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 10 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… Read more »

Jonathan Baker
10 years 10 months ago

Correction to my earlier post:

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

10 years 10 months ago

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

Danny Schoemann
10 years 10 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 10 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… Read more »

10 years 10 months ago

I just wanted to express my disappointment with this post. We’ve just finished an exchange wherein Rabbi Menken et al attempt to convince us that the Orthodox dispute with Reform Jews is not personal, and lo, we get this declaration that Reform Jews are in fact so utterly despicable that we must deride as contaminated every single idea of theirs. The bar/bat mitzva celebration celebrates the fact that someone has entered the category of metzuveh ve’oseh, or metzuvah ve’osah, which seems largely unconnected to the nature of their reproductive organs. But by golly, even if our literature… Read more »

Jonathan Baker
10 years 10 months ago

Gilad Gevaryahu mentions a 1902 Eastern European precedent for Bat Mitzvah in Mail-Jewish v17 n76. Mechy Frankel notes the approval of Bar-Mitzvah among Sefardic poskim in Mail-Jewish v17 n74, as well as R’ Moshe Feinstein’s disapproval as part of his general disapproval of gaudy Bar-Mitzvah parties.

As for Kaplan, I don’t remember if he was still at the Jewish Center in 1922 or if my great-great-uncle had kicked him out by the time of the bat-mitzvah, but he was far from organizing Reconstructionism as a separate movement. “Judaism as a Civilization” came out in 1935; he was just starting… Read more »

10 years 10 months ago

I sympathize with your ambivalence. I described my own solution at http://benchorin.blogspot.com/2004/08/very-notion-of-new-minhagim-is.html

Reb Yudel
10 years 10 months ago

When R’ Kaplan invented the Bat Mitzvah ceremony for his daughter, he was still a dozen years away from fouding the Reconstructionist journal, let alone a movement.

It hadn’t been that many years since he founded his first organization, dedicated in large measure to fighting Orthodox resistance to the Reform custom of English-language sermons. The group is called the National Council of Young Israel.

A more interesting question is what would Kaplan say about the issur of ktav isha, which I helped document for Yeshiva University’s Hamevaser journal back in ’85.

Elozor Preil
10 years 10 months ago

I identify with Toby as we, too, prepare for our final bas-mitzvah. In truth, I was much more ambivalent when we started down this road ten years ago. At that time, we felt we “had” to do this for our (competitive) daughter just 5 months after celebrating the bar-mitzvah of her older brother. However, we were careful to do it differently – scaled down, for one thing. In addition, my wife and daughter spent a significant amount of time learning together so that it would not be just a party. Furthermore – as I noted… Read more »

Michael Feldstein
10 years 10 months ago

In preparation for our daughter’s bas mitzvah, we encouraged her to learn about the laws of bikkur cholim and actually pay visits to members of the community who were hospitalized. At the celebration, she spoke about the halachos of bikkur cholim that she learned (by the way, this is a subject area that is not often learned by members of either sex, and I even picked up some things I did not know from my daughter’s speech). We had a relatively modest party for our close friends and family. We felt it was important to do something… Read more »

10 years 10 months ago

Great Topic

I think your right on the nose where you say that Reform constintely strives for “sameness”. You ask how this crept into Orthodoxy. I believe many things have crept into Judaism over the centuries. Its only natural for a culture to be somewhat influenced by another. A Bat-Mitzvah is just another small drop that we can add. My wife is Persian. On Passover, Persians have a tradition of clubbing one another with large green onions. Persians are the only ones that do this as far as I know (both orthodox and secular), and I have asked how this began.… Read more »

David Brand
10 years 10 months ago

Very interesting post. I say that as I prepare, in less than a year, to make my very first bar mitzva (sheesh, I’m getting old!). First thing that stuck me is that I went to a bas mitzva a couple of years ago for a friend who is quite modern. Modern Orthodox, that is. I was struck when they stopped the seuda for a candle-lighting ceremony. Now, the Makor for this particular thing was certainly not based on any orthodox idea that I know of. Yet, the Rov just kind of sat there, smiling. … Read more »

10 years 10 months ago

I once read a paper by Gilad Gevaryahu about a tradition of Bat Mitzvah celebrations in S’faradi communities, but my googling seems to indicate that it never made it online. If you’re really interested in the history of the practice, you might want to email him for it.

But anyway, the popularization of the Bat Mitzvah in /American/ circles definitely came by way of the R streams.

Dov Wachmann
10 years 10 months ago

I don’t know if this helps any but in Lakewood NJ the fancy bas mitzva or for that matter any bas mitzva is far from the norm…

10 years 10 months ago

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.

10 years 10 months ago

Good post with good questions.