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Modern Judaism 22.3 (2002) 234-260

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Ritual, Law, and Praxis:
An American Response/a to Bat Mitsva Celebrations

Norma Baumel Joseph

Modern American Judaism is marked by its attention to the public practice of religion. Additionally, Jews, like many Americans, came to place an emphasis on individual performance. In that environment, women's active presence or absence became a cause of concern fueling the contemporary feminist critique. During the last century, the Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements each reacted to these concerns with distinct programs and structures. Bat Mitsva ceremonies, developed during the twentieth century, present a noteworthy example of the denominational variations and shifts in practice and outlook that mark this period. 1

Historically, rites de passage 2 for women in Judaism, other than marriage and death, were minimal and most often celebrated privately. 3 Daughters were named in the synagogue in absentia, in a ceremony that usually involved the father only. Puberty rituals, for the most part, did not exist. In the latter part of this century an increase in the public celebration of a girl's "coming of age" transpired. The ensuing Bat Mitsva ceremonies, paralleling Bar Mitsva services for boys, increased in popularity, allowing some women to take a central role in public synagogue rituals.

The terms Bar and Bat Mitsva refer to one who is subject to the law and connote membership in the community. By the second half of the twentieth century, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative congregations welcomed this opportunity to include women and to allow them an opportunity to participate publicly in and stand at the center of communal celebrations. Even segments of the Orthodox world willingly included some form of ritual recognition for twelve-year-old girls. Thus, the Bat Mitsva celebration became the entry point for women into the Jewish world today, a valid rite of passage that marks the transformation of the individual from one status in society to another. In this context, it represents an important vehicle for affirmation and endorsement of female Jews. Given the current popularity of Bat Mitsva ceremonies, one might contend that women's practice of religion is no longer an invisible or marginal issue. [End Page 234]

The validation of Bat Mitsva ceremonies in and of themselves is not earth shattering. Yet, the process of instituting them, the problems faced, the strategies used, the arguments voiced, and the gains made reveal the tip of a feminist transformative iceberg. 4 At issue is the acceptance of women as religious beings who sincerely need to publicly participate in, and sometimes stand at the center of, communal celebrations. At issue is the role of religion in the lives of Jewish women and in the human macrocosm. 5

The feminist critique stimulated women within certain religious traditions to reexamine the levels of their participation and invisibility. Some deeply religious women chose not to abandon Judaism or Christianity but instead demanded greater recognition and participation. That the demand has been greeted with denigration and opposition—some might even say hostility—only serves to indicate how threatening and serious this new challenge is.

Rites of Passage for Women

To require a rite of passage for girls signifies the beginning of recognizing and celebrating women as active "adult" Jews, regardless of their married state. The celebration is significant within the contemporary community as a framework for a response to modernity and to the feminist critique. Women are, after all, part of the Jewish world. They are born, grow up, some marry, and die as Jews. They work, celebrate, and suffer as Jews. The Bat Mitsva phenomenon then recognizes an entry point for women as Jews. 6 All sociological studies focus on the importance of these life cycle rituals as vehicles for individual and corporate learning, commitment, and identity. 7

Rites of passage mark the entry of an individual into a new status and designate incorporation into the community. Some cultures claim that the neophyte is shaped into the next stage by the ritual. 8 Many initiates understand the ritual in terms of their own self-identity...


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