Taking Risks, Making Change: Bat Mitzvah and Other Evolving Traditions
Today, the Bat Mitzvah may seem like a routine aspect of a young girl's Jewish life. But less than 100 years ago, no public ceremony existed to mark a girl's coming of age, and over the past century, what a "Bat Mitzvah" looks like has continually shifted. This Go & Learn guide uses the letters from one girl's campaign to have the first Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah in her congregation as a case study for exploring how we confront controversial issues and make change in our communities.
- The Bat Mitzvah is a fairly recent development in Judaism, and what a Bat Mitzvah looks like has continued to shift over time.
- Young people have the ability to effect change in their communities.
- What bigger questions did the emergence of the Bat Mitzvah pose for the wider Jewish community?
- How did Sally Gottesman affect change in her community? How might you address controversial issues in your own community?
Introduction: Bat Mitzvah and Communal Change
Today, a Jewish girl coming of age is likely to mark her entry to Jewish adulthood with some ceremony. But this was not always the case. The first Bat Mitzvah ceremony in America was celebrated in 1922 by Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein), daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan. This “shocking” event consisted of 12-year-old Judith reading a passage from the weekly Torah portion in Hebrew and English from the printed humash (first five books of the Bible), and reciting the traditional blessings that precede and follow the Torah reading. Though Rabbi Kaplan was an influential leader in the Conservative movement (and later the founder of the Reconstructionist movement), his innovation was not immediately embraced.
In the Reform movement, girls had already been allowed to participate in the confirmation ritual that marked the end of one's Jewish education. Jews in Western Europe and America had developed the confirmation ceremony in the nineteenth century to adapt their religious practice to that of the majority cultures, and they included girls to prove that Jews were "modern." By the second half of the nineteenth century, confirmation—rather than Bar Mitzvah—was an accepted rite of passage in the American Reform movement.
Since Bar Mitzvah had become less important in the Reform movement, and since Orthodox Jews considered gender segregation in the synagogue religiously non-negotiable, the rise of the Bat Mitzvah ritual—and the struggle to define what it would look like—primarily took place in the Conservative movement. The Bat Mitzvah ceremony offered congregations a way to acknowledge a desire for women's social equality and to provide a structure for Jewish education for girls. By 1948, 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 the 1980s, however, the ritual was usually not a precise parallel of the Bar Mitzvah. B'not Mitzvah ceremonies were often held during Friday night services, when the Torah is not read.
Although it was designed simply to offer public recognition of a girl's coming of age, 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? The Conservative movement's rabbinical body grappled with this issue in 1955, ultimately extending aliyot (the honor of being called to the Torah) to women. This step paved the way for full equality of women within the Conservative synagogue, which gradually prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s.
The rise of feminism shaped the practice and popularity of the Bat Mitzvah ceremony. As girls and women gained rights and equality within secular society, they came to expect—and demand—similar treatment within the Jewish community. This push to acknowledge the equality of women as Jews led every American Jewish denomination from Reform to modern Orthodox to adopt some type of Bat Mitzvah ceremony, among other changes such as the ordination of women as rabbis (1972 in the Reform movement, 1975 in the Reconstructionist movement, and 1985 in the Conservative movement). The form of the Bat Mitzvah rite varies according to the custom of the particular denomination. In recent years, many communities have added other, non-ritual components such as community service projects to the Bat Mitzvah experience.
Some women of earlier generations have, in the past 25 years, also turned to the Bat Mitzvah ceremony as adults to seize an opportunity they lacked as a child, to expand their Jewish knowledge and skills, and to signify their assumption of the rights and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood.
Sally Gottesman's 1974 letter offers a view into one girl's efforts to challenge the inconsistency with which her community treated girls and women in relation to boys and men. Growing up in a Conservative-affiliated congregation, Sally and many other young girls like her received their Jewish education alongside boys, yet after completing their studies, their transition to adulthood was marked by a different (and in many cases, obviously second-rate) ceremony: a Friday evening service without Torah reading. (This was not the only inconsistency: only one year before Sally wrote her letter, the Conservative movement officially recommended that its synagogues count women in a minyan (Jewish ritual/religious quorum), but did not require that they do so, leading to further confusion about the movement's position on women's roles in synagogue ritual.) In her letter, Sally appeals to the ethics of the synagogue leadership, demanding fairness and equality. Her mother's letter, on the other hand, calls on their pragmatism, arguing that if the girls did not find in the synagogue the equality they had come to expect in other arenas, they would lose interest in the Jewish community.
