Notes from Limmud 2014
Batmitzvah: the forgotten story
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
Sacha Lutt became this October the first girl to have her batmitzvah reading from a Torah scroll at the Kotel: a tiny one smuggled in by Women at the Wall.
What does a batmitzvah consist of? A barmitzvah contains various elements: The boy is called to the reading of the Torah, he may or may not read from the Sefer Torah, the father says [in Orthodoxy] the traditional blessing; there is then a seuda and a speech given by the barmitzvah boy.
But what does a girl have to do? [Audience member: In Israel, secular girls just have a party and it's called batmitzvah.] 70% of Israelis think it is important to have a party, but for 90% there is no religious component. If the term is self-defined, then you don't need to have any kind of religious celebration to celebrate a batmitzvah!
There is a wide spectrum of ceremonies that go from giving ain the United Synagogue to the same as a barmitzvah ceremony in further left denominations.
In 1817 in Berlin there was the first recorded coming-of-age ceremony held for two Jewish girls, probably not called a batmizvah but an Anzeinung [sp?]. In 1844, the first batmizvah was held in Italy. Klaus Herrman of Geiger College discovered [lacuna] In 1847 in Leipzig, [lacuna] a German term meaning batmitzvah.
Anywhere on the Internet will tell you it says the first batmitzvah was in New York in 1922, of Judith Kaplan, twelve and a half years old, the daughter of R. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement. He held it on a Friday night in his new Reconstructionist temple in New York.
She didn't read from a Torah scroll as later depicted.
In 1992 she celebrated her second batmitzvah at the age of eighty-three, wearing a tallis for the first time, and reading from the Torah.Niddah 5:6:
For a girl of the age of eleven years and one day, her vows must be examined [to see if she understands their meaning]. From twelve years and one day, her vows are valid, but they examine them throughout the whole twelfth year. For a boy of the age of twelve years and one day, his vows must be examined. From thirteen years and one day, his vows are valid, but they examine them throughout the whole thirteenth year.
Prior to this age, even though they said, “We know to whom we have made our vow” or “to whom we have made our sanctification,” their vows are not valid, nor their sanctifications. Beyond this age, even though they said, “We do not know to whom we have made our vow” or “to whom we have made our vow,” their vow is valid and their sanctification.
בת אחת עשרה שנה ויום אחד, נדריה נבדקין׃ בת שתים עשרה שנה ויום אחד, נדריה קימין׃ ובודקין כל שתים עשרה׃ בן שתים עשרה שנה ויום אחד, נדריו נבדקים׃ בן שלש עשרה שנה ויום אחד, נדריו קימין׃ ובודקין כל שלש עשרה׃ קודם לזמן הזה, אף על פי שאמרו יודעין אנו לשם מי נדרנו, לשם מי הקדשנו, אין נדריהם נדר ואין הקדשן הקדש׃ לאחר הזמן הזה, אף על פי שאמרו אין אנו יודעין לשם מי נדרנו, לשם מי הקדשנו, נדרן נדר והקדשן הקדש׃
Mishneh Torah Hilchot Ishut 2:1-2
From the day of a girl's birth until she is twelve years old, she is called a minor.
Growing two hairs at this age is called the lower sign. Once she brings this sign she is called a נַעֲרָה (maiden) for six months. And from the day these months are completed and onwards she is called בּוֹגֶרֶת (a mature woman).
This seems to have been the age Kaplan chose; it has been adopted in a few synagogues, but it has not been popular. The world has settled on twelve years, except for Reform and Progressive, where, for equality with the boys, it is thirteen years.
From the diary of R. Kaplan's diary, 28th March 1922:
Last Sabbath a week ago I inaugurated the ceremony of the bas mitzvah at the S.A.J. Meeting House [41 W. 86th St.—about which more details later]. My daughter Judith was the first one to have her bas mitzvah there.
Is he saying he invented the ceremony, or that it was merely the first one at the new Society for the Advancement of Judaism meeting house.
Judith Kaplan came up onto the bimah and read from the Holiness Code, not the weekly portion. It wasn't exactly the same as a barmitzvah. Judith Kaplan herself wrote a lot about it, how one of her grandmothgers objected to it, but as a feminist it was important to her to have it.
Kaplan's diary August 1922:
They call it entering minyan at the age of twelve. The ceremony consists of having the father called up to the Torah on the Sabbath that the girl becomes bas mitzvah. She accompanies him to the bimah and when he is through with the part, she recites the benediction of. Before , the Rabbi addresses her on the significance on her entering minyan. On the Sabbath I was at the synagogue, there were three girls and one boy who entered minyan. The assistant Rabbi who was supposed to address them, read something out of a book in a very mechanical fashion. The fathers of the girls acted as it they were very infrequent visitors at the synagogue.
A very strange term, "entering the", in an Orthodox synagogue! In Italy they had long used "bar minyan" for a boy.
Evidently this had been going on there for quite a long time.
Israel Jacobson (1768-1828), the father of Reform and Progressive Judausm, was not a rabbi but a successful businessman. He was not a scholar or intellectual, but he had a mission to change Judaism and make it more acceptable to wider German society. His rationale for doing so was because many Jews were becoming Christian in order to get a job. He felt if there were a form of Jewish worship which was more acceptable (i.e. more Christianised!) then it would stop them feeling the need to do so.
He got his opportunity only because Napoleon took over Germany and set up states, including in Westphalia, where [the king, Napoleon's brother] Jérome set up a Consistoire to run the community with Israel Jacobson on the council.
He built the Seesen Temple in 1810, the first Reform temple. It was attached to a school, because the Reform movement was attached to the whole idea of day schools teaching secular subjects alongside Jewish ones, rather than just the latter. This temple had an organ inside and a bell tower on top. He invited along all the local dignitaries to its opening, to impress them with what he was doing, and encourage them to give the local Jews jobs.
Along with that was a new coming-of-age ceremony called a confirmation. If you weren't having a traditional synagogue service, why have the traditional having a boy called up to read from the Torah in an ancient language? As an replacement for barmitzvah, it was held at the age of thirteen. (It was held on Shavuos, a borrowing of Christian confirmation on Pentecost/Whit.)
His new ceremony was for boys and girls (this was enshrined in the constitution, but the first ones were only for boys); they would learn as a group in a class in the day school, and at the end of their study they would come into the synagogue, guests would be invited, they would be asked questions about their faith and they would give well-rehearsed answers: a catechism.
By this time there were quite a few Jewish catechisms, to be used in confirmation ceremonies, or at school assemblies, or in the school classroom.
In its essence the confirmation ceremony was never just about becoming a Jewish adult; it was also about becoming an adult. It had the sense of access into a wider society which barmitzvah never had.
After the defeat of Napoleon [and the rolling back of reforms he had introduced, including the emancipation of the Jews], the temple was closed. Jacobson was disappointed, moved to Berlin and set up a new one in the home of Judah and Amalia Beer (the parents of the composer Meyerbeer).
The Palais Itzig [lacuna]
The Beer family had their salon during the week for their non-Jewish friends; on Shabbos they had a service in their home. In 1817 the first confirmation ceremony was held [there] for two Jewish girls. By that time the Reform movement had set up their own journal, Sulamith, which reported it (5:1 (1817) [p.?] 279):
Dr Kley confirmed two daughters of Jewish parents (Demoiselle Bernsdorf and Demoiselle Bevern) in the splendid Beerschen Temple here in an extremely ceremonial manner. A gathering of 400 people, as many as the temple could accommodate, dissolved—so to speak—into tears. All of those present were uplifted by the excellent sermon of this good speaker and by this solemn confirmation. The lighted lamps, the two girls, the first in Israel who have been confirmed, having passed their examination with the greatest praise: in short, everything made this one of the most festive and most beautiful celebrations.
The Beerschen temple did not last: The government did not like it. They were not happy about having a new form of worship for Jews: they were worried Christians would go, and indeed they did go.
Jacobson went into retirement and died feeling his attempts to reform Judaism had failed. Of course, that was not the case. Over time it spread across Europe, as did the idea of confirmation. It was introduced into Hamburg in 1818, Munich in 1831, Riga in 1840, Reine and Breslav in 1844, London in 1845, Altona in 1847, Johannesburg in 1891 and Sydney in 1906; and in the New World, St Thomas in 1843 and New York in 1846.
The one in London was probably the West London Synagogue, and dependent upon passing an exam. It was held on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish Chronicle said the one on 1846 was the second one.
In most of these places, these ceremonies were not held in Reform synagogues. One of the signs that an Orthodox rabbi would take a progressive or liberal view was to hold a confirmation and include girls, up on the bimah in an Orthodox synagogue.
Even in, there was a big ceremony at Chanukah (or afterwards if it fell in the school holidays) with the girls dressing in white, with the Chief Rabbi (Hertz) coming to sermonise them, from the mid-1920s. They called it "the girls' consecration ceremony."
It's out of this that the institution of, a term which is now gradually disappearing, emerged after the Second World War; these were carried out in a group, often held on a Sunday afternoon; it's very much an Anglo-Jewish term.
What about the father's blessing? This comes from the midrash, "Blessed be the One who has freed me from punishment because of this child" [because at the age of bar/bat-mitzvah, the child takes responsibility for their own sins]. There are responsa written by Orthodox rabbis about whether the father on a batmitzvah is allowed to say this blessing. Generally, this blessing does not include God's name. The halachic consensus is that the father is permitted to say this for a girl, though not that he has to.
In 1852, Solomon Szinessy/Schiller, a Hungarian, one of the first rabbis to lecture in a Catholic ceremony, introduced confirmation for both boys and girls in Hungary. He took part in the Hungarian uprising; he was captured, then fled to Trieste and got on the first boat, which was to Cork. He came to Dublin, was invited there to give a sermon, then made his way to England where he got a job in the then only synagogue in Manchester, where he introduced confirmation in 1852.
However, Chief Rabbi Adler liked being the only rabbi doctor in the country, and was not happy about this Hungarian rabbi doctor, and placed pressure on him. Eventually he left, and founded the Manchester Congregation of British Jews, now the Manchester Reform community; and introduced confirmation there too.
Now, on to Verona in 1844, where there is no contemporary account, but a later account (probably written by a non-Jewish guest, as "priests" for "rabbis" implies) reports Emma Boghen Conigliani, "Iniziazione religiosa delle fanciulle", Vessilo Israelitico (1899), 185ff.
Naturally, before being received at the temple,* the young girls must have studied Hebrew, and have a knowledge of history and sacred catechism, so that not everything is reduced to a single happy and moving day of celebration. For the record—the white dresses and white veils symbolising the purity of those souls still unaware of life, the temple festively lit and decorated with flowers, the passing of the crowds, their reception and accompaniment by the priests—all this is inextricably linked for the girls to their memory of the knowledge they have learned, and of the new and serious ideas, which their minds must hold. And since their imagination and their hearts are so profoundly touched, it is so much more difficult for those ideas and knowledge to be lost. And not even time, which erases so many things, can wipe from their young minds the sweet impressions they experienced.
[* Not an indication that this is a Reform synagogue: to my surprise, I discovered when I went there that all Orthodox synagogues are called temples in Italy.]
The wearing of white was associated for girls particularly in France and Italy. This persists to this day.
In Berlin batmitzvah ceremonies continued under the Nazis. Alice Fink had a batmitzvah in Berlin in 1936. She was born in 1920. The family celebrated High Holydays but not much more, but she did go to Hebrew school three times a week. When her brother celebrated her barmitzvah, the rabbi asked if she would like to be called up too. So at the age of sixteen she was called to the Torah, made batmitzvah, and a certificate was given to her (with the word "boy" crossed out and "girl" written in).—Originally posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comments. Please comment there using OpenID or a DreamWidth account (which you no longer need an invite code to create). Though I am leaving comments enabled on LiveJournal for a bit, please don't comment here if you can do so there instead.