This week is my oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah.
As my husband is the rabbi of our shul, most of our congregation will be attending. Many of our congregants have attended bat mitzvahs in the greater community where girls lein or lead services but know that the daughter of the Orthodox rabbi will probably have a more traditional service. And so many have asked: what exactly will my daughter be doing to commemorate her bat mitzvah.
And the honest answer is: not much.
We are quite frankly a little amazed that so many people will be coming and while we feel blessed and excited that so many of our family and friends will be joining us from out of town, a small part of us wonders why. After all, in reality, they are going to the expense to join us for a ten minute speech, a short presentation and a large Kiddush.
Despite the fact that Bar/Bat Mitzvah is celebrated across the affiliations as a major life cycle event, I wonder if the Torah views it as such a big deal? Yes, boys and girls do become obligated in Mitzvot at this stage, but this certainly does not require anyone to read from the Torah or lead services as has become the expected custom. In fact, other than the bracha of “Baruch she’patrani” said by the father at the bar mitzvah and the giving of an Aliyah to the bar mitzvah boy, there is little ceremony prescribed by Jewish law.
So if I don’t believe that bar/bat mitzvah is such a big deal, why are we doing anything at all?
And my answer is this: my husband and I do not look at my daughter’s bat mitzvah as a major life cycle event per se but as a milestone celebrating who my daughter has become with regards to her mitzvah observance and Jewish identity. For years, my daughter has been preparing, a little bit at a time, for the moment when she would officially become obligated in mitzvot. She started to dress modestly at a young age so it wouldn’t be a shocking transition. At a slightly older age, she started davening on days when she did not have school. She’s been learning with my husband since she was six, not in preparation for her Bat mitzvah itself, but because we wanted to teach her at a young age that learning is part of the Jewish experience.
But more than all that we’ve taught her to do, at her bat mitzvah, we celebrate the choices she’s made on her own. Her decision to fast the past two fast days in preparation for being a Bat Mitzvah. Her desire to spend her time reading different books quoting Midrashim so she can be more knowledgeable. Her reminding my husband they have to learn when he’s busy. Her choice to forego her solo in the school play even though she really wanted it because she wanted to observe the mitzvah of Kol Isha (the prohibition for a woman to sing alone in front of men). Her love of visiting sick congregants with my husband, her commitment to honesty, her close relationships with her grandparents. Her choice to go to Israel to celebrate her bat mitzvah rather than have a party.
So indeed, when I look at who my daughter has become in her twelve years on earth, her Bat Mitzvah is truly something to celebrate.
But as much as this event is about looking back and celebrating all that she has become and accomplished, it is also about looking ahead. Twelve is very much an age where we are at a crossroads, with my daughter moving towards teenage hood; a time when she will be looking to forge her own identity.
And as I begin to think about a time when I will need to grant this independence to my daughter knowing she will be making her own choices, I wonder, what advice do I give her? What words of wisdom can I offer her as she finds her own place as a Jewish woman in today’s society?
In many ways, it’s never been harder for observant Jewish girls to find their place. The loud angry voices of the modern and progressive world demand that a Jewish woman be granted equal opportunities in every way as men, with some in the Orthodox world even demanding changes in halacha (Jewish law). This has never been our way. I strongly believe that Judaism itself views men and women as equals but that men and women are different and one can see an appreciation for those differences through the different mitzvot that halacha assigns to each gender.
At the same time, there is no question in my mind that in some frum societies, there are gender roles assigned by the community itself and glass ceilings imposed that are not prescribed by halacha. I don’t want my daughter’s keen intelligence or intellectual curiosity to ever be stifled, for her to be told she is too opinionated or too public, that it is not becoming for a woman to be too strong or passionate as it is not modest, as I have sometimes been told.
The Torah has many different female characters and nearly all, are strong women who make a difference. Not just the “out there” women like Devorah and Bruria but our very matriarchs. Sarah who tells Avraham to send Yishmael away and when Avraham is reluctant, Hashem says, “Shma b’Kolah” (Listen to her voice). Rivka who orchestrates the switch of the bechora (firstborn blessing) to the son who she deems more worthy, without the knowledge of her husband. Rachel, who hides the trafim (idols) from her father for his spiritual benefit, and who according to the Midrash, teaches the signs to her sister behind the back of her beloved, because she believes it’s the right thing to do. Tamar, who tricks Yehuda, ensuring that Yibum (Levirate marriage) will take place and from this act, the Davidic dynasty is born. The daughters of Tzlafchad, who approach Moshe about having a portion in the land of Israel, not for feminist reasons but because of their love for the land of Israel. These women are not operating under any agenda, but l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven.
And perhaps the strongest women of all, the righteous women in Egypt for whom the Midrash teaches us that in their merit, the Jewish people left Egypt. The midwives who feared G-d and through unbelievable bravery refused to listen to Paroah and strangle the baby boys as they were commanded to do. Miriam, who according to the Midrash approached her parents when they wanted to separate in fear of having a baby thrown into the Nile and told them that if they separated they were worse than Paroah because Paroah wanted to kill the baby boys, whereas by separating, her parents would be ensuring an end to Jewish continuity. Yocheved, who hid Moshe in her home for three months. Miriam, again, who stood by her baby brother by the reeds of the Nile watching over him at great risk to herself. Bat-Paroah who reached out to save Moshe from the Nile. Tzipora, whose quick thinking and coolness under pressure, saved her husband as she gave her son a Brit Milah. Whereas we only meet Avraham when he is 75, we meet Moshe’s family even before his birth, as if the Torah is going out of its way to tell us about all of the women who played such a powerful role in his life. It is the merit of the righteous Jewish women. Not just because they were modest, but because they were strong and brave.
The Torah is clear that Jewish women have much to give to the world. It is clear looking around in life, as well. My experience in Jewish outreach has taught me that if a man is interested in Jewish growth, he can change himself but a strong and committed Jewish woman can bring Judaism to her entire home.
And so as my daughter embarks on being a bat mitzvah, my message to her is to take her intelligence, passion and the talents that Hashem gave her and to do something wonderful with them. And as long as she is acting within the constructs of Halacha and l’shem shamayim and with no other agenda, she shouldn’t let anyone ever hold her back.
For her bat mitzvah, my daughter will be giving a speech in front of the congregation about nisayon (tests in life) and emunah (faith), a theme she feels runs throughout the parsha. She will be using her love of art to depict pictures of characters she has learned about in the Navi (Prophets) as centerpieces. She will be presenting the Torah in a way that is meaningful to her and in a way that is personal for her unique talents and interests.
Is bat mitzvah a true Jewish life cycle event? I don’t know. But if this event is about focusing on all that my daughter has accomplished thus far, and empowering her about all that she can do in the future, then yes, it is truly an event to celebrate.