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.
DIAL IT DOWN, BOYS
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.
great, well constructed and thought-out speech!
ftr, if you were referring to chabad re: not 'allowing' bar mitzva boys to read from the Torah, I would like to set the record straight. Indeed, the focus of the day is rather on the laws of "laying" tefilin, as you mentioned, and on reciting a chassidic discourse in honor of the day, as well. Nonetheless, if they so choose, they are allowed to read from the Torah, in addition.
Indeed, 2 of my boys did just that, learning all the necessary halachot as well and continuing to read from the Torah on a regular basis throughout their youth [i.e. this wasn't a one-time experience].
I wonder if retention among the Orthodox comes from the fact that Judaism is all-encompassing. It affects every part of a person's life, so to give it up would mean giving up who you are. Just a thought.
Some Orthodox contexts will allow a girl to read from the Torah- in an all-women's tefilah (prayer) group. It would depend on where you are, and the "rules" are a little different than in a men's minyan or an egalitarian minyan (women's tefilah groups use a different prayer before and after the Torah reading, since they do not consititute a minyan, and therefore can't use Barchu in their Torah-reading blessing), but it does fit the bill, if you're trying to achieve both Orthodoxy and a more Torah-related Bat Mitzvah experience.
Other shuls might wait until a holiday, and give the Bat Mitzvah girl a chance to read from one of the megillot (Esther, Ruth, Song of Songs, Kohelet- I've never heard of anyone doing Eicha, for the obvious social reasons) for the community.
Neither of these are compatible with right-wing Orthodoxy, but they are possible in a number of Modern Orthodox synagogues.
Hi Maya, this is really interesting, I'd never heard of Shuls allowing BM girls to read one of the Megillot. You write that they wouldn't read Eicha ( I believe this is read on TishaB'Av?), for "obvious social reasons." Can you explain why? Thanks!
There are all sorts of groups of orthodox women's tefilla that widen the opportunities for girls and women to lead tefillot,read from a sefer torah and conduct megilla reading on the days we have that.
A bat mitzvah celebration can be combined with most of these, but not Eicha, because a bat mitzvah is truly a celebration and Tisha B'Av is truly a day of mourning.
When the group I belong to has hosted visiting family members at a bat mitzvah celebration, even when those women come from non-orthodox shuls, very often their aliya is the first one of their entire lives, so clearly many women in non-orthodox synagogues are not feeling comfortable with going up to the Torah even when it is allowed and encouraged in their communities.
Since our group is women only, women and girls do not read for the entire community.
What we do for the gentlemen family members of the bat mitzvah girl is to create a separate "men's section" where the men can sit and follow along and listen to their daughter/sister/niece/granddaughter read and lead the tefilla.
pronouncement. There needs to be serious qualifiers before saying "halacha" and even "Orthodox halacha" with regards to women's Torah reading. One of my daughters read as an Orthodox Jew in an Orthodox partnership minyan, for men and women, separated by a mehitzah, at her bat mitzvah celebration. Another daughter is learning to read with our rabbi at our regular synagogue – what she does publicly still to be determined by a great deal of halachic consultation. There are Orthodox rabbis and sources going all the way back to the Talmud that rule that women can indeed discharge a man's obligation to hear Torah, and the reason for women not reading is a different halachic principle: Kavod HaTzibur. Beyond the halachic complexities, Orthodox Judaism does have a retention problem particularly among girls, and to dismiss the serious question of a girl's involvement in what in many synagogues is the central gateway to community involvement was surprising for a usually thoughtful and careful author. Synagogues in which only the most competent adult males are on the bimah is not what this questioner is addressing, and if the answer is meant to show diversity of Orthodox practice, ignoring places where women do read (either only for other women or for men as well) seems questionable. Finally, I know Conservative Jews and a few unlabled ones who live their lives seriously and communally by halacha under even more different rulings, so these intricate systems are not necessarily foreign to a non-Othodox questioner.
Thanks for this- it's very well stated and sums up most of what I wanted to say. I know a fair number of Conservative Jews who would be considered Orthodox Jews but for the fact that they attend a Conservative synagogue (well, and that they don't identify as Orthodox). I'm a regular attendee at my shul's morning minyan, for instance, and I haven't been yet where we haven't had in excess of a minyan for davening. Most of the regulars lay tefillin daily. An increasing number of congregants have learned to lein Torah, and a good chunk of the congregation keeps kosher and ordered the four species for Sukkot. A lot of the congregation live right in the same neighborhood as the shul and walk to and from synagogue on Shabbos. It's a bit offensive to dismiss Conservative Jews (and even Reform, in that a number of Reform Jews do understand halacha and use that understanding in their decisions regarding which mitzvot are and are not meaningful to them) as somehow incapable of understanding a halachic position or as people who just don't follow halacha, because that simply isn't the case for a lot of us. I mean, I'm currently learning Kitzur Shulchan Aruch– it's not like we're all amei ha'aretz.
Diplogeek, I believe that my third-to-last paragraph addresses your point regarding me being dismissive or offensive.
With regard to "other reasons" for the Orthodox sense of identity, I also can't help but think that part of the secret to Orthodox retention isn't solely the magic of halacha, but the fact that, as many Orthodox communities increasingly move to the right and eschew a lot of secular education, particularly college, it becomes more difficult for those who are disaffected to leave their communities, not least because they're usually married with children very young, but also because as great as a Jewish education is, if that's all someone has, that doesn't leave much in the way of job prospects. Then factor in the more closed, Hasidic communities, and I don't think it's any more surprising that people tend to stay in, say, New Square than it is that Amish kids tend to remain in their communities. Sure, you can theoretically leave, but how much room is given for informed choice? In most cases, not a whole lot, in my estimation.
This isn't an attempt to say, "Oh, Orthodox Jews are just imprisoned by their rabbis," not least because I don't think that's the case, but I think that while there are things that the Orthodox community does right with regard to Jewish education and retention, there are a lot of other factors that come into play. If a kid who's raised Reform or Conservative "frums out" and becomes Orthodox, even if a family's not thrilled, I don't think most are going to cut their child off completely (in fact, I think the opposite tends to occur more often- a BT who becomes very religious, worried about the influence of the non-Orthodox family on their kids, distances him or herself) unless they go way off the deep end. If the person is an adult, it's unlikely that their kids will be kicked out of day school or that they'll find themselves barred from shul one day. By contrast, depending on the community someone's in, those are possibilities in some very Orthodox communities. I think the stakes are a lot higher for a lot of people who might be questioning Orthodoxy than they can be for people questioning their heterodox upbringing, which also accounts for why people may choose to stay (regardless of whether they actually believe).
It's like the difference between leaving Episcopalianism and leaving an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. I'm sure there are a handful of outliers who would flip if their kid decided not to be an Episcopalian any more, it's a pretty liberal denomination, and I think most parents would be okay with it (especially if the kid's just leaving for another Christian denomination). By contrast, an IFB family who genuinely believes that their kid is hellbound if they abandon Christianity is obviously going to have a much stronger reaction to diversion from the prescribed path of belief.
What would the Os on here do if a sibling stopped being O? What would be the reaction? What if it were a child of yours (grown up)? I don't mean this inflammatorily, I just wonder what that looks like in practical-life terms. And I know there are ranges of Os, but the ones who comment here, what would be the response?
I think the kind of shunning described in the comment above is relatively rare in most Orthodox communities outside of the extremely insular ones like New Square. Most people want to maintain a connection with their kids and maybe also hope that their influence will bring the kids back to their religion, so they're not going to cut off all contact.
I think it's more likely that people stay because of insufficient secular education or especially a lack of social/cultural ties to the secular world.
"insufficient secular education" as well as "lack of social/cultural ties" are also much more endemic of New Square than of the more typical MO product of day school education, schools who generally pride themselves on a high level and well-rounded curriculum.
I think most people stay "within the fold" not because they're restricted form leaving in any way but rather because orthodoxy becomes something they believe in which also doesn't conflict with anything else they want in their lives.
Rena–What I said doesn't apply to MO day schools, but there is a wide spectrum of Orthodoxy between MO and New Square. People in that range do have some constraints that make it harder to leave. But if they do leave, chances are they will not be shunned.
to answer SBW: a sib stopped identifying with orthodoxy long ago, and yet we have a fantastic relationship where we respect each other's viewpoints and our differences. I actually think he's an amazingly genuine person with lots of mitzvahs to his credit.
I wonder how much labels or identifying dress count for in Heaven – G-d has His own kind of scales to measure each one of us against our own potential.
Re Orthodox versus heterodox retention, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/01/us/poll-shows-major-shift-in-identity-of-us-jews.html: "While earlier generations of Orthodox Jews defected in large numbers, those in the younger generation are being retained. Several scholars attributed this to the Orthodox marrying young, having large families and sending their children to Jewish schools."
Thank you for a brilliant and well-thought-out argument, Ruchi! As someone who is very "Modern," I am very aware that I am susceptible to non-Jewish influence and exposed to more liberal Orthodox views. I am constantly acting as an anthropologist in my own life and questioning why I would do one thing or another. As you know, I feel strongly about women fully coming into their own as women, not imitating men to achieve "empowerment." Your statements above confirm my beliefs, and I also believe that we currently live in a society that promotes being the center of attention. E.g. an emphasis on fame, the narcissism of social media, bigger and bigger bnei mitzvah and weddings. (Sidenote–when my sister planned her wedding, I can't tell you how many people told her, "It's your day," in the process. Thankfully she remained down-to-earth and reasonable, but it really has become an entire industry conspiring to make a woman believe the world revolves around her. Not good.) In the Orthodox context, such superficial priorities fall away. To be obligated to perform mitzvot is privilege enough when one grows up in an environment where mitzvot are the priority. Understood in this way, bar mitzvah boys are not soaking up the attention; they are proudly participating in a mitzvah now incumbent on them. Just because a ceremony does not make a girl the center of attention or does not do what the boys are doing does not make it a consolation prize. What I wish Sheryl Sandberg (though I love and admire her) and other women of a similar mindset understood is that there is no comparison between Judaism and secular organizations in terms of representation. If women aren't front and center, it doesn't mean they are underrepresented. In an ironic twist, Ms. Sandberg actually demonstrates the Jewish woman's role quite well–she works behind the scenes and takes on a very nurturing role at Facebook(and according to a TIME interview, ensures that everyone is well-fed, ha), and she seeks to empower other women through what she has learned. When my daughter(s) become bat mitzah, they will know they are stepping into a sacred role preserved by those who put more important matters before being the center of attention for a day.
This is probably the best article I have ever read discussing this 'controversial' issue. You and your husband never seem to stop amazing me. I really don't know how you manage to do it ALL (inspire,educate,advise,etc…)? I think I speak for everyone in the community and on your blog–THANK YOU!!!
Like a moth to a flame . . . I feel like I must comment.
I DON'T CARE IF MY DAUGHTERS READ FROM THE TORAH AT THEIR BAT MITZVAH.
And I'm not an observant Jew.
Why don't I care? Because reading from the Torah does not make someone Jewish or give them a strong and lasting Jewish identity (as evidenced by the retention issue amongst Reform and Conservative Jews as mentioned above).
Do you want to know how to get your daughter to love being Jewish? Surround her with people who love Judiasm who can teach her how Judiasm is relevant every single day of her life, not just the day that she does or does not stand on a bimah and read from the Torah. Do you know where to find those people? The observant communities. Are their girls reading from the Torah? Are their girls strong, intelligent, independent women who are marring Jewish boys and having Jewish babies and running Jewish homes and carrying the torch?
I think so.
It is a myth that the Orthodox are 'not losing' children. When you have 8 children and 2-3 do not want to be Shomer Shabbis,yes there is retention of Orthodoxy statistically speaking.
There is a retention problem among the Orthodox, but it's a different kind of retention problem. They may stop keeping Shabbat, but retention for the Reform and Conservatives has to do with intermarriage and Jewish identity. As it relates to Ruchi's topic, I would be very interested in seeing statistics on what sort of background the Orthodox kids who drop their observance come from. I don't mean what group their parents affiliate with, but what sort of environment they grew up in. Was the Torah the basic, all-encompassing principle for all aspects of life? Or was it just a bunch of obligations you had to fulfill before you could go out and have a good time?
DG- this is a really interesting question. This is purely anecdotal evidence, but most of the people I know who grew up Orthodox and now are no longer Orthodox, would never dream of marry a non-Jew and some I know even still keep kosher to some extent. Even though they are no longer Orthodox, I think that with many of these individuals, though of course, not all, Jewish teachings and customs are important to them (even from a nostalgic viewpoint, like a this reminds me of my childhood type of way).
My question may be a bit out of the scope of the discussion, but is it acceptable in O circles to express frustration over a particular point of halacha? As in, for example, a father saying: "I wish I could hear my daughter read the Torah, but I'm not going to because of the halacha", or simply thinking: "I bet chicken-parmiggiano tastes great, but I will never try it, because I follow the halacha".
In other words, is it okay to wish something was acceptable when halacha forbids it, or is such a thought bad per se?
I know Ruchi might refrain from answering (as per her disclaimer), but I'm hoping other O commenters will reply.
I'm happy to oblige, if you'll have me. The Talmud actually states that it is better to acknowledge one's temptations and yet still resist them than it is to claim one has no temptations. For example, I personally do not miss pork and was never a huge fan of it before my conversion. Therefore, let's say there is another convert, or perhaps a born-Jew who did not keep kosher growing up but became religious as an adult, who LOVED bacon and misses it all the time. Their daily resistance to eating pork in order to hold the mitzvot of keeping kosher has more merit than my avoidance of pork.
Along the same lines, women are considered inherently more spiritual and so we are not required to study Torah or perform certain mitzvot as men are. From the outside, it may seem as though Orthodox girls are missing out and thus your imagined scenario of a wistful father. But in reality, that daughter has been lighting Shabbos candles from the age of 3 and has been very involved in Jewish life. In traditional Jewish life, we do not treat men/boys and women/girls exactly the same, but it does not mean the latter is at a disadvantage. Funnily enough, the perception is often that women are being excluded from Jewish life because of the extra responsibilities given to men, but the reality is that those extra responsibilities are intended to push men up to our level. What could be more empowering than that? 🙂
Hope this helps!
according to Maimonides, it is actually preferable for one to say that s/he would like to eat pork, for example, but "what can I do, my religion forbids it" rather than "ich – pork! how detesting!"
I must confess an appreciation for what seems to be divine permission to complain! I mean it. If there are all these rules, it would seem really too harsh to ALSO require that people submit to them without complaint or without acknowledging that they are onerous (for some people).
It's not really a matter of complaining. The idea is that we do these things because God said to do them, so if you really think pork is disgusting, what sort of credit do you deserve for avoiding it?
I agree with SBW – I find it very "healthy" that Judaism acknowledges that those temptations exist and gives you credit for resisting them. Some other religious systems consider the very thought of transgression (even if resisted) is bad, which in my opinion pushes people into feeling guilty and hurt.
And thank you Kate, Rena and DG for taking the time to explain it to me!
That argument that someone cannot discharge someone's else's obligation if s/he is not obligated him/herself is a much more persuasive one than I expected when I started reading. I never heard any of that reasoning before. I would have some nitpicky scenarios to ask about as possible workarounds, but that might get things into the defensive position that you want to avoid.
I agree, SBW, that it is a persuasive course of logic, even if the situation is sometimes uncomfortable or awkward. Just to add another example, as a single woman when I have men (with their families) over for a Shabbat meal, I have them make kiddush, because their obligation is greater than mine. However, I always say Hamotzi because I am the hostess and our obligation in that is equal.
(If you ask about other scenarios I'll try to answer in lieu of Ruchi.)
Actually, Miriam, I've learned from unimpeachable sources that men and women have the same obligation for kiddush on Shabbat (though not on Yom Tov). I'd still let the man make kiddush, though, because he'd probably feel more comfortable with it (i.e., hachnasat orchim).
What I learned was that on Friday night we have an equal obligation to consecrate Shabbat through saying kiddush, but on Shabbat day it is a mitzvah d'rabbanan, not a mitzvah d'oraiytah, and that therefore men have a greater obligation at lunch. I rarely have company Friday night :-). But it has been a long time since I studied this, so I could be wrong.
Miriam, the other commenters have already evoked the scenarios that occurred to me as workarounds, but I gather there are other reasons besides the one about discharging/obligated that I've just learned about here.
I am always interested to see how the perspectives I get on O from Ruchi (and others) are sometimes alienating and sometimes (surprisingly) liberating. This time it is liberating. The Jewishness I grew up with and most of what I encounter today (not O) emphasizes the Torah-reading ritual as a sine qua non, the proof in the pudding. It's supposed to make a difference, MAKE or prove you a "real Jew". Or something, some kind of metaphysical (ugh for me) experience. The ceremony is a big deal; its publicness is emphasized, for instance, as a "show" of Jewishness (if I remember correctly). Which means older people I know, including relatives, who earlier did not live out much Jewish identity, but come to change and want to "mark their Jewishness", study up for Torah reading and (in my experience) talk about it and do it in a way that I find slightly self-congratulatory. Like, "Having publicly chanted the Torah makes me a proper Jew now! Hooray! Acknowledge me!"
So in view of the fact that I don't do this, and never did it, it is liberating to think that IT DOESN'T MATTER. Ok, it's not like I am doing much else Jewishly either, which I realize might make more Jewishy people think that a self-congratulatory bat mitzvah would be "better than nothing" in my case. But the fact that I'm not doing, or haven't done THAT Torah-reading-thing is–I think Ruchi is saying–meaningless. It doesn't make me "one down" in being Jewish. Granted I'm not looking for ways to be "one up" either, but I am somehow pleased at having a way to look at this that doesn't "count against me" my lack of, and even irritated response to the emphasis on, this experience.
I recognize that others on here have found the experience meaningful and not in a self-congratulatory way; this is my own narrow background speaking.
SBW, you are absolutely right. It brings to mind what my mother said to me while planning my wedding — the wedding is only one day; it is the marriage that matters. I think the same applies here: a bar or bat mitzvah celebration is only one day; it is the rest of one's life that matters. (And I'd say you are doing more "Jewishly" than you acknowledge. When was the last time you murdered, stole, or worshiped idols? On the other hand, when was the last time you helped someone in need or showed respect to your parents?)
Aw shucks, Miriam! 🙂
Question: What it is to do things "Jewishly" vs. some other way? If you do things God commands NOT because God told you to, but for some other reason, does that "count" Jewishly? Like the not enjoying pork example mentioned by DG. It doesn't "count" as much because you don't like it, whereas if you like it but give it up because God said to, that does count more. So the "Jewish reason" seems to be more significant?
SBW: you're absolutely right – mitzvahs do "count" even if done entirely unintentionally or even unknowingly, but the greater the intent, obviously the greater the imprint left on the soul.
one sidepoint – reading form the Torah, or not, doesn't make one any more of a Jew, but being called up to the Torah (receiving an "aliya") is mentioned in Jewish law as a sort of "confirmation" ceremony for the bar-mitzva boy.
Just to show how Jewishly insignificant big, public bar mitzvah celebrations are, here's a quote from matzav.com (Rav Shach was one of the leading haredi rabbis of the late 20th century):
"Rav Schach would recount how, upon reaching the age of bar mitzvah, he simply put on tefillin without making any announcements. A day later another bochur noticed him putting on tefillin and wished him mazel tov. Soon the entire yeshiva lined up to wish him mazel tov. That was his entire Bar Mitzvah celebration! Rav Schach would often repeat this tale when decrying the excesses of simchos today."
I love your explanation, Ruchi. I have seen the following scenario over the past 4 years, and it really does bother me, and still don't quite get it. My very O friends make a very nice sit down dinner and party for the sons Bar mitzvah. I've been to hear them read from the bimah as well. Then when their daughters turn 12, its nothing to speak of. Perhaps a typical birthday party, or an overnight with friends. Only one friend gave the daughter a special gift of a Shabbos watch. If this is the hallmark of the child, both boy and girl, becoming adults, in my short experience, it is incredibly one sided and to me; discouraging.
In some right-wing Orthodox circles, a big bat mitzvah celebration is considered to smack of Reform. That's the objection.
I agree with you that the occasion should be treated with as much enthusiasm for girls as for boys. But it doesn't have to involve reading from the Torah. I've heard girls give a dvar Torah for their bat mitzvah (which to my mind is much more significant than their reading Torah by rote in the synagogue). I heard of a girl who, together with her mother, ran a big challah baking event for women to mark her bat mitzvah, teaching them all about the mitzvah of challah as well as sending them home with the product. The idea is that a bat (or bar) mitzvah should focus on the mitzvah aspect. That's what's being celebrated.
