Correspondence about my daughter’s bas mitzva

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I wrote the other day about my daughter’s upcoming bas mitzva. (Jan. 4, if you want to look for it.) I want to thank all the people who wrote to say mazal tov, and also those who had kind words for my maiden effort at this blog-spot.

I would also like to clarify one point about the bas mitzva party I’m planning for my daughter tomorrow night, G-d-willing: when I call it a “fancy” party, that’s only in comparison to what we used to do for a bas mitzva, which was nothing. I am basically making a birthday party, with all 40 girls in her class and a few more from the neighborhood. No printed invitations, live music or catered meal!


Now I would like to respond in some detail to one particular letter that was posted in response to mine–the only negative feedback I received.

Here’s what Moishe Potemkin had to say:

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.

I think I walked into the middle of someone else’s conversation and inadvertently triggered some past sensitivities I didn’t know about. Nothing I said about Reform was “personal.” I did not say that Reform is “despicable” or “contaminated.” So I am not actually too sure how to respond to the obvious distress I have caused–distress with no obvious [to me] trigger.

I did say it’s unfortunate that the Reform movement has influenced Orthodoxy. I said it in the context of the new-fangled custom of having bas mitzva parties for girls, a custom that has no Orthodox antecedents predating the 20th century, AFAIK. I was explicit about my areas of disagreement with Reform; I mentioned that Reform has adopted the masculine paradigm as the only paradigm for both boys and girls.

As one example, I mentioned their celebrating girls’ bas mitzvas at age 13, ignoring nature and reality. The fact that girls reach puberty (and emotional maturity, too) earlier than boys is not considered nearly as important as their desire to homogenize the sexes.

MP further wrote:

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.

Again, I am at a loss as to how to respond to this. He has said both too much and too little. On the one hand, the category of “metzuvah” — being obligated in mitzva observance — IS related to gender. According to the halacha, girls are obligated at age 12, boys at age 13. So the halacha does make a distinction between the sexes — in fact, there are MANY areas of halacha in which distinctions are made between the sexes.

On the other hand, to say or imply that all these distinctions are connected solely to “the nature of their reproductive organs” is a kind of reductionist throwback to the glory days of Friedan-Steinem-Greer feminism. They thought that all the differences between men and women (aside from the physical equipment) were social constructs, that gender identity was infinitely malleable. We know better now. An ocean of scientific research since then confirms what the Torah always knew: men and women are different. The differences go way beyond mere physical differences. They are different in mind, spirit, and heart.

SHOULD the halacha recognize that men and women are different? Or should it be gender neutral? Well, if you believe it was all made up by people, you could poll the laity right now to answer that question. But if you believe that the Torah was given to us by G-d, then you have to believe that the Manufacturer also wrote the Use and Care Manual.

The extreme feminists — the ones who thought you could obliterate gender differences by force of will — caused a whole generation of women untold harm. They could have saved themselves so much grief by just reading the manual first.

MP concluded his letter:

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.

“Chachma bagoyim ta’amin.” That is part of a passage in the Talmud: “If someone tells you there is wisdom among the nations [or: gentiles], you can believe it.” (The rest of the passage–which he does not quote–continues, “If someone tells you there is Torah among the nations, do not believe it.”) It’s odd that he would say, “Wisdom among the gentiles–believe it” when talking about the Reform movement. The Orthodox should learn wisdom from the Reform, because….? Surely he does not consider Reform Jews to be gentiles?!

Or does he think that the Reform movement has learned some wisdom from the gentiles that it would behoove us Orthodox Jews to learn as well? If so, I wonder what that wisdom is? Have the gentiles passed some wise legislation I didn’t know about, requiring boys and girls to reach puberty at the same age?

As for the end of his letter, I don’t know how to parse it at all. It seems to be something like, “Since the Jews have many enemies, we should not have any differences among ourselves.” If that is indeed what he is saying, then of course all possibility of debate and dialogue is foreclosed until the cessation of external hostilities — until Moshiach comes, in other words.

But if that IS what he really believes, then the burden is upon those Jews who want to change or innovate to cease and desist, so as to maintain a facade of Jewish unity. Surely the burden cannot be upon the Orthodox to maintain unity by acquiescing silently to every change enacted by the Reform movement. The ones who changed the status quo are the ones who cracked the facade of unity, not the ones who kept on doing faithfully what we had always done!

This is the first time I have ever heard faithfulness to our tradition derided as “snobbery.”

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4 Responses

  1. Shawn says:

    These are interesting and sensitive comments. I want to pick up on one statement, though, and see if the moderators are willing to open it up to wider discussion:

    The ones who changed the status quo are the ones who cracked the facade of unity, not the ones who kept on doing faithfully what we had always done!

    Although there is no question that Reform and other movements within Judaism have made changes to the status quo, there also is no question that Orthodoxy has changed. The very idea of “Orthodoxy” as a group category did not exist before the late 19th century, and we must not forget that it competed with a “Status Quo Ante” party that rejected both the innovations of the Reform and the reactions of the Orthodox. Although they did not survive, they really were the only ones who could claim with some accuracy that they “kept on doing faithfully what [they] had always done.” In the mid- to late 20th century, U.S. Orthodoxy moved to the right, as documented by Orthodox sociologist Samuel Heilman, among others. (He attributes this in part to the hiring, by Modern Orthodox day schools, of Haredi teachers — because the Modern Orthodox had so successfully convinced their children to become doctors, lawyers, etc.) Theologically, Marc Shapiro has documented how despite the fact that adherence to Maimonides’s 13 Principles is considered the sine qua non of Orthodoxy, in fact very few of the Rishonim & Acharonim in fact held by them — and no one calls them unOrthodox. Consider as well the important differences between the Hertz Chumash and the (Artscroll) Stone Chumash; both are “Orthodox.”

    So let’s not indulge in the myth of an authentic, essential, immutable “Orthodoxy” that was always exactly as it is and continues to battle (by implication) against an inauthentic, incoherent, fluid “Reform.”

  2. Joel Shurkin says:

    Both Reform and Conservative streams allow bas (or bat) mitzvah at 12 for girls as well as 13. Parents actually have a choice. My daugher’s will be just before she is 13.

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