The Founding of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) Was Significant: Not Primarily Because of the ‘First Bat Mitzvah’

On March 18, 1922, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (the SAJ), 12-year-old Judith Kaplan was called forward to read a passage from the humash (a book containing the Five Books of Moses — not from the Torah scroll). The parashah was Ki Tisa. Her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, chanted the Torah blessing before and after this recitation. He had told the board of his new synagogue ahead of time that he wanted to do this, and while it was not exactly voted on, no opposition was registered. Serious objections were expressed by his mother and his mother-in-law, but he paid them no attention. We do not know exactly what passage she read. We can assume it was from the parashah of the week. Seventy years later, she told an interviewer it was Kedoshim, but she admitted to me she just didn’t remember what she had read.

 This represents the entirety of what we really know about this event. Anything else you hear has been invented and embellished by others. For a variety of reasons, this event has become what I would call an urban legend. They call it the first bat mitzvah; they proclaim it the beginning not only of equal rights for women but of inclusivity in general. Beyond that, they purport to know where little Judith sat until called up, what portion little Judith CHANTED (she didn’t chant), how she felt about it, what she looked like, how nervous she was or wasn’t, and what the weather was. Maybe more to the point, many claim that the Reconstructionist movement basically invented the bat mitzvah, not to mention the value of “inclusivity” — something nobody had ever thought of before — and directly influenced the rest of the Jewish world to follow suit which, though haltingly, they finally did.

I think that what has been done with this event distorts both the event itself and the philosophy behind it, to the detriment of both.

First: Most people I have spoken to do not know that the concept of bat mitzvah — namely, a girl, a person who has achieved majority — is as longstanding as bar mitzvah. It is a person, not an event. In mainstream Jewish tradition, every Jewish girl becomes bat mitzvah by turning 12. At the age of majority, we become entitled to adult privileges and take on adult obligations. For boys, it is the age when one is entitled to be called to the Torah, and so that is how he celebrates the occasion. Since girls were neither obliged nor entitled to be called to the Torah, the celebration (if any) would necessarily be something other than that. But becoming bat mitzvah was celebrated in the past and is celebrated by many Orthodox people and secularists, and has been over the ages. Israeli secularists throw big parties for their 12-year-old girls and call it a bat mitzvah celebration, without ever seeing the inside of a synagogue. So little Judith was decidedly not the first bat mitzvah, here or elsewhere.

Second, my mother was an accomplished musician who contributed much to the Jewish community with her books, her teachings and her compositions. A feminist pioneer she was not. In 1922, she was a shy 12-year- old who obediently, but proudly, did what her father asked her to do. Reading a paragraph in Hebrew was not difficult for her and obviously took no preparation beyond a run-through the night before.

Third: It is an exaggeration to say that this 1922 celebration started a trend. Until about 1970 or so, nobody remembered (or had been informed) that Judith had been the “first bat mitzvah.” While her sisters and a few others followed suit, not even every girl at the SAJ celebrated becoming bat mitzvah — perhaps until the late 1940s or early 1950s. Meanwhile, the Reform movement, which had abolished both bar and bat mitzvah entirely, began bringing it back in the late 1940s as East European Jews joined Reform synagogues and would not do without bar mitzvah! And as they brought it back, slowly, they made it egalitarian and pegged it to age 13 for both boys and girls. Finally, in the late 1950s, the Conservative movement began having bat mitzvah observances in the synagogue because everybody else was doing it already. Yes, the SAJ was ahead of them all, but it is not clear the rest of the world knew it. Each group thought they had invented it — or their congregations thought so. Those who knew otherwise did not tell. Thus, it is hard to say that little Judith paved the way and then everyone followed. It just did not happen that way.

Fourth: The 1922 bat mitzvah did not bring about equality for women in the synagogue even at the SAJ. The few girls who celebrated becoming bat mitzvah in the SAJ in the 1930s and 1940s were called to the Torah and did say the blessings. But it was the last time they could do so until 1950. There was no equality for adult women, only for 12-year-olds. Equality at the SAJ itself stalled for 28 years. (And don’t forget: the Reconstructionist movement was still identical to the SAJ). Similarly, no one thought of the 1922 bat mitzvah, then or for long thereafter, as a general embrace of “inclusivity.” Until the 1960s, the SAJ followed strictly the mainstream Jewish definitions of who was in and who was out. “Inclusivity” as such was not a value on anyone’s agenda.

Fifth and finally: The really big news of the year was not that little Judy was called to read a passage from the humash. The big news was the founding of the SAJ earlier that same year, creating an institution where radical change could happen. Mordecai Kaplan had declared that he would put into practice his concept of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. He would not be limited by halakhah. It did not matter, for example, whether or not celebrating bat mitzvah could be justified by Jewish “law”(though there are scholars who think it could). Judaism was going to have to reflect current values. We were going to have to reconstruct (not jettison) the traditional practices based on new assumptions about God and Torah.

The bat mitzvah service in 1922 did not seriously rattle the Jewish community. Far more radical things happened at the SAJ that did rattle the Jewish world, starting with the publication in 1941 of the New Haggadah and the Sabbath Prayer Book in 1945, the rejection of the traditional claim that the Torah was revealed by God at Mount Sinai and the doctrine of the “chosen people.” We should celebrate all of them, and most especially, the SAJ’s 100 years.

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