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.