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    Turning a girl into a Bat-Mitzvah

    A Bat-Mitzvah at Sydney's Great Synagogue

    The media have devoted much attention to the “solo” Bat-Mitzvah which we are celebrating at the Great Synagogue this Shabbat. Perhaps they have been disappointed that no dramatic internal clashes within the congregation have led up to today, nor has there been any controversy. The fact is that group Bat-Mitzvahs have taken place at the Great Synagogue for a hundred and thirty years, and the feeling crystallised that an interesting option might be to allow a girl a ceremony at which she herself would be the focus of attention, not simply as one of a group.

    We have no intention of abandoning the traditional group Bat-Mitzvah; some girls will choose to participate in both. The attraction of the individual ceremony is evident; the group ceremony also has a significance of its own, as the months of study leading up to it weld the group into a chevra, looked back upon with great pleasure by many adult women who, early in their lives, took part in one of our Bat-Mitzvah classes.

    Rev AB Davis pioneered girls’ ceremonies in Sydney in the 1860s, about the same time as they commenced in London. The approving attitude of British Chief Rabbis was summed up by JH Hertz in 1929: “‘Ours is a new anxiety, unknown to Jewry before,’ said a noted Jewish scholar, ‘the anxiety about the religious education of our women’. As teachers of Judaism we recognise it is our sacred duty to face the danger, and to grapple with it. The contemplated course of instruction for girls is a sincere attempt in that direction. May God’s blessing rest upon all who contribute towards its success.”

    Dr Hertz rightly emphasised that the chief criterion was the course of study that preceded the ceremony. The insistence that no girl can be part of a Bat-Mitzvah programme without adequate educational preparation is axiomatic. Unfortunately, there are times when Bar-Mitzvah boys are less adequately prepared than are the Bat-Mitzvah girls!

    Bar-Mitzvah celebrations, though with reservations, were endorsed by Rabbi JJ Weinberg, a great halachic authority. Responding to the claim that Bat-Mitzvah may be an imitation of the non-Jewish confirmation, Rav Weinberg says that if this is true we would also have to oppose Bar-Mitzvahs because non-Jews confirm boys, too. The aim of Bat-Mitzvah, he adds, is not to imitate anyone else but “to strengthen in the heart of a girl reaching the age of mitzvot a feeling of love for Judaism and its commandments and to arouse in her a feeling of pride in her Jewishness and her belonging to a great and holy people”.

    To the argument that Bat-Mitzvah is an innovation, Rav Weinberg says that once, when Jews were intensely observant, such celebrations may have been unnecessary. Today, however, it is “almost imperative to celebrate the attainment of the age of mitzvot for girls also. Moreover, the discrimination between boys and girls regarding the celebration of their reaching maturity would gravely offend the human feelings of the maturing girl.”

    True, Rabbi Weinberg and others ask that the celebration not be in a synagogue but at home or in a hall. But in communities such as ours and many others, the synagogal Bat-Mitzvah ceremony has become accepted practice. Joining a number of likeminded orthodox synagogues here and overseas, we have now decided to vary the options available to girls. The procedures we have worked out are similar to those adopted elsewhere and do not affect the rule that males conduct official statutory services. We are maintaining the age-old requirements of halachah at the same time as recognising that there are a growing number of sincerely religious Jewish women who yearn for a greater feeling of participation.

    This article originally appeared on 26 August 1995, Shabbat Parashat Re’eh.

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