Thinking About the Adult Bat Mitzvah Phenomenon
Found In: Adult Bar / Bat Mitzvah
Reconstructionism Today (RT):
The Reconstructionist movement has had b'not mitzvah since its early days, certainly since becoming an "official" movement in the late '60's. Do you think this has affected the presence and status of women within Reconstructionism, compared to other denominations?
Lori Lefkovitz (LL):
The bat mitzvah – honoring a girl's entry into the adult Jewish community through ritual and celebration on a par with what existed for boys – was a necessary innovation. Mordecai Kaplan well understood that Judaism had to develop in a way parallel to the best developments in Western civilization. This insight often makes Reconstructionism first to discover how to adapt Jewish traditions to the needs of the moment – but precisely because we are meeting a need, the Reconstructionist origin recedes into history.
Bat mitzvah is especially important because it is at puberty that girls – so full of vitality and a sense of self-worth – often begin to feel diminished potential. As boys glory in the signs of their maturation, girls are told to shave their new hair, diet away their emerging hips, and soften their voices. Bat mitzvah tells girls: We care to hear you; we care to see you display your learning; we celebrate your involvement in the community as a full person and not simply as an ornament. We are proud of you. Bat mitzvah is an antidote to the compromised self-esteem of teen-aged girls documented in books such as Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia.
Finding women's place in Judaism has not been easy in any of the denominations. The struggle is very much ongoing. But the recognition of girls and women as full partners has always been a part of Reconstructionism. We have always ordained women, gay men and lesbians. We have always attempted to be egalitarian and inclusive. Because our rabbis and congregants self-select into the movement, I think that powerful women and people who welcome empowered women have found a home in Reconstructionism. The fact that RRC has Kolot also reflects our movement's typical "first-ness." We have made a commitment to training rabbinical students in Women's and Gender Studies, and the other denominations now recognize this need.
In a similar way, reclaiming Rosh Hodesh as a women's festival was once upon a time a Jewish expression of women's "consciousness-raising." Rosh Hodesh groups have endured beyond these origins because they continue to meet important needs for Jewish women: for ritual, prayer, and community. Kolot is now establishing Rosh Hodesh groups for teenaged girls, and it is my hope that the day will come when these groups are on a par with the bat mitzvah ceremony. Every Jewishly involved girl will have her Rosh Hodesh group. The Reconstructionist origins may disappear because the intuition of meeting a need with a time-honored concept and practice is a true intuition that will resonate across the denominations of liberal Judaism. Then, as we all know, it will seem to have been ordained on Har Sinai.
When did you first become aware of the adult bat mitzvah trend? What do you know about its origins?
Before I had a professional connection to Jewish Women's Studies, I became aware of the trend simply by seeing more of these ceremonies in synagogues I attended. Now I find many women calling Kolot for preparatory help. They want to know where to find women's Torah commentaries; they want to know something of Jewish women's history, or about women-friendly liturgical innovations, poetry, and other manifestations of Jewish women's voices.
The origin of the adult bat mitzvah probably runs parallel to the happy growth of adult Jewish education. When Jewish institutions began to see the importance of continuing education as a part of the drive for continuity, many women realized that they had gained full rights to lead prayer and read from the Torah but lacked the necessary skills. Courses in synagogue skills were made available, and then women wanted to demonstrate and celebrate what they could now do.
Jewish women have had to work hard to recover our history, adapt our liturgy and our practices. This has included finding a place on the bima, whether as rabbi, sermonizer, or officer of the congregation.