Orthodox Judaism Grapples with Bat Mitzvah
As girls have become the educational equals of boys in Orthodox Judaism, rabbis need to explore halakhah to create a normative bat mitzvah ceremony.
When Jewish girls and boys reach puberty, both assume full religious responsibilities. Yet traditional Judaism defines these obligations differently for men and women. Whereas the boy will be taking on public communal obligations, like participating in a minyan (a quorum of ten) or wearing tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries), the girl's new responsibilities are often more limited to the private and personal realm. Recently, several Modern Orthodox congregations in Israel and North America encourage Bat Mitzvah girls to select a Torah and haftarah portion to read publicly. In general, as many Orthodox girls now receive a religious education on a par with their male counterparts, some Orthodox women--including the author of this piece--are urging rabbis to develop normative public observances for a girl's coming of age that conform to Jewish law.
Several years ago, at a conference on the subject of a woman's role in Judaism, a middle-aged woman in the audience stood up to complain about Orthodox attitudes toward the bat mitzvah ceremony, "It is terrible how the Orthodox deny their girls public exposure at this important time."
The one-sidedness of her comment belied a misunderstanding both of the education of young Orthodox women and the role of this rite of passage for females and males. I, too, stood up somewhat uncharacteristically, and said that even without public fanfare, bat mitzvah age girls in the Orthodox tradition generally shared the ingredients that we most hope to impart to any child growing up in a faith-based community: knowledge, practice, commitment, and a strong Jewish identity that is tied to engagement with and a responsibility toward the community and Israel.
Ambivalence Toward Marking Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremonially
Neither bar nor bat mitzvah is mentioned explicitly as a ceremony in the Talmud. Boys and girls at the onset of puberty increase their performance of specific commandments, such as fasting or prayer.
In rabbinic literature, a celebration over this event was only occasioned in the 16th century. In Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), the acceptance of commandments was part of a trajectory of religious development beginning with the study of Bible at age 5, the study of Mishnah at age 10, and "13 for mitzvot [commandments]." This list does not suggest anything remarkable about the age of 13 or a need to celebrate its arrival. It is merely part of the continuum of preparation for an active life of faith, study, and ritual.
A contemporary legal scholar who downplayed the role of bat mitzvah did not hesitate to add that he was gender-neutral in his dislike of today's practices. He would be happy to do without the elaborate parties that are often occasions for the desecration of Shabbat (the Sabbath) and other violations of Jewish law. The idea that one could make a bar or bat mitzvah and serve nonkosher food was an anathema to him and antithetical to the purpose of a bar and bat mitzvah, an age-sensitive assumption of commandment observance.