American Reform Responsa

32. Bat Mitzvah

(Vol. LXIV, 1954, pp. 81-83)

QUESTION: For the past few years I have been with a congregation where some of the parents believe in Bar Mitzvah. I get the boys ready for the ceremony and attend the extravagant parties staged. Some of my colleagues, who are more impressed than I am, are even planning to introduce Bat Mitzvah. Frankly, I am puzzled. What actuated the early Reformers in their decisive stand against the Bar Mitzvah idea? Are those reasons no longer tenable? And what about Bat Mitzvah, concerning which the rabbis of yesterday had no occasion to formulate an opinion?

I may not understand the whole historical process. But the question I should like to have you answer is whether Reform Judaism has changed its course, or is it just drifting into another port?

ANSWER: A religion that seeks to mold a certain type of character will necessarily impose definite duties upon each individual life. It will also deem it within its province to determine when the age of individual responsibility shall begin, since the human personality develops but slowly and gradually.

In Biblical times a man was thought to have attained his majority at the age of twenty, when he became fully liable for any act of misconduct (Num. 14:29). In the Rabbinic period, a downward revision in the age of accountability took place. "For the first thirteen years of his son's life," a Rabbinic authority declared, "a father is obligated to attend to his son's conduct; thereafter, he should say, 'Praised be He who has exempted me from the liability now resting upon him"' (Genesis Rabba, 63.14).

When the Mishnaic teacher affirmed that at thirteen the age is reached for the fulfillment of the commandments (Avot 5.24), he did not mean to indicate the time when one's training in the performance of duty began, but rather the time when one began to bear full responsibility for any dereliction in the performance of his duties.

Accordingly, a boy who had attained his thirteenth year joined the "congregation," as it were. He formed part of the "quorum required for public worship; he wore the phylacteries during the morning prayers; and, he fasted on the Day of Atonement. In short, he became a full-fledged 'Son of the Covenant'--a Bar Mitzvah.

To mark the importance of the occasion, the father would take his Bar Mitzvah to a man of learning, who would bless him and pray for him, beseeching God to make him worthy of a life devoted to the study of Torah and good deeds (Soferim 18). The more elaborate Bar Mitzvah celebration, of which our latter day extravaganza is a curious offspring, seems to have originated in the 14th century, when a family party would be held in honor of the Bar Mitzvah (Abrahams, J.L.M.A., pp. 23, 144).

The exclusion of girls from this form of initiation might, of course, be interpreted as an act of discrimination, mirroring the time when women stood none too high in the intellectual and social scale. Yet, when we consider the fact that women were legally exempt from religious duties the performance of which was linked to a specified time, we may discern in the Rabbinic attitude not a disparagement of woman, but a more just appraisal of the value of her time. What she had to do at a given time--the Rabbis may well have held--was of infinitely greater importance than the punctilious observance of some ritual practice.

At any rate, when Reform Judaism arose, the leaders felt quite acutely that the time had come for an upward revision of the age at which maturity and moral responsibility began. The Rabbinic estimate of the degree of maturity which a boy of thirteen was capable of achieving might have been true in days long past; it surely did not hold true in the opening days of the l9th century. Nor were these leaders satisfied that in an age of shifting emphases--when not conformity to ritual, but adjustment to life, became the chief concern of men--the religious instruction represented by the requirements for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was adequate or even pertinent. Then, too, eager as they were to raise the status of women in the synagogue, they could not but view the conspicuous Bar Mitzvah ceremony as a striking reminder of the dominant role the male chose to play in the house of God.

Confirmation, as instituted by the early Reformers, put boys and girls on a plane of equality. It also opened the way for a modification of the age of maturity as fixed by the Rabbis. Above all, it initiated, and has since helped to develop, a new system of religious education, which has vitally affected the course of American Judaism.

Yet, despite its feeble basis in the realities of religious living, Bar Mitzvah has retained its old appeal for many parents in some of our Reform congregations. In fact, in many recently organized congregations, it has assumed a position of importance which it had never before attained. It would seem that when the substance eludes our grasp, we tighten our hold on the shell.

But the Reform synagogue, committed to the principle that it is the function of religion to serve human needs, stands ready to respond to any call for service that may come from its members. Our rabbis do well when they comply with the wishes of parents and prepare their sons for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. However devoid of substance the rite may be, if the boy's training in the religious school is not discontinued, the nostalgic indulgence of the parents may be productive of some good. Surely, the special type of instruction offered for the occasion should serve to stimulate interest in the language of the Bible.

Quite different, however, must be our attitude to the proposed Bat Mitzvah ceremony, which goes counter to tradition and for which there is no popular demand. When a new religious practice is urged upon us, of whose value our fathers had no estimate and we have had no convincing demonstration, it is not enough to point to some by-product of possible utility, as we attempt to do in the case of the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Unless the new project recommends itself to us by its inherent worth and direct positive purpose, none of its strained qualities shall ever win and hold our active interest.

It is surely vain to hope that we shall keep Bar Mitzvah alive by reinforcing it with Bat Mitzvah--two figments do not make one fact. Reform Judaism has not changed its course. In striving to meet the needs of men, in countenancing even dubious experiments, the Reform synagogue is true to itself and to the principle that gave it birth.

Israel Bettan

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.