How Bat Mitzvah Became Orthodox

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by Zev Eleff and Menachem Butler

In 1972, Kehilath Jeshurun in New York announced the formation of a new synagogue ritual. On December 16, the Upper East Side congregation held a program on Saturday afternoon to “honor four young ladies from our congregational family who have recently reached their twelfth birthday and who are, therefore, recognized by the Jewish community as responsible members of the Jewish people.” On this weekend, the Se’udah Shlishit—third Sabbath meal—was reoriented to observe what was “commonly referred to as Bat Mitzvah.” The addition of bat mitzvah to the Jewish lifecycle was a relatively new feature intended, if only in nomenclature, to match the boys’ bar mitzvah ritual. For traditional Jews, the two rites of passage could never be the exact same. Unlike a bar mitzvah which usually called on the thirteen-year-old boy to chant from the Torah on the Sabbath and lay tefilin on the weekday, bat mitzvah lacked any firm ceremonial structure or liturgical formulation. The amorphousness boded well for Orthodox congregations that would not compromise the integrity of Halakhah; a celebratory sermon and a smattering of songs, figured Upper East Side advocates, did not violate any section of Jewish law. At Kehilath Jeshurun, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein addressed the four young women to acknowledge that “much more is expected of women in religious performance” and songs were dedicated in their honor.1 Soon after, the Looksteins celebrated their own daughter’s bat mitzvah at Kehilath Jeshurun:

We are pleased to announce that the Bat Mitzvah celebration for Mindy Lookstein, daughter of Rabbi and Mrs. Haskel Lookstein, will be held on Shabbat Hagadol afternoon, April 14th, in the Main Synagogue and in the Kamber Auditorium.

Mindy, a student in Grade 6 in Ramaz, will deliver a brief talk at a Seudah Shlishit in her honor. Mincha services will begin that afternoon at 5:45. The entire congregation is invited to join with the Looksteins in celebration of this happy milestone in their family’s life.2

The Upper West Side also introduced bat mitzvah around this time. In June 1973, Lincoln Square Synagogue organized a modest ritual for Ms. Elena Kagan.3 In the ensuing years, a number of other Lincoln Square families—but not all—elected to celebrate some form of bat mitzvah ceremony, at the encouragement of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.4 In 1974, Rabbi Norman Lamm revealed some caution as he reported to the congregants at The Jewish Center that he would “accept” bat mitzvah under certain circumstances (“provided the young lady recites divrei Torah so as to distinguish it from an ordinary birthday party”). While he “neither encouraged nor discouraged it,” Rabbi Lamm anticipated that in time he would stand alongside Rabbis Lookstein and Riskin as a supporter of the new Orthodox practice. “Some day in the near future,” he confessed, “I suspect, I may actively encourage young ladies to celebrate Bat Mitzvah.”5

In New York, these were the exceptional instances of Orthodox Judaism’s embrace of bat mitzvah. In the 1970s, Rabbi J. David Bleich observed that bat mitzvah rituals were “virtually ignored by most segments of Orthodox Judaism.”6 Rabbi Lamm’s ambivalence bespoke a sense of trepidation among Orthodox rabbis that inhibited the girls’ ceremony from gaining a substantial foothold in this community. To many, the bat mitzvah was a ritual that stood for Conservative Judaism.7 In 1922, the liberal-Conservative (later, Reconstructionist) Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan arranged for his daughter, Judith, to pronounce the blessing over the Torah and read from it in Hebrew and English, as well. To many writers and scholars, this event represented the introduction of bat mitzvah to American Judaism.8 By and large, Reform Judaism in this period ignored bat mitzvah, dismissing it as a form of “orientalism,” out of touch with western culture. Besides, Reform congregations much preferred confirmation ceremonies, a public religious examination of sixteen- to eighteen-year-old boys and girls typically held on the Shavuot holiday that dated back to nineteenth century Europe. In 1950, virtually all Reform congregations hosted confirmation while just a quarter observed some form of bat mitzvah. During the interwar years, many Conservative congregations also adopted confirmation and refused bat mitzvah on similar grounds to their Reform counterparts. Yet, after much debate the bat mitzvah emerged as a staple within the Conservative synagogue by the 1950s and 1960s.9

The actual ritual, however, differed and depended on the preferences of the rabