Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bat Mitzvah at 12 or 13? A Jewish Feminist Question

This January, my oldest daughter will turn 11. Do you know what this means? It does not mean, perhaps to her dismay, that she soon will be whisked away to wizarding school. It means that we are woefully late picking a date for Bella's bat mitzvah.

But picking that date is proving to be a struggle. Should it be when she's 12 or 13?

In 1988, I had my bat mitzvah at age 13, on a Friday evening in my family's non-egalitarian Conservative synagogue. I was allowed to lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service, but not Ma'ariv. I read from Shir HaShirim, a beautiful idea that my father had to allow me to learn trop and chant from the Tanach, since I was not allowed to read the Torah or Haftorah. My bat mitzvah was beautiful, but it was not equal in scale or importance to my brothers' coming-of-age celebrations; on their bar mitzvahs, they each led the tefilot, and read the complete Torah portion and Haftorah before the entire congregation on Shabbat morning.

As I wrote recently in a piece for the New Israel Fund, I grew up with mixed messages; I was encouraged to count and succeed equally to boys in every way, except in the Jewish ritual realm.

As with so much related to boy-rearing compared to girl-rearing, bar mitzvahs are comparatively simple. Sometime after the boy's 13th Hebrew birthday he has an aliyah to the Torah (says the blessings before the torah reading), maybe says a few words about the Torah portion and/or his tzedakah project, and bam, done. In fact, even if he never has an official bar mitzvah ceremony, as soon as he reaches his 13th birthday, he is automatically "bar mitzvah'ed". Being bar mitzvah means that the boy has reached the age of majority, and is therefore obligated to follow the commandments incumbent upon Jewish men.

Perhaps because it's a quite recent addition to Jewish ritual, the bat mitzvah ceremony is less straightforward. For generations, women were all but barred from participating in public religious life. There were no bat mitzvahs, and girls' coming-of-age was not celebrated publicly. The modern bat mitzvah, in which girls are called to the Torah and lead the services just like boys do, is a new(ish) event born of a feminist drive to include women in Jewish communal ritual. It would seem natural to hold it at 13, the traditional age of majority.

image copyright Bitsela, used courtesy of

But some say a bat mitzvah should be at age 12 because the Talmud (Jewish law texts written between the 2nd and 5th centuries) says that is when girls are considered mature--and therefore obligated to fast on Yom Kippur. Presumably, the earlier age of maturity--and obligation to mitzvot--for girls is related to when most began menstruating (and might also be marriageable). But the obligations incumbent on women in the Talmud are very different from those incumbent on men. Women are not, for instance, bound to any time-sensitive mitzvot, such as prayer, which is also why historically (and still today in the Orthodox world) women could not count in a minyan or lead a prayer service.

I am far from a Talmud scholar, but it seems to me that the Talmudic source has little to do with the modern concept of bat mitzvah, in which girls are welcomed into the full range of mitzvot traditionally incumbent on men, including daily prayer. And yet, there's a phenomenon that has taken hold in Conservative Jewish communities of late, at least in my area, to celebrate b'not mitzvah at age 12. Many of these impressive girls take on the full commitment of Jewish ritual life-- including donning tallit and tefillin daily--starting a year earlier than boys do.

 I do not dispute that girls often mature faster than their male counterparts--they may indeed be "ready" for the milestone, have the knowledge, poise, etc.--but to me that is beside the point. Is this practice egalitarian? Why, after working so hard to gain ritual and spiritual equality, would we (egalitarian/ feminist Jews) want to separate the genders by age in the onset of their commitment to the mitzvot? And why should girls be obligated to cut their childhoods short by a year?

I am genuinely interested in your responses, and welcome your comments, as well as suggestions for further reading.

1 comment:

  1. Depends what you are counting.
    In the Rabbinic world there is a huge range.
    The date of 12 for girls and 13 for boys is based on a Mishnah which suggest that children should only be considered as adult for the purposes of being bound by the vows they make at 13 for boys and 12 for girls (that's an oversimplification of the Mishnah, but go with me.)
    The test for whether a community should respond 'Amen' to a person making a blessing over the Haftorah is 13. I would say that should go for a man or woman equally.


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