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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17 comments to Why is my daughter having a bas mitzva?

  • Good post with good questions.

  • 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.

  • Dov Wachmann

    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…

  • Isaac

    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.

  • David Brand

    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. Each light represented a different lovely idea and there was a little speech before each light was lit. Frankly, the whole experience creeped me out.

    OTOH, my Rov, Rabbi Zev Cohen, spoke quite well about the purpose of any bar/bas mitzva. He said that we are NOT celebrating the youngsters accomplishments. Too many people make that mistake. In fact, we celebrate the POTENTIAL for accomplishment. As a young bar/bas mitzvah, the child can now perform mitzvos and get the S’char for them. This is certainly something to be celebrated. In that context, I think that you could feel better about having a bas mitzva for your daughter.

    Mazel Tov!!

  • Hanan

    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. I get two replys. 1) We don’t know. 2) Its started from the Muslim Persians. The Muslims in that country to this day have a day that they celebrate with a large parade and drums, and the males stand and flog themselves on the back. If this is the origins of that tradition, than how did THAT creep into Judaism? American Orthodoxy was bound to pick something up sooner or later from Reform. On the other hand, I’m sure Orthodoxy has had some sort of influence on Reform as well.

    Maybe the problem is that now-a-days we are more interested in the external parts of Judaism rather than the internal. We are always try to show people how Jewish we are with external things. We judge people on the kind of Shetles they wear or what kind of Kippot they have. The same goes with a Bat-Mitzvah. Parents throw huge parties to show others of their Jewishness, but seldom perhaps do they work on the internal aspects of Judaism…….. I hope this made sence :)

  • Michael Feldstein

    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 meaningful to mark the occasion–and I think we were able to accomplish it, without making it seem that we were doing it to imitate the party we made when our son reached the age of bar mitzvah.
    so

  • Elozor Preil

    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 at the celebration, in those brief 5 months, 2 people who were very important to our family (one relative and one friend) passed away and could not be at the second simcha. This merely highlighted the importance of taking advantage of getting together with family and friends to celebrate s’machot while we have the opportunity. (Why should we only get together for funerals and shiva visits?) I view the bas-mitzvah gatherings as celebrations of life, and as a commitment to the continuity of our mesorah to the next generation.

    For what it’s worth, my industrious and talented wife also organizes a chesed project for all of the girl’s friends to participate in together, and share the results with those in need – whether children in a local hospital, or children of victims of terror in Israel. The feedback from the girls has been terrific.

    Kol tuv,
    Elozor

  • Reb Yudel

    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.

  • Jonathan Baker

    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 to express krum ideology in some magazine columns about 1918-1919. I don’t think the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College started until the 1960s; the journal had started in 1947, IIRC.

    See Jeffrey Gurock and R’ JJ Schachter’s biography of Kaplan, “A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community”, for the long history of ambivalent relations between Kaplan and organized Orthodoxy.

  • 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 tells us “chachma bagoyim ta’amin,” a more important rule is that we must never desist from publicizing our snobbery, because we don’t have enough enemies out there.

    – Moishe Potemkin

  • Shira Leibowitz Schmidt

    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.

  • Danny Schoemann

    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

  • espaklarya

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

  • Jonathan Baker

    Correction to my earlier post:

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

  • Aryeh

    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