I recently stumbled upon a blog post that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first Bat Mitzvah in America, on March 18, 1922.1 That may not mean much to most of you, but it really interested me because of my long history of interaction with Jewish communities throughout my ministry years. We’re more familiar with the term Bar Mitzvah, “Son of the Commandments.” Bat Mitzvah is simply the female form of the term, meaning “Daughter of the Commandments.” This is Judaism’s coming-of-age ceremony, in which the person is formally recognized as an adult.
Though the term Bar Mitzvah is not mentioned in the Jewish Bible, Judaism has always taught that there’s something special about a boy’s thirteenth birthday that makes him personally accountable, before God, for his own actions. This is a great responsibility, but it’s also a great honor. The importance of this moment in his spiritual life is dramatized by the aliyah (literally “going up”), when he climbs the stairs to the Synagogue platform and reads the Bible before the congregation for the first time.
However, the term Bat Mitzvah is very recent. It’s really part of the whole movement toward gender equality that the world has been experiencing for the past two centuries. Traditionally, Judaism had a special place for women, honored, but definitely subservient. Just like virtually all other religions, cultures and governments. Women have been struggling to climb out of that pit for several generations, and each inch of the struggle has been hard fought: the right to own property, the right to higher education and professional careers, the right to vote and to hold office. Even in “enlightened” twenty-first century America, after decades of fighting by women’s rights advocates, we have still not passed the “Equal Rights Amendment,” which would guarantee, among other things, “equal pay for equal work.”2
While following up on that first Bat Mitzvah in 1922, I was surprised to discover that it was modeled after a similar service twenty years earlier (1902) that was celebrated in Lvov, Ukraine, a city we hear about in today’s news. That ceremony was performed by Rabbi Dr. Yehezkel Caro, known as “the rabbi for the enlightened Jews.”3 A Jewish community has existed in Ukraine since the ninth century, growing to be as much as one-third of the country’s population before being decimated in more recent times by pogroms under Russian rule and systematic genocide by the Nazis during World War II. However, some of Judaism’s most interesting new ideas have come from this Ukrainian community.4
While I was researching this, I stumbled on a current blog post about Project Kesher (Kesher means linkage, network):
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Bat Mitzvah, Project Kesher is preparing women and girls in Belarus, Israel, Russia, and Ukraine to become ‘Daughters of the Covenants.’ On March 24, 2022, we will gather on Zoom for a lively global Bat Mitzvah celebration at 12 noon eastern time. In this one hour program, we will meet Bat Mitzvah participants of all ages, hear their stories, and debut a video documenting their journeys.5
Right now, while Russian missiles are exploding around them, this association of Jewish women in a war-torn area are affirming their full equality with men before God.
These Bat Mitzvah advocates are putting Christianity to shame. We have the example of Christ, the teaching of Christ, the Spirit of Christ and the power of Christ, yet many Christian groups still fail to affirm the full equality of women in their worship, their ruling boards and their pulpits. We ought to be leaders in this struggle, not reluctant followers.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
1 The young girl was Judith Kaplan, the daughter of a New York rabbi: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-first-bat-mitzvah-in-the-united-states
2 The ERA was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in December, 1923, and has never been ratified by enough states to become law.
It should be noted that this early Bat Mitzvah still included some gender bias: the young woman was not allowed to go up (aliyah) to read the Scripture before the congregation. Such distinctions are still made by some Orthodox Jewish groups. Others have different coming-of-age points, 13 for boys, but 12 for girls.
4 For a full study of the history of Ukrainian Jews, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWQWCliUNXo