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An anniversary worth celebrating

Today is the 90th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah in America. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of the Reconstructionist movement, brought his eldest daughter Judith (the musicologist, in later life) forward to read—not from the sefer Torah, not even standing on the bimah—from Scripture and say the blessings, and to mark her coming of age. It wasn’t anything like a bar mitzvah, really, but it was something.

In my synagogue, which I call Temple Beth Bolshoi, there is no difference between the preparation the boys and the girls make for their ritual ceremonies. My daughter has seen women read from the scroll at least as often as she has seen men. She has known women rabbis since she was a toddler. She has sat through donation appeals from female synagogue presidents. She has worn a kippah. She has led prayers from bimah. And, the Divine willing, she will be bat mitzvah in two and a half years. We know what parshah she will be reading already. And she will be reading it from the scroll. We will wrap her in a tallis. And none of it will seem strange to her, I think; none of it will be a victory over reactionary forces, which she is only dimly aware still exist.

I remember, from my childhood, my grandfather (who was, I believe at that time or possibly a tad later, president of his congregation) telling me that if a woman touched the Torah scroll, it was defiled—that a man who was unwashed, or ignorant, or even a criminal could touch the scroll without defiling it, but that the best and most pious of women could not touch it. He laughed about it, twinkling in the way he used to do at the absurdity of life. He accepted the rule as one of the absurd rules of the world, like the more obscure rules of kashrut or the limitations on what can be carried in what manner on Shabbat within what limits. Ridiculous, yes, but unchangeably so. Well, change came.

It’s a source of wonder to me. My sister fought about the limits on her bat mitzvah. She was not allowed to read from the scroll itself (if I remember correctly), but she did have her ceremony on Saturday, and she read the haftorah portion from the bimah, just as the boys did the week before and the week after. And she learned something from the experience about the limits of her rights as a woman, what it means to fight for equality, who stood with her and who stood against her and who stood aside. My daughter won’t learn any of that, because our enormous synagogue has no-one at all who will stand against her. I am, of course, thrilled by that. And she will have, I’m afraid, plenty of time to learn the other lessons. The lesson she learned, as we sat in the room for the first meeting of 2014 b’nai mitzvah and their parents, was that she is welcome with the other girls and boys, that she is valued with the other girls and boys, and that she is honored with the other girls and boys.

She is more excited about her bat mitzvah than Judith Kaplan was for hers. That’s magnificent, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


This was great to read — thanks for sharing! I'm glad your daughter is so excited! I hadn't realized change had been so recent (although of course it was) or that it was Kaplan's doing (although of course it was).

Ditto all of Jillian's comments. Wow.

I don't want to overemphasize Mordecai Kaplan in this, as I think the widespread celebration of the bat mitzvah is more closely linked to the 1970s women's liberation movement. On the other hand, I don't want to underemphasize Mordecai Kaplan in this, as his decision was influential at the time, and while it didn't reach the tipping point in the pre-war or even post-war period, I do think that Rabbi Kaplan and the Reconstructionist movement laid a kind of groundwork that made the Conservative and Reform responses to feminism more— constructive? than they otherwise might have been. On the other other hand, I do want to emphasize that truly egalitarian Judaism is very much still aspirational. Although Temple Beth Bolshoi does an excellent job bringing its practice up ever closer to its aspirations.


awe, that made me all sniffly. Great things, great things...

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