87th Anniversary of First Bat/s Mitzvah

On this day in 1922, twelve-year-old Judith Kaplan was called to the lectern of her father’s new synagogue to read a passage of Torah, in Hebrew and English, from a printed text, thereby becoming the first bat mitzvah’d girl in the three-thousand-year history of the Jewish people. 

The ritual did not exactly mirror the bar mitzvah ceremony, through which boys had been ushered into Jewish manhood since the Middle Ages, as Mordechai Kaplan was apparently not quite ready for his daughter to chant directly from the scroll. But the act was a measure of his respect for the wife and four daughters with whom he shared his home, and a significant plank in his program for the reconstruction of Jewish life.  

Kaplan was forty-years-old, and standing at a crossroads. His career as an orthodox rabbi was over, and he had found an uneasy home for himself within the fledgling Conservative movement, which he was coming to resent for diagnosing the ills of Jewish life without offering a cure. He founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism to be a site for more robust confrontation between tradition and modernity. Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, which introduced a more enlightened perspective on women’s rights into Jewish culture, was an opening salvo.  

The bat mitzvah is now commonplace. In liberal Judaism, it is equivalent in all respects to the bar mitzvah. Orthodox Judaism also allows for a female coming-of-age ritual, though it generally rivals Judith Kaplan’s in trying to keep girls out of the regular flow of the service.   

There are feminist gains still to be consolidated, but the frontier has largely moved on from sex to sexuality. Kaplan’s Reconstructionism, along with Reform, were early pioneers of GLBT Jewish rights though the Conservative movement has recently begun to follow.

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