Though Bat Mitzvah has secured a central place in American Jewish communal practice, it continues to evolve, taking on new rituals and meaning in each generation. Furthermore, communities continue to confront challenging and sometimes divisive questions of ritual practice and status within the synagogue. The case of Bat Mitzvah, however, suggests that American Judaism is creative and flexible, with room for many different approaches to addressing changing social needs and mores.
- For youth:
More Than Just a Party: Bat/Bar Mitzvah, Then and Now
- For family education:
Change and Meaning in Bat/Bar Mitzvah Experience
- For adults:
Changing Ritual, Transforming Community
Sally Gottesman’s Letter
Sally Gottesman’s Letter
Transcript of Sally Gottesman's 1974 letter to the ritual committee of Temple Shomrei Emunah, requesting a Saturday Morning Bat Mitzvah
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ritual Committee,
Next year I will have reached the age of my Bat Mitzvah and would like to have it on Saturday morning.
This means a great deal to me because since women play an important part of every role in Jewish life, why is my part in our Temple not equal to a boy's my age? This service may be strange to tradition for a little while but my question is “Im lo achshav ay ma-tai?”* My education is as complete as a boy my age. And knowing that I am an equal makes me want to continue my studies. Knowing I can't fully participate in any activity, when can I hope to achieve a first class status?
I would greatly appreciate if the Ritual Committee would change this practice and let girls be called to the Torah.
Very truly yours,
*Translation of “Im lo achshav ay ma-tai?”: “If not now, when?” This famous saying from the sage Hillel appears in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, a section of Mishna).
Paula Rachlin Gottesman’s Letter
Paula Rachlin Gottesman’s Letter
Letter from Paula Rachlin Gottesman to Ritual Committee of Temple, Shomrei Emunah, 1974
91 Clarewill Avenue
Upper Montclair, N.J.
September 3, 1974
The Ritual Committee
Temple Shomrei Emunah
67 Park Street
Montclair, N.J. 07042
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the Ritual Committee:
In June 1975 my daughter Sally will celebrate her thirteenth birthday and expects that she will be a Bat Mitzvah. She would like to have her service on Saturday morning, rather than on Friday night and I believe it only proper that she be permitted to do so.
The religious education which girls receive today is equal to that of the boys. Girls and women are leaders of your organizations, religious schools, countries and everything else that vitally affects our lives and the very existence of Judaism.
Although I recognize the irrational, emotional bases to religious practices, I believe that we as Conservative Jews must change those traditions which are odious to large segments of our people and which have no rational, moral justification for their continuation.
It is a fact of life that women are moving into areas from which they have been traditionally excluded—one of which is the Bimah of a Conservative synagogue. A second is to the Torah from which she derives the same law and inspiration as a man. The very fact that there is a variety of opinion among Conservative Jews as to whether or not women should be called to the Torah should make it incumbent upon the Ritual Committee at Temple Shomrei Emunah to follow a course of fairness and equality for all members.
The girls in Montclair are keenly aware of the options allowed the decision makers at their synagogue. They are critically watching to see if the religious rituals at their synagogue are ruled by those who will not relate either to the times or to them or by those who are willing to perhaps suffer some temporary strangeness during a service in order to promote a greater good.
To be sure, Sally will celebrate her Bat Mitzvah—be it on Friday or Saturday. However, this dispute will doubtless continue until the women have prevailed. Meanwhile the traditionalists will constantly be on the defensive and the women and girls will continue to be antagonized and alienated. This issue will not fade away regardless of how much we may wish it to do so. (I have three younger daughters and if this is not resolved now, I am fairly certain that I will be compelled by conscience as well as by them to continue this battle.)
I respectfully request that the members of the Ritual Committee openly look at all aspects of this question—not merely at their reaction based on years of tradition. Above all, ask what effect this is having upon our young girls, who so often hear the comment, “Judaism is outdated and has no meaning for my life today”. Admittedly, calling girls to the Torah will not change everything, but it will certainly help to show that our religion is living, adaptable and subject to modification where the basic moral laws are not jeopardized.
(Mrs. Jerome W. Gottesman)
Sally Gottesman Reading Her Letter
Sally Gottesman Reading Her Letter
Sally Gottesman's Letter to Temple Shomrei Emunah
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Taking Risks, Making Change: Bat Mitzvah and Other Evolving Traditions." (Viewed on March 22, 2019) <https://jwa.org/teach/golearn/mar09>.