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Bat Mitzvah

Controversial Observations, Uncategorized September 17, 2013

Leaning in to Bat Mitzvah

Q. Ruchi, my daughter is becoming Bat Mitzvah, and while we love what you and your husband do, and the joy with which you approach Judaism, it is really important to us that our daughter read from the Torah for her bat mitzvah, and that her mom and female relatives be on the bimah as well. Can you help me understand why the Orthodox don’t do those things?

A. In super-Jewish tradition, I’m going to answer your question with some other questions.

1. For years, both the Reform movement, and, to a lesser extent, the Conservative movement, did not give girls and women the same status as boys and men on the bimah. Even today, some Conservative synagogues,while officially recognizing female clergy, simply do not hire female rabbis or cantors. Why?

2. Women in general are grossly underrepresented in this country in business and politics (yes, I’m reading Lean In, and loving it, by the way). Is there any particular reason for this? Or is just a hugely, embarrassingly widespread cultural black eye?

(Interesting side note: Sheryl Sandberg, who is Jewish, creates a fuzzy link in the beginning of her book between underrepresentation in Judaism for girls, as expressed by the religious perceptions of her old-school grandparents, and her desire to make things right for women – although Judaism has not yet appeared since as a factor in her life. But I’m only halfway through the book.)

3. There are some Orthodox synagogues, that, as matter of policy, do not allow ANY bar mitzvah boys to read from the Torah. Only experienced Torah readers are permitted to do this. In fact, entire Chassidic sects do not follow the practice, focusing the bar mitzvah prep instead on the laws the boy will be obligated in (mostly laying tefillin which will be a new practice for the young boy). Why?

I have no idea what the answers are to questions #1 and 2. I will leave that to those more knowledgeable than me in these areas. But the questions do deflate the original question somewhat, which seems to me to carry this implied message:

Everyone is egalitarian but the Orthodox Jew. Get with the program! Evolve!

Or maybe I’m oversensitive.

But that’s just a side point, really, because the real question remains. Why, oh why, can’t we just give a little and allow the sweet, Jewishly motivated bat mitzvah girl on the bimah so she can feel just as important and special as her male counterpart? Couldn’t we just bend the rules a wee bit?

Let me state this loud and clear: how tempting it would be for us, in terms of recruitment and customer satisfaction, to do just that. Not being able to “provide” the bat mitzvah most people want is the biggest thorn in our side. In fact, there would have to be a really, really good reason, one that is not changing, to get us to keep saying “no” – which, to all business views, has got to be the worst PR decision ever.

Let’s start with question #3 – why would a synagogue not allow boys to read from the Torah?


The reason is that halachah – the following of Jewish law, as codified in a variety of classic texts – is the benchmark of Orthodox living.  You may have come across this noun in a variety of Hebrew/English conjugations: halachic, halachically, etc. This is the most important thing to understand about Orthodox Jews and Orthodox shuls – they follow halachah.

They follow it with regards to mechitza. They follow it with regards to minyan – 10 adult Jewish males. They follow it with regards to what you read from the Torah when if it is Rosh Chodesh, a fast day, or someone has yahrtzeit. To how to cover the Torah and when. To who says the mi-sheberach and why. To who has priority with an aliyah on which day.

And they follow it out of the synagogue too. It governs what you eat, how you give charity, what you wear, how you disagree with a parent, how to light a yahrtzeit candle, how to shake a lulav, when to cut someone out of your life, whom to hire when two people want the job.

Halachah states that hearing the Torah reading each Saturday morning (oh, and Monday and Thursday mornings too) is an obligation for adult Jewish males. That means if they miss it, they better have a good reason, because God is going to ask them one fine day when they get upstairs. Obligation first, privilege and honor second.

The fact is that if there is a cute 13-year-old reading Torah, he will very likely make mistakes. It may become questionable if the the reading was kosher. All the people in the room may have reneged on their obligation. Yes, we take this stuff seriously, because we believe it really matters whether our obligation was discharged. That’s why we’re there, and that’s how we roll.

There is a rule in halachah that if someone is not obligated in a particular mitzvah, he or she is unable to discharge others via their performance. Example: in halachah, we are obligated to say a blessing before we eat food. If two people are eating challah, for example, one can say the blessing hamotzie, and the other can say “amen” and the former has discharged the obligation of the latter. They can both eat and enjoy. Dip it in honey or hummus or whatever floats your boat. However, a child cannot say hamotzie for an adult, because the child (under bar or bat mitzvah) is not obligated.

