Why is my daughter having a bas mitzva?


My baby’s bas mitzva is coming up in a few days. She’s going to have a really nice party with all her friends, G-d willing. All these pretty little 12-year-old girls will be coming in their Shabbos dresses, and my little girl is going to be a princess. I’m proud of her, and I love her to distraction, but–here comes the ambivalence. A great big bucket of it.

Ambivalence minor: I really, really liked having a little baby to snuggle up to, and I mourn the loss of those sweet baby days. I waited a long time before G-d saw fit to send me my three long-awaited babies–and Baruch Hashem for them, every day–but in a minute they grew up. Now they are 16, 14 and 12. If you’ve ever been at the receiving end of Teenager-Mouth, you won’t be surprised to hear this confession: I want my sweet babies back.

Ambivalence major: I know something that most chareidim don’t seem to know or have chosen to forget. The whole idea of a bas mitzva party is a Reform invention. Or maybe Reconstructionist. I think the first bas mitzva in America was that of Mordechai Kaplan’s daughter. (He was the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, in the 1920’s.)

None of my friends had bas mitzvas, and it never occurred to us to want them. On my Hebrew birthday, when I turned 12, my mother served a very nice cake for dessert and my parents wished me mazal tov. I was very happy, and had neither the desire nor the expectation of anything more. The only reason my daughters want more is that their friends all have nice parties. It has nothing to do with wanting what their brothers have; girls want what their friends have.

But–why DO all the girls have fancy bas mitzvas nowadays?

It’s because the Reform movement has had a subtle, insidious influence on us.

One of my friends told me the other day that she has to make as nice a party for her daughter as she made for her son’s bar mitzva “so that she will know we value daughters as much as we value sons.”

I didn’t argue with her, but I know my parents valued me as much as they valued my brothers. My father z’l doted on me, there was no mistaking it. Where did the idea come from that esteem and value are conveyed only by public pomp and ceremony?

Now we’re coming a little closer to what bothers me about the whole idea of a bas mitzva, and why it’s a source of dismay to me that the Reform movement has influenced Orthodoxy.

The Reform idea–and that of the feminist movement, with which Reform is closely intertwined–is that equality = sameness. The only way to prove that boys and girls are valued equally is to treat them the same. But it’s worse than that: the only way to prove that boys and girls are valued equally is to treat girls like boys! The paradigm of the “right thing to do” is–whatever boys have always done.

If boys had a public role and public acknowledgement of their coming-of-age, then girls have to have a public role and public acknowledgment too.

But historically, that was not the Jewish way. We have valued privacy and modesty, in the past. The feminine paradigm is not worse than the masculine paradigm. What is best for boys is not necessarily best for girls.

The Reform, and nowadays also the Conservative, Movements take this leveling out of differences to an extreme. They have bat mitzvas at age 13, seeming to think that they can hold off puberty by political will. They will not acknowledge truth, nature or reality at all, not when it conflicts with their ideology of: boys are best, so girls must be boys.

But how did this creep into our Orthodox world?

I’ve been thinking about this for many years, and will be thinking aloud in the future, now that I have this blog-space. About which I feel profoundly ambivalent: since when do women blog in public?!

Yeah, yeah, that’s a joke.

The dilemma of equality, however, is serious. But I do love my bas mitzva girl, and will not be inflicting my ambivalence on her just yet. Let her enjoy her party.

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10 years 8 months ago

Greg wrote: “The custom of a gaudy Bar Mitzvah for boys is just as historically anachronistic as the Bat Mitzvah, and might be more attributed to the over abundace of wealth and vanity in our society.”

WADR, I think this is incorrect. R’ Shimon Bar Yochai made a very big party to celebrate his son becoming a bar mitzvah. His talmidim asked him why he did so. RSBY responded that, in addition to becoming a bar chiyuva, when a boy turns 13, he is infused with a “new, holy and pure” neshama, and this is cause for a major celebration.

I think Greg may have been thinking of the bar mitzvahs of the last few generations in Europe, where the Jews were of limited means and bar mitzvahs were much smaller affairs (as were weddings.) The fact that bar mitzvahs nowadays are fancier affairs may just signal a return to the way that bar mitzvahs were originally celebrated during the time of the tannaim/amoraim/

Just my $.02

Jonathan Baker
10 years 8 months ago

Correction to my earlier post:

“Mechy Frankel notes the approval of BAT-MITZVAH among Sephardic poskim” (not Bar-Mitzva).

10 years 8 months ago

The challah craze is more a sign of people taking back segulot than people taking back mitzvot.

Danny Schoemann
10 years 8 months ago

An idea my brother presented at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah is, that since our kids are bombarded from all sides with glamorous enticements, we need to glamorize Yiddishkiet at every opportunity, as a counter-measure.

Mazal Tov :-)

– Danny

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt
10 years 8 months ago

From Shira Leibowitz Schmidt – two short pieces of information on Bat Mitzva
1) There is an excellent analysis of how the issue of bat mitzva, a Reform innovation, was dealt with by one of the outstanding Orthodox rabbis of this century. See Judith Bleich’s essay on Rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg and his answer about bat mitva in his responsa Seredei Esh. Her essay “Between East and West” is in “Engaging Modernity:Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twentieth Century” (ed. M.Sokol)
2) In the world of haredi women today it is becoming more common for girls to learn about making challah and to have a party for their friends where they learn the laws involved and actually to hafrashat challah. In fact, Dr. Tamar Elor, a secular anthropologist, will be speaking about this phenomenon today (24 bTevet) at a Hebrew University conference on Halakha. I think such developments are very positive. Instead of being men-wannabes, the girls and women are taking back their own special mitzvot.