Ask the Rabbi: Bat mitzva celebrations

Why do bat mitzva celebrations differ so greatly within the Jewish community?

bat mitzva 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bat mitzva 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Q Why do bat mitzva celebrations differ so greatly within the Jewish community? - B.T., Netanya A t one of my first bat mitzva parties, sometime in between dessert and the limbo, a family friend proclaimed to me, "Did you know that my grandfather invented the bat mitzva ceremony?" I had never heard of his famous grandfather, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, but was pretty surprised that the contemporary celebration of bat mitzva is so recent, and as I later discovered, quite controversial. Historically, there was no difference between boys and girls with regard to the significance of their coming to age of legal adulthood, when a bar or bat mitzva, as the term implies, receives responsibility for performing all mitzvot. Moreover, many sources establish the growth of two pubic hairs as the identical criteria used for both genders to identify this transformation. While other texts quantified the onset of puberty with the ages of 12 and 13 for girls and boys, respectively (Nidda 45b), the shared consequences of adulthood remains that men and women assume full responsibility to follow Jewish law, with only a slight difference in the requisite age. Despite the significance of this transition or elevation, few classical sources mention the requirement of celebrating this occasion. The basis for this practice derives from a talmudic sage, himself uniquely not obligated in all mitzvot, who declared that he would grandly celebrate gaining full covenantal responsibilities (Kiddushin 31a). Subsequently, Rabbi Shlomo Luria (16th century, Poland) derived that the occasion of becoming a bar mitzva should be marked by a festive celebratory meal with singing and learned discourses (Yam Shel Shlomo BK 7:37). Certainly in modern times, if not earlier, families have held feasts for this momentous occasion, although perhaps not with the (sometimes overboard) extravagance of contemporary parties. Another ritual, with more definitive talmudic backing, is the blessing recited by the bar mitzva boy's father, known as Baruch Shepatrani. Customarily recited following the child's first aliya, the father proclaims, "Blessed is He who released me from the responsibility of this one" (Genesis Raba 63:10). Until now, the father gets punished for his child's sins, since any mistakes stem from failings in the son's education. With the child's maturation, the father loses legal culpability (Magen Avraham OC 225:5). This legal transformation applies equally to both genders, leaving many decisors puzzled at the fact that fathers did not traditionally recite the blessing for girls. While various explanations were given, a number of contemporary authorities, including former Sephardi chief rabbis Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer OC 6:29) and Yitzhak Nissim, have ruled that fathers should recite this blessing for bat mitzva daughters as well. One contemporary author, Rabbi Getzel Ellinson, has tentatively suggested that mothers recite this blessing, as they might have prime educational responsibilities (and therefore legal culpability) for their daughters, although this suggestion has not taken root. Most contentious, however, was the creation of a parallel public ceremony for girls. The modern "bat mitzva" ceremony began in America in 1922, when Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, invited his 12-year-old daughter Judith to participate in the Torah reading. It took until the 1960s and greater calls for egalitarianism, however, for this to become the norm within non-Orthodox movements, especially in Reform circles, which previously preferred "confirmation" ceremonies at the age of 15 or 16, when formal Jewish education programs were completed. Some historians even contend that the participation of women in bat mitzva ceremonies prodded the ultimate integration of regular egalitarian services within these movements. Many Orthodox rabbis, however, rejected any public ceremonies as smacking of non-Jewish influences and embracing antinomian egalitarian values. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (d. 1986), for example, believed that synagogue celebrations were inappropriate since they stemmed from non-Orthodox origins (Igrot Moshe OC 1:104) and were attached to no significant ritual change, such as the donning of tefillin or leading services (Igrot Moshe OC 2:97). He did, however, permit a shul kiddush, while other like-minded decisors allowed for more private gatherings and celebratory Torah study sessions. Other Orthodox decisors, like rabbis Yosef and Nissim, took a more encouraging approach to public celebrations and festive meals, even if not done within the synagogue ritual. Rabbi Yehiel Y. Weinberg (d. 1966) contended that in an age that emphasizes female self-expression and achievement, public celebrations were precisely necessary to imbibe loyalty toward mitzvot and traditional values. He further dismissed attempts to forbid these celebrations as unsuitable appropriation of outside culture, contending that events that inspire piety should not be banned on these grounds (Seridei Esh 2:39). Many of these banquets include sermons or siyum ceremonies that complete a program of Torah study, and when done with good taste and modesty, instill that religious maturation requires knowledge, commitment - and reverential joyfulness. The author, on-line editor of Tradition, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a graduate degree in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.