Once when I was in my early teens my best friend and I were sitting at night on a park bench having one of our intense conversations. I don’t remember what brought it about but we made a solemn promise to meet again at the same place on the same date at night, in ten years’ time.
I was reminded of the power of promises when I took part in a conference devoted to an important, yet too often marginalized occasion in a Jewish girl’s life—her Bat Mitzva.
In Judaism a Bar Mizva on a boy’s 13th birthday is considered a milestone even within the secular community. On that day the boy joins the adult community as he commits himself to fulfill the Mitzvas—the Biblical commandments and Jewish law. The meaning and obligations of the Bar Mtizva are clearly specified and the occasion has been celebrated in the same way for hundreds of years. Many secular Jews still choose to mark this day with a religious celebration; thus my father’s Bar Mtizva in Berlin (1926), my brother’s in Haifa (1961), and even my nephew’s in Jerusalem (1988), were basically the same.
Unfortunately the Bat Mitzva --a girls 12th birthday has not gained similar significance in Judaism and has never become a meaningful turning point in her life, quite the contrary. From an Orthodox religion's stand point there is neither content nor tradition to this occasion.
The sad state of the Bat Mitzva in Judaism is another example of what Virginia Woolf calls “Arthur's Education Fund” (Three Guineas): the fact that women’s money was used by their families to finance expensive education for their brothers. The Bat Mitzva has remained Arthur’s uneducated sister who stayed behind.
The conference in honor of the Bat Mitzva was a culmination of a serious ongoing effort by women Rabbis, feminists and mothers to amend the situation and endow the Bat Mitzva ceremony with relevant and meaningful contents and traditions. It was organized by a woman Rabbi who for years has been devoting lots of time and energy to this cause. It was held in a major Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv and it was a huge success . The hall was packed with excited women who have been involved in bringing about this change, and were eager to share their experience and knowledge. Many women in the audience were mothers who did not have a Bat Mitzva themselves but were determined to give their daughters a memorable event.
Not having contents and practices could also be liberating: Arthur’s sister grew up to be Virginia Woolf and we only know of Arthur from her writing. Thus this void is an opportunity to do away with the confining religious aspects of the Bar Mtizva and to give the Bat Mizva content and practice the will give the girls confidence, satisfaction and meaning. It is also an opportunity for them to make certain commitments, and to take upon themselves some obligations; those will make the celebration even more meaningful.
We are not always able to keep certain promises or to meet all our obligations, but we should encourage the girls to make them. Promises insure our involvement, they endow our actions with significance and add a sense of purpose to those actions. Unfortunately ten years later I was not able to make the date and meet my friend, but that promise strengthened the commitment of our friendship.
The Organizer of the conference summarized her inspiring opening lecture with the following statement: as women, mothers and members of the community we should make sure that our girls are equipped with a benevolent narrative about their identity and their future. And I add, so that they can have courage, get involved and make a difference.