In fact, at my daughter’s bat mitzvah, she said the motzie aloud for everyone, and everyone said “Amen” and dug in – this was to demonstrate that it was her first opportunity to discharge the obligation of others via her new status.

This is one technical halachic reason that girls do not read from the Torah in an Orthodox, halachic service. They are not technically obligated and thus cannot discharge the obligation for others. There are some more interesting thoughts here, especially in the comment section.

But there are two more things I want to say on the subject.


I have a bar mitzvah coming up for my own son. He is not reading from the Torah for various reasons. Oh… how I wish I could celebrate his bar mitzvah the way I celebrated my daughters’ bat mitzvahs. Small party in our home for family and friends.

Nope, it’s not culturally accepted in my circles, so I’m not doing that (go ahead and call me a wimp) but honestly… I believe ALL bnei mitzvah have gotten too elaborate. And I’m not even talking about the party! I’m talking about hosting an entire weekend shebang, out of budget for so many, unheard of until recent history, for a child who is typically too young to get it.

Oh, I’ll enjoy it. It will be so wonderful to spend time with family and friends. But in the greater scheme of Jewish living, this is not the climax it’s given credit for.


It’s no secret that all streams of Judaism are asking the questions of how to keep their youth engaged. And bnei mitzvah specifically is studied in depth in heterodox movements in terms of retention, celebration, messages sent to the youth, and residual feelings of connection, and I applaud this. A recent New York times article included this one, almost breezy, dismissive line:

“Orthodox Jews, who have day schools and do not have equivalent retention problems, are not part of the initiative.”

Ok, whatever, New York Times. Orthodox Jews are not the only ones who have day schools, but you’ve done a good job with the fact, if not the reason. Why do Orthodox Jews not have equivalent retention problems?

Let’s use me as a case study. Not very scientific, I know. I grew up Orthodox. I was Bat Mitzvahed my way. My synagogue was not egal. Yet, I consider myself a joyful, knowledgeable and empowered Jew. I have access and drive and information and practice to learn and observe. If I don’t know something in Judaism, I know exactly how to find out.  In fact, many of my less knowledgeable friends, who turn to me for information and guidance, DID read from the Torah as girls.

I view the halachic structure in Judaism as an elaborate science. Many have tinkered with this piece or that to arrive at a final structure that is more in line with other values – even Jewish values. But if you tinker with science, things, sometimes unforeseen things, happen. Many view religion as an art and not as a science. That’s fine. There are many artful things about religion – in fact, often that’s what I love about it. But when there’s buy-in to the halachic process as a science, it is largely untinkerable.

Oh, we’ll work with bat mitzvah girls however we can within the rubric of halachah.  A havdalah service, for example, is a perfect solution, because halachically it does not require the presence of a minyan, whereas Torah reading does.  

I suppose you can look at my life and that of my Orthodox counterparts and cite other reasons for our strong identity and observance that have nothing to do with not reading from the Torah. But to me, it’s one and the same – the commitment to not change the basic halachic structure, even where, based on modern mores, it seems silly and even arcane. The long view of Jewish history bears out the New York Times’ observation, shared by many heterodox scholars, that Orthodox retention is in a league of its own, and I say halachah has everything to do with it.  And I don’t think it’s all about the Orthodox. I would add that to the degree that there is knowledgeable and joyous fidelity to halachah, no matter what, retention, identification, and affiliation are not far away.

In other words, us Orthodox gals are not who we are despite following halachah, but rather because of it. That not reading from the Torah as part of a bigger picture has made me more Jewish, not less.

And this is really why we will never change our minds about bat mitzvah, frustrating though it is. Even if it means, sadly, losing a few members along the way. Because to us, halachah is and always will be a package deal – for a very, very good reason.

Note: due to the sensitive nature of this post, I am considering allowing comments but not responding to them. Time will tell.

Uncategorized April 15, 2013

The Bnei Mitzvah Blues

Everyone’s talking about bnei mitzvah.  Rabbinical students want to ban themKids are taking to youtube for cooler and more expensive invitations than you’ve ever dreamed of.  Non-Jews want to inspire their kids by giving them some ceremony which seem to benefit no one but the party planners, photographers, and DJs.

And this might sound kind of funny coming from someone who helps people plan their kids’ rites of passage, but I think most Jews on this planet, or I should say, in North America, make far too big of a deal about this without even knowing what the ceremony is or isn’t supposed to celebrate.

