The history of bat mitzvahs

Girl power

for The Brooklyn Paper
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What would you do if you were told your daughter couldn’t have a bat mitzvah?

That seems unthinkable to us today, but it was the reality not too long ago. And even if celebrating a bat mitzvah was possible, it was often relegated to a different status.

There are countless mothers (and few younger grandmothers) who remember having their service on Friday night, while their brothers and other male friends got to have a “regular” bar mitzvah on Saturday morning.

Why was that the prevailing custom, and why did anyone think that was OK?

Is it still done like that in some temples?

Let’s dust off our time machine that we keep around the house for just these kinds of questions and see where this came from.

In olden days (so you can picture this in black and white), men and boys were the ones who learned prayers, chanted from the Torah, and were counted in the service. Women and girls could go to synagogue, but they sometimes had to sit separately from the males, and in any case, were not allowed to participate in the service.

This stems from a “traditional” (a word I sometimes use when I want to say “old-fashioned”) Jewish law that states that women are not obligated to fulfill certain rituals or commandments. The rationale was that women were too busy being pregnant and tending to the household. How would it be fair, the law reasoned, to make them have to report to temple and pray three specific times a day?

In fact, in “traditional” (there I go again) prayer books, one of the opening blessings reads:

“Blessed are you, God, for not making me a woman.”

The explanation for this questionable text is that a guy is expressing thanks that he is able to observe the commandments and have the duty to perform the Jewish rituals. If he were a woman, he wouldn’t be able to.

Going forward with this reasoning, it made sense that boys would mark their b’nei mitzvah (the point at which, they, too, would be responsible to follow Jewish law) and girls would not really need to. Later, some congregations thought it would be nice to throw girls a bone and let them at least do something, so they got to participate in a different kind of service on Friday night, one where we don’t even take out the Torah.

In Orthodox communities, this is still the norm, because those congregations adhere to the most established version of Jewish law. But in other synagogues, there has mostly been a complete acceptance of egalitarian Judaism. That is, both genders are considered to be equal in Jewish observance. Within the span of just a few decades, female rabbis and cantors are now common and accepted as routine members of the Jewish clergy.

I always find it particularly meaningful when a girl speaks at her service and mentions that she is the first one in her family to have a bat mitzvah. She puts on a tallit, a prayer shawl, without giving it a second thought, reads from the Torah, and expects to lead the service the same as anyone else in her class.

Who knows? Maybe some future prayer book will include a blessing for women to read, which thanks God for not making her a man.

Posted 12:00 am, June 2, 2014
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