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Woman and Ritual: Bat-Mitzvah in Israel Curricula

Dr. Brenda Bacon
| 11/08/2014

How should a young Jewish Israeli girl celebrate her bat mitzvah? The answer to this question is clear to members of the Conservative and Reform movements.  The young girl will celebrate the same way her brother does his bar mitzvah. She will learn the blessings for being called up to the Torah, and may also learn the cantillation marks for reading the haftarah and perhaps the Torah portion. She may write a bat mitzvah address to be given on the Shabbat morning when she is called up to the Torah, or at the party.  The aliyah can be seen as a recapitulation of being present at the revelation at Mount Sinai, and by being called up to the Torah, the bat mitzvah, like the bar mitzvah, expresses her commitment to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people.

Among Israeli secular and traditional families, bat mitzvah is often marked only by a lavish birthday party, with emphasis on the girls’ dress and appearance, photo opportunities, and entertainment. As the Israeli sociologist Ephraim Tabory has noted:

Since there is no established tradition of girls reading from the Torah, non-observant Israelis do not feel compelled to arrange a religious rite of passage for their daughter, though they do for their sons.  Feminist actions by these teenagers would also set them apart from their peers, and there is special reluctance to make a double statement of dissimilarity by undertaking an act that is perceived to be religious. (Ephraim Tabory (2004). The Israel Reform and Conservative Movements and the Market for Liberal Judaism. In U. Rebhun and C. I. Waxman (Eds.) Jews in Israel: Contemporary Social and Cultural Patterns (pp. 285-314). Hanover,NH: University Press of New England and Brandeis University Press, p. 302).

An aliyah to the Torah for girls as a valid means of celebrating bat mitzvah is often rejected in a society in which, unfortunately, a distorted view of feminism prevails. The legal scholar Orit Kamir has pointed out that while most Israelis would agree that women should be treated justly and have an equal chance to maximize their potential, they also adopt the stereotypical view that feminists are women who, unhappy with their lot, want to be like men, and have imported a foreign-based movement, that does not suit the Israeli ethos. (Orit Kamir (2007), Israel’s Dignity-Based Feminism in Law and Society. Jerusalem: Carmel [in Hebrew]. Kamir argues that Israel feminists should not use the language of equality between the sexes, but rather that feminism in Israel should be based on the concept of human dignity).

However, the recently published book by Orna Pilz, You and I Together: Making Your Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Meaningful, (Orna Pilz (2013), You and I Together:  Making Your Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Meaningful. Ohr Yehuda: Kinneret [in Hebrew]). written for a general audience, is testimony to efforts to infuse greater significance into the celebration, and not necessarily only religious significance. Her book is aimed at mothers who would like to use the opportunity of the bat mitzvah year to strengthen the tie between themselves and their daughters.  Pilz, an Israeli Reform rabbi who has led bat-mitzvah workshops for mothers and daughters, is sensitive to the fact that for Israelis searching for a momentous way to celebrate their daughter’s bat mitzvah, an aliyah in the synagogue would not be acceptable, and can only be offered as one option among many.

This insight is reflected in the recently published curricula for the bat/bar mitzvah year, which are different from the first round published at the turn of the millennium. The ground-breaking He and She, published by the TALI Education Fund in 2001, has the explicit aim of using the bat-mitzvah year as a jumping-off point for dealing with the issue of gender equality, one of the TALI principles, and indeed was recommended for use in the general school system by the Ministry of Education. (Gilit Hinkin, et al (2001). He and She. Jerusalem: Tali Education Fund [in Hebrew]).

By their choice of content, the writers imply that male and female roles are socially constructed (determined by societal expectations and messages) and therefore dynamic and changeable, rather than essentialist (biologically determined) and therefore fixed and unchanging.  The individual units are tied together by a framework story in which a young girl raises gender related issues in the wake of the birth of a baby in her family as well as in her desire to celebrate her bat mitzvah in the same way that her brother celebrates his bar mitzvah. No alternative ways to celebrate a meaningful bat mitzvah are considered. (See for example the suggestions in Sara Friedland ben-Arza (Ed.) (2002). Bat Mitzva.  Jerusalem: Matan and Urim Publications [in Hebrew]; Orah W. Elper. (Ed.) (2003). Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzva. Jerusalem: Urim Publications; and Alma Cohen-Wardi, (Ed.) (2004). Bat Mitzva and Bar Mitzva. Tel-Aviv: Sifrei   Hemed [in Hebrew], Orah W. Elper (Ed.) (2003).Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzva. Jerusalem: Urim Publications.  Although these books were published after the curriculum was written, the alternative ways of celebrating bat mitzvah were available then.. For descriptions of actual bat mitzvah celebrations, see Barbara Vinick and Shulamit Reinharz (Eds.) (2012) Today I am a Woman: Stories of Bat Mitzvah Around the World. Bloomington &Indianapolis:IndianaUniversity Press).

What Are the Commandments to Me? the curriculum for the general public schools published in 1998, (Yocheved Brandes, et al (1998). What are the Commandments to Me? Jerusalem: Maalot [in Hebrew] (tells a completely different story about bat mitzvah from that of the TALI curriculum.  Its focus is on the meaning of the bar mitzvah and the concept of commandments for Jews who do not observe the commandments. The curriculum opens with a story of a secular family deliberating whether it would be hypocritical to celebrate in the synagogue, which they do not attend. This issue is irrelevant to the large percentage of traditional Jews, who as a result of a sense of loyalty to their parents’ tradition, observe the bar mitzvah just as their fathers did, even if they do not regularly attend the synagogue.  The curriculum does not at all deal with the bat-mitzvah celebration, reflecting the fact that that there is generally no deliberation in secular and traditional families as to how to celebrate the bat-mitzvah. It’s viewed as an opportunity for a big birthday party. Only in the last chapter of What are the Commandments to Me? does the issue of gender arise, in the context of explanations why Jewish tradition exempts women  from the commandment of laying tefillin.

In sum, the TALI curriculum was built around the concept of equality between the sexes, which in many sectors of Israeli society has a problematic connotation. The general public school curriculum did not accurately reflect the needs of the state school population, which includes not only secular families but also traditional ones. It also ignored the bat mitzvah celebration. The end result was that these curricula served more as a resource for teachers rather than being implemented in the classroom.

The second stage of curricula reflects a greater understanding of Israeli society. In 2011 the TALI Education Fund published I [am a link] in the Chain of the Generations: Studies in the Portion of the Week. (Daphneh Yedidiah-Kimmel, et al (2011), I [am a link] in the Chain of the Generations: Studies in the Portion of the Week.Tali Education Fund [in Hebrew]). Each chapter includes a simulated internet forum of boys and girls discussing various issues raised by the portion of the week which can be a possible basis for their bar/bat mitzvah address.  In the context of this forum, gender issues are raised when appropriate.  For example, in the chapter on the portion of the week Beshalah,  in which  the people of Israel left Egypt, one of the discussants writes that Miriam led the song on the sea too, not only Moses.  She learns from this that women do not have to limit themselves; consequently she intends to read from the Torah, which is a meaningful way of celebrating her bat-mitzvah. In response to her post, a boy writes that this is just not done. She in turn responds that he objects because he is just not used to girls having an aliyah. The adult discussion leader reacts and writes that not everyone has to celebrate bar/bat mitzvah in the same way. Each person should decide on what is suitable to him or her and to his/her family. Thus the curriculum writers show sensitivity to the diversity of views within the TALI community as to the place of women in the synagogue. (In the fall of 2014 the Tali Educational Fund will introduce a new classroom activity kit on bat/bar mitzvah titled Growing Up!. In this kit a variety of options, not only an aliyah to the Torah, are offered for celebrating both the bat and bar mitzvah.

This same sensitivity is reflected in [Reaching] the Age of the Commandments: A Journey of Personal and Cultural Responsibility and Commitment, published in 2012 for the general public schools. (Rabbi Michal Conforti and Adi Appel Tal (2012),   [Reaching] the Age of the Commandments: A Journey of Personal and Cultural Responsibility and Commitment.   Jerusalem: Education Department of the Reform Movement [in Hebrew]).

Among the various chapters are some which aim to empower the girls by focusing on women’s leadership in Jewish tradition, on life options for women based on Proverbs 31, “A woman of valor,” as well as a section on how to celebrate bat mitzvah. Recognizing that most of the students will never have witnessed a girl receiving an aliyah, the writers ask the students if they have done so, what are their impressions, and would they support an egalitarian ceremony. The second section of the curriculum is devoted to learning how to write a bat/bar mitzvah address.

The writers of these two most recent curricula take into account the fact that the role of women in synagogue ritual is a contentious issue in Israel, as witnessed for example by the struggle of the Women of the Wall. While raising the option of celebrating the bat mitzvah with an aliyah, they are careful to take into account the opposition to this option. By focusing on the bat/bar mitzvah address, they offer an alternative that is more acceptable to a wider range of families in Israel.

The feminist activist and scholar Leah Shakdiel has suggested that while feminist education in Israelis necessary, with the ultimate aim of improving the status of women in Israel, the form it takes must suit the needs of the diverse communities in which the students live. In some settings, the language of women’s empowerment, rather than gender equality, is more suitable. (Leah Shakdiel (2001), Alternatives to Feminist Education in Israel. In [Eds.] Yaakov Eiram, et al, Crossroads: Values and Education in Israeli Society, pp. 522-555.  Jerusalem: Ministry of Education [in Hebrew]).  My analysis of bat-mitzvah curricula confirms her suggestion.  It also points to the common misconception of viewing general public schools in Israel as having a secular population or ideology. A pragmatic approach to educational change would produce curricula which take into account the heterogeneity of the populations of all the streams of the school systems in Israel.  Curricula which use the language of women’s empowerment, rather than egalitarianism, have a greater chance of being accepted and effective.

Dr. Bacon taught at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and, since 1994, at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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