On this thread, where a friend of mine gave some tips as far as what to give as gifts, I responded such:

You wrote: “a celebration of achievement. It is a spiritual rite of
passage that connects one generation to another.” I would demur. I
think it’s a celebration of arrival through an entryway. An entryway to
life as a responsible Jew. The “achievement” hasn’t actually happened
yet, and a child becomes bar or bat mitzvah when they have their
(Hebrew) birthday on the thirteenth (for girls twelfth) birthday of
their lives – this is an upgrade in spiritual status, that, according to
the Jewish sources, takes place whether they are reading from the
Torah, vacationing in St. Martin, asleep, or converted out. It happens
to you. How you celebrate it is entirely optional and has varied
greatly by community and history.

I recognize that this is radically different from how most Jews think about bnei mitzvah, but it’s what the sources say.

What do most American kids think?  That you have to go to Hebrew school for (fill in the blank) years, to learn Hebrew, so that you can read from the Torah, so that you can have a party like your friends and get lots of gifts.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.  My dear American Jewish children:

1. You don’t have to go to Hebrew school.
2. You don’t have to learn Hebrew.
3. You most certainly do not have to read from the Torah.
4. You do not deserve a party for that dubious accomplishment or any other for that matter.

So what do you have to do?

1. Learn about Judaism from whichever source will inspire you most to live it, love it, breathe it, and understand it.
2. Learn how to talk to God in your own words.
3. Acknowledge in some way that the day you turn 12 or 13 is special because you are now autonomously responsible to live Jewishly.
4. Thank your parents for giving you all of the above.

Shall I tell you why I feel so strongly about this?

1. Going to Hebrew school to learn Hebrew reading, a skill that many kids will never use again soon enough to matter, often makes them hate Judaism.
2. Kids are so entitled and spoiled as it is, that we don’t need to feed the frenzy by offering them a mini-wedding (which actually deifies them far more than a wedding) for “performing” in Hebrew.
3. And of course, the problem everyone, including me, is struggling with: how to keep kids engaged once the carrot is consumed off the stick (you can’t use your gifts?  won’t get your album?  unless you keep studying Judaism?).

What’s the solution?  Haha, if I could put that in a paragraph I’d be a wealthy woman.  Of course there are no easy solutions.  The way most North American congregations have evolved, they are often bnei mitzvah factories.  Where else are dues coming from?  But I am not here to solve the problem of congregational survival.  I am here to solve the problem of bored, spoiled, disconnected kids.  And parents, this is in YOUR HANDS.

Take back control.  Stop feeding the cycle.  Say “no” to crazy parties, to multiple thousands of dollars going, yes, down the drain, to ridiculous senses of entitlement among our kids who still think they deserve who-knows-what.  If you really want your child to be “affiliated” as a Jew, find good role models in Judaism for your kids, and make sure they hang out with your kids as often and as enjoyably as possible.  Don’t be afraid to talk about God as though He actually exists.  Bring Judaism into your home as a living, breathing religion.

Mostly, find ways to engage in Jewish study yourself and demonstrate to your kids that Jewish learning never stops.  “If you truly wish your children to study Torah, study it yourself
in their presence. They will follow your example. Otherwise, they
will not themselves study Torah but will simply instruct their
children to do so” (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk).

And then we’ll be up to the grandkids’ bnei mitzvah.  I wonder what those will look like.

Uncategorized September 22, 2011

A Page From My Calendar

I live with feet in a few different worlds.  And I only have two feet.

Sometimes this makes for a very interesting daily schedule.  And multiple outfit changes.

Here’s a sample page from my calendar:

Sunday, August 28th

7:30 am – my kids wake up.  I stumble out of bed, say my Modeh Ani (grateful I’m alive) prayer and get going with the kiddies: diapers, breakfasts, straightening up after both of these.  Try to fit in some formal prayer; it doesn’t work.I appoint one of my teens in charge and leave for my first engagement.

10:00 am – bris of a friend’s baby.  It’s a rather Orthodox, conservative-type affair.  It’s her ninth (or tenth?) child.  Mazel tov!  My husband does the bris, so that’s always fun for me.  Appropriate garb would be black and black, with a bit of black.  However I do not dress to code since I am going straight to…

10:45 am – bat mitzvah of the daughter of a friend.  While my friend is Orthodox, lots of people at the affair are not.  Lots of colors being worn.  I dress for this occasion, and have a wonderful time (no correlation).

At around noon I head home to return to my lovely children, some of whom need lunch.  I feed, clean, soothe, and attend to my Droid (my 8th child).

I briefly contemplate attending an event where one of our friends is going to kick off a political campaign, and while I really, really, want to go, I just feel like my kids need me home.

Family first – it’s a tough one to implement sometimes.

4:00 pm – Back to School BBQ for JFX.  This requires yet another, cute-but-casual outfit.  Change from head to toe is pretty much required.  My daughters contribute some uninvited input into my choices, and I summarily ignore them.  Transportation to the BBQ is iffy, because my son has a drum lesson 20 minutes away in the middle of the BBQ.  Two cars are needed so teen driver can transport said drummer.  Teen driver also transports those kids that don’t want to arrive early to help, after we leave.

6:15 pm – BBQ is wonderful.  Lots of great JFX friends, new and old.  Weather: awesome.  Food: too busy to eat.  Clothing choice: apparently OK, despite my spurning the advice of my teens (!).  I panic, since I can’t find drummer and lesson is in 15 minutes.  I find him, teen driver is dispatched, and I attend to baby and cleanup.  We get ready to go.  Upon arrival home, it dawns on me that drummer-boy did not take his antibiotics on time… bummer.

7:00 pm – bedtime for the two younger ones.  Off regular schedule due to BBQ… hafta deal.  TG (thank G-d) my husband is around to do baths and help – have I ever mentioned his exquisite awesomeness?  I am in a time crunch because at 8:30 pm I have a…

8:30 pm – Mother’s meeting at my girls’ high school for moms of incoming 9th graders.  Oh my, do I have to change.  Unwritten dress code is once again black and black, with a bit of black.  We hear inspirational words about the beauty of Torah learning and living, and meet the teachers and mothers.  I’m really happy that my girls will have such awesome teachers and am excited to see my friends in the “other” world.

10:00 pm – return home to chill with older kids and hubby.  Reflect back on the diverse people in my day and in my life… the diverse outfits in my closet… the diverse communities that I am a part of.

Tired, but grateful… g’nite!

Uncategorized September 16, 2011

Cultural Oddities: Simcha Celebrations

So as I venture into ever more diverse segments of the Jewish community, I have come to the conclusion that there are some fascinating cultural differences and similarities in celebrating bris, bar and bat mitzvah, and weddings.

Here are a few:

1. “Making a bar mitzvah.”

Frum (Orthodox) people generally say, “I’m making a bar mitzvah.  I’m making a wedding.”  What this means is that they are planning the simcha for their child, which is true, but I’ve never heard non-Orthodox people use this particular verb in this context.  Why is this?  Similarly, Ortho-folk will say, “I’m making Shabbos,” or “making Pesach.”

2. “Just come.”

I’ve found that Ortho-folk who come from large families and busy communities are much more “heimish” (homey) about extending an invitation by phone, declining an invitation, cancelling, showing up uninvited, etc.  Clearly, people should be good about sending invitations and reply cards, and not make the “baal simcha” (the one “making the simcha”) call you to see if you’re coming (!) when they’d much rather be at the manicurist’s, but in general, this degree of chilled-out attitude doesn’t seriously bend anyone out of shape.  “Surprising” someone at a simcha is also a totally accepted thing to do, or popping in for part of it if you can’t be there for the whole thing.

3. The six weeks rule.

You know how the “rules” say to send an invitation six weeks before?  I find more secular Jews send them out earlier than that, and I’m not even referencing the “save-the-date” that comes out much, much earlier than that.  In the other corner we’ve got the Ortho-Jews who send them out later.  Sometimes much later.  (See: heimish.) Also, no save-the-dates as far as the eye can see.

4. Gifts table.

No idea why on earth this is true, but at non-Orthodox shindigs, there is typically a gift table.  Ortho-folk bring their gifts to the home before or after.  Truly an oddity to my mind.

5. What time does it start?

Non-Ortho affairs start, well, when they’re supposed to start.  Showing up late requires an explanation.  On the other hand, when an Orthodox wedding or bar mitzvah is called for 6 pm, “everyone” knows it’s only going to be immediate family and the photographer at 6 pm.  Show up at 6:30, for crying out loud.  (!)  The other totally bizarre thing about this is that the further east you travel, the later you should show up; so when my sister’s vort (engagement party) in NJ was called for 8 pm, most folks showed up at 11.  Oh… was that not on the invitation??

6. Kids.

Well, this makes perfect sense.  Orthodox people have more kids… their simchas have a lot more kids! Your typical Orthodox wedding will have multiple nieces and nephews, all decked out in their finest, to the extent that a babysitter (or team of) is often hired at the hall to supervise the kiddies.  There is often a whole “kiddie table” with “kiddie food.”

But as usual, I like to find more in common than not… we all: want to experience nachas, want to be surrounded by family and friends, have spent more than we planned, and want all our guests to be happy.  Oh, and if our kids could write their thank-yous with no input on our part, we’d all be all the more joyous.

Mazel Tov!

Curious to hear your observations!