As far as I know, the objection to bat mitzvah celebrations in RW circles is b/c of tznius ideas. Girls, according to this view, should not be the center of any type of prominent attention.
I was expecting precisely that kind of argument when I started reading the post, something metaphysical about women's souls being nourished differently, the public-male and private-female distinction. But if Ruchi's synagogue is willing to let the daughter do the havdalah service I guess the center-of-attention question is not the issue. (Or is the center-of-attention problem for girls part of halacha too?) Or maybe there is a willingness to bend a little to the family's sense of what modesty means to them, but that does not extend to allowing adult males in the congregation to have their obligation not discharged according to the technical rules.
I am fascinated by how there are different reasons that can be appealed to for one and the same practice, and how it gets decided which is THE reason. This goes back to my problem with Tatz on circle-dancing. Reasons-for-things are in my view overrated. But I guess if you're an O person trying to accommodate non-Os, you have to pick your reasons. For some reason I find the technical-rule reason touching, or charming or something. I think it is because it is so NON-dramatic and nonsymbolic (unlike Tatz). It's not an overblown reason, it's a nitpicker's reason. Which I have more respect for than grand, all-encompassing (and for me therefore more questionable) reasons.
Ruchi, thanks for posting on a potentially explosive topic. Re: your disclaimer at the top of the comments section, I think it would be really great if you would respond to all or as many of the posts as you can. As a BT, this topic does bother me. The argument that a woman cannot fufill a man's obligation is the most persuasive to me, but that is not the argument most often used. I was surprised that you didn't mention the issue of tznius (modesty) for a reason why women don't chant Torah in front of men, as that is the main reason I've been given. It never made much sense to me, as chanting/reading isn't singing and I believe it is a cop out answer.
I also have a couple of questions. If a minyan is needed to chant Torah, why not have a Minyan of men (on one side of the Mehitzah) and the Bat Mitzvah girl reading on the other side. Taking it one step further, if Modesty is a true issue in this scenario, why not have the men leave the shul while the girls chants Torah (I've heard about a shul in Ra'anna, Israel that does this)? And, if it was a concern about whether or not the girl was fulfilling an obligation, why not have a man chant Torah initially and then have the BM girl chant as well. This would allow the man to fulfill the obligation and still give the BM girl an opportunity to read.
Another thing that I think is very important to mention is that there are a number of other ways that a BM girl can be included in the service without chanting from Torah, that with the exception of a few Left Wing Modern Orthodox Shuls, no Shul actually does. For example, why not have the BM Girl give a Dvar Torah in shul? She isn't singing, dancing, chanting or trying to fufill someone elses obligation- yet this would be social suicide for shuls who would want to practice this. BTW, if anyone knows of Shuls where this does happen, I'd be extremely curious to hear how it was implemented and how it went over in the congregation.
The (modern)Orthodox shul where I grew up, Cong. Beth Sholom in Rochester, NY, does this. At the end of Shabbat morning services, the bat mitzvah girl stands up near the front, but not on the bimah, and gives a dvar torah.
The shul has worked for over 30 years to find the right celebration for its girls. I remember going to a friend's havdalah ceremony bat mitzvah c. 1980. For my bat mitzvah in 1982 we had a separate private ceremony, invited guests only, not part of davening, where I led responsive readings in English, gave a dvar torah, and chanted a portion of the Torah from a printed chumash, not an actual Torah scroll. I didn't say any blessings because it wasn't from a Torah or part of a service.
For my daughters (in a different city and very different community), we have put the emphasis on doing a long-term chessed project (if a boy spends months preparing, why should a girl think of it as a last minute event?), learning about a related topic, and giving a dvar torah. You are absolutely right that it is possible to acknowledge this important moment in a girl's life while adhering to halachah.
My shul, in savannah, ga, has a "bas mitzvah" ceremony on the bima, in front of a mixed congregation. The Rabbi gives a blessing to the girl and her parents and she gives a dvar Torah based on what she has been learning either with her mother or a mentor in the community. We are more rt wing so to speak, but also have congregants that would identify with more leftist leanings.
Wow, "smacking" of Reform sounds so BAD. I guess it is for the people you are referring to, DG.
Yes, us apikorsim are not to be emulated LOL!
(Having so much fun watching the discussion from the sidelines! Carry on, guys. Loving this.)
This conversation alone could serve as proof that despite not being allowed to read Torah at their BM, Orthodox women are pretty outspoken – if I count Anonymous out (along with SBW and myself, both women, but not O) ALL participants in this discussion are female – now that we've finally discovered DG's gender 🙂
I do wonder though, if it's because men don't feel qualified to participate, or if they simply don't consider the topic important.
I'm responding to this comment from the Facebook thread, because I find that space limiting:
A poster wrote: "In this case, I believe that the subjugation and maligning of women throughout Jewish history (e.g., Eve caused the downfall of man, Lot's wife looked back) continues to reverberate in some modern Jewish practice, including the restriction of girls and women reading from the Torah."
As an Orthodox woman (who did not grow up Orthodox), I do not feel maligned and/or slighted as a poster in the Facebook thread said. Lot's wife has as much to do with my life as the current conditions of the Shanghai to Peking railroad. On a daily basis, I see strong, committed Orthodox Jewish women doing amazing things to impact the small world of their families, and the larger world of their communities, and the world outside our Orthodox community. Most importantly, they are the women who are modeling for my daughters, whom I love more than life itself, the kind of joyful, committed, strong, value-centered Jewish women I hope they grow up to be.
The women I hear spoken about in shul aren't Chava and Lot's wife. They are Esther, and Tamar, and Miriam, and Sarah, who our Sages say had a higher level of prophecy than even Avraham himself. They are Rivkeh who knew which one of her twin sons was fit to carry on the Jewish people. They are Tzipporah who saved Moses' life in the desert, and on and on and on.
I'm not going to white-wash. There are Orthodox men who are total male chauvinists. But it has nothing to do with them being Orthodox, just as secular male chauvinists wouldn't suddenly become in touch with the need to respect women if they became Orthodox tomorrow. The two aren't linked.
I was once eating Shabbos lunch at at a rabbis house, much farther to the right-yeshivish end of the spectrum than we were. I can't remember why, but the subject of Ford Motor Car Company, then in bankruptcy, came up. And this rabbi said, totally off the cuff, not prepared because the conversation was wandering to and fro, "They should just put four Orthodox women in charge of it. It'll be making a profit in less than a year."
People are going to choose what they want for their own families and find the synagogue that accommodates that. But please don't assume that those of us who choose Orthodoxy are choosing a life that maligns or subjugates us. That, in fact, IS being disrespectful of me as a woman, to imply that I would willingly submit to such treatment for myself, or for my daughters.
SO well said! Thank you, Amy!!! That comment also bothered me, so I'm very glad that you addressed it here. I've never seen Eve blamed for "the downfall of man" in Jewish thought; always considered that more Christian theology. Also, I'd argue that Lot's character (or lack thereof) negates that commenter's point. Are Orthodox men oppressed because of how Lot is portrayed in the Torah? Of course not. And in fact, according to Jewish tradition, perhaps Lot would have been a better man if he had had a wife on Sarah's level. Behind every great Jewish man is a great Jewish woman. 🙂
I don't think our personal experiences, Amy, bear on the extent to which the system itself is patriarchal or subjugating.
For example, Saudi Arabian women (who are not permitted to drive or leave the house without a chaperon) will also tell you that the women in their communities are strong and do amazing things and their daughters are exposed to wonderful value-centered role models who influence their communities, etc, etc. And yet, isn't their system subjugating?
For an example that hits closer to home, I lived in Crown Heights for quite a few years and through my contact with chabad, I've seen the amazing accomplishments that lubavitch women and shluchos take pride in. Chabad women literally run whole world-wide organizations and are respected and honored in their communities. That doesn't change the fact that in Crown Heights, women are forbidden to vote on the Crown Heights Vaad members, the community council members whose jobs include allocating millions of federal and state dollars designated for that community. Women simply can't vote, married men or men over 30 can. They have no voice in this regard.
I don't think these things are incompatible. We can live in a system that treats women as lower-class citizens in some ways, while honoring and respecting them in others.
I will agree that Lot and Chava have nothing to do with it. It's more that halacha was codified at a time when general societal attitudes towards women were much different than they are today.
3 things: 1) I do not view the prohibition of women/girls reading the Torah in front of men to be subjugation. I don't agree with it, but in my mind it is not subjugation. 2) I do not presume to tell other people whether or not they are oppressed. I can think of many women who are oppressed having nothing to do with Judaism, and Orthodox women who are oppressed because their community oppresses them – Judaism itself does not. It's just like I'm not interested in someone telling me they feel sorry for me because I'm not Orthodox and I don't know the truth and I won't make it to Olam HaBah or whatever. 3) If this prohibition, and others, do not jive with your worldview, don't be Orthodox. There are plenty of places to go and communities to belong to where women participate in this way, amongst other things.
Another thing I have noticed on this topic is that the more you observe, the more your priorities shift and different things come into focus. Egalitarianism is not the first thing that the Liberal movements did. The first we did — not necessarily intentionally — was make Judaism into something that happened mostly in the synagogue.
Going to shul on Saturday the way our non-Jewish compatriots go to church on Sunday became our accepted way to practice our religion. Daily practices, home practices, many Jewish things that women did outside the synagogue (prayer, saying Psalms, mikvah, kashrut, brachot, specific dress and headcovering) as well as things that men did outside of synagogue (tefillin, tallit katan, kippah, beards) began to fall away. After more than 50 years of Judaism being synagogue focused, mostly on Saturdays, those synagogues became egalitarian.
So of course, if the only Jewish thing you do is go to synagogue once a week and the only Jewish practice you see is the shabbat morning services, then it becomes very important to you that the service be egalitarian. Because this is the only time you practice Judaism and you want to have access to it. Because why should a man who never prays on his own and who never lays tefillin and who does not consider himself obligated in prayer have more rights because he was born male? When women and men are observing at exactly the same level (women perhaps more), then it makes sense (outside of a halachic framework) for them to have the same roles.
This is not, of course, the way halacha works. But Liberal Jews stopped being halachic Jews (by Orthodox standards) long before they became egalitarian.
The Orthodox women I know are far more Jewishly engaged, more knowledgeable, more observant, and very often more connected to G-d on a daily basis than I am, even though I regularly lead services and read from the Torah. So while I personally will not give up egalitarianism, I also do not think that Orthodox women are lacking a strong connection to prayer simply because they do not lead public prayer.
For me, leading prayer publicly and praying privately feel immensely different and one is not superior to the other. In fact, I will easily admit that I am deficient in private prayer and need to continue to work on this.
Rav Ovadia Yosef has ruled that Sephardi and Mizrachi communities should celebrate bat mitzvah in some way (not by reading Torah but in other ways) because not doing so in our day gives the impression that we value boys over girls and that is a chillul haShem (desecration of G-ds name).
“Those who oppose celebrations upon girls’ coming of age help transgressors to accuse the scholars of Israel of depriving the daughters of Israel and discriminating between boys and girls” (Yahave Da’at 2: 29).
SDK, this makes so much sense! If you mostly "do Jewish" at temple, then that's the sphere everyone wants to "perform" in. Thanks.
SDK-profound and beautiful! Thank you!
Not sure why you connect halacha with low rations of drop-outs in Orthodoxy. It's more likely, I think, that the low drop-out rates result from the relative ostracism imposed on those who drop out. If you go Off the Derech in frum communities, you stand to lose your family, your community support, in many cases your children, etc. Those are much more significant reasons for staying in the fold. Plus the idea that frum people are luckier /better than others b/c of their observance- that also discourages leaving. Reform groups have little of the above.
SBW: there are often myriads of reasons given by various Torah authorities on virtually every practice in Judaism. This is more a reflection of the "70 faces of the Torah" than a matter of apologetics or choosing your answer according to your audience. As a matter of fact, all those reasons may be valid.
In addition, I was taught that in essence when many different opinions are given, this goes to show that in actuality none of them are the "real" reason at all, that the "real" reason goes much deeper than our limited understanding can grasp.
Another point: the insularity and cutting off from families and the community that many describe here is actually only found in the most extreme ultra-Orthodox communities; it's far from being as widespread as the media makes it appear. But the fact remains that a percentage of children across the board are less "Jewish-practicing" than their parents or their upbringing. At the same time, others are coming closer and returning to their heritage.