Evolution of the Bat Mitzvah
by Rivka C. Berman
By the 1800’s in some French and
Italian communities, a seudat mitzvah, a meal that is a mitzvah to consume, was
prepared in honor of a girl’s twelfth birthday (Goldin, 67). But that was about
Girls passed silently into womanhood until May of 1922. That’s when Judith
Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist
Judaism, stepped up to the bima for her bat mitzvah.
Judith’s ceremony was slated for the Saturday morning service, but what she
would actually say during services was undecided until the night before. On the
big day, she sat with her father in the men’s section (her mother and other
female relatives sat in the women’s section). Once the usual Torah reading was
completed, Judith mounted the bima and read her portion from a book, a Chumash.
She didn’t come near the scroll.
This ceremony broke new ground. Never before had a girl been given such an
active role in the synagogue.Years after the service, Judith Kaplan was quoted:
“No thunder sounded, no lightning struck. The institution of bat mitzvah had
been born without incident and the rest of the day was all rejoicing.” (Goldin,
Following the Kaplans’ lead took time. At first girls were usually allowed to
read the haftarah at the Friday night service only and not the entire Torah
service permitted to their male peers.
By 1955, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law, which decides
matters of halacha for the Conservative Movement, decided to permit aliyot to
the Torah for women.
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