonies of boys. As a result, many different trailblazing young women over the decades had the opportunity to bring change to their communities either by demanding a bat mitzvah or demanding the bat mitzvah they felt they were due.

Last year JWA put together a series of Go & Learn lesson plans relating to another young woman's bat mitzvah campaign. In a plucky yet polite letter to the ritual committee of her Conservative synagogue in 1974, Sally Gottesman lobbied for a bat mitzvah "equal to a boyÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s my age" that included being called to the Torah on a Saturday morning. Her efforts succeeded, and while hers was not the first bat mitzvah held in her congregation, it certainly was a "bat mitzvah first." The organization Gottesman later co-founded, Moving Traditions, collects these stories of bat mitzvah innovation. They too recognize that these stories speak to larger questions about gender and the evolution of contemporary Jewish practice -- and often come from strong women who have since continued to take risks and make change.

Love what you wrote... you captured the whole thing

These are great examples, and the fact that you can come up with so many from your own experience speaks to my point of how widespread a phenomenon this is (as well as to the leadership of you and your family). I agree that this is generally how change happens, not by leaders giving up their power, but often when leaders *do* make some changes, they are celebrated as if they've done something remarkably creative and generous, and the fact that they probably never would have done so of their own accord is never mentioned, nor are the real innovators cited.

Your point about the Kagan story being an example of a lose-lose situation is right-on. The story is reported as if the fact that she is no longer Orthodox and that her family eventually left to join West End Synagogue is entirely unconnected to her bat mitzvah experience. On the flip side, my own family's synagogue in New Haven has benefited immeasurably from the influx of Orthodox families with daughters who are looking for a place where they can have a meaningful bat mitzvah experience.

Are you actually collecting instances? Here are some: Congregation Beth Shalom of Seattle going egalitarian --> my mother threatened to boycott, including having my father boycott, when the rabbi -- a respected friend -- tried to institute some sort of policy where women would count in the minyan unless they had children under the age of 13. Beth Shalom quickly became fully egalitarian (at my Bat Mitzvah there I led Shacharit, Mussaf, leyned the parsha, and read the Haftarah) and is now under the leadership of Rabbi Jill Borodin. Another: I demanded to read my Maftir portion at the synagogue we both went to in French Hill, Jerusalem in the mid-1980s. After initial pushback I got my way, but I understand there was later a backlash against egalitarianism at that shul and I'm not sure what the current status is. Another: my parents were part of an egalitarian minyan at KI, a large conservative synagogue in Brookline, in the late '70s. It met in the basement and in someone's living room. When I returned to KI in college, I asked where the egalitarian minyan that met downstairs was. The person looked confused and said, "You mean the non-egalitarian minyan? That doesn't exist anymore." KI had become egalitarian. I'm sure there are a million other examples. Social change doesn't generally come from those in power volunteering to share it.

What has been annoying me about the coverage of the Kagan / Riskind story is that it's portrayed as a win-win for her and him, but I see it more as a lose-lose. The truth is that even if she becomes a Supreme Court justice, Kagan STILL would not be allowed to read her Haftarah in front of the entire congregation on Saturday morning, either at Lincoln Square Synagogue or at Rabbi Riskin's current synagogue. This is a loss both for her and for those communities, which have lost countless talented (and now powerful) women who simply got sick of being treated as second-class citizens in this one realm of life (the Orthodox synagogue).

How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Kagan and bat mitzvah innovation." 13 May 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 11, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/kaganbatmitzvah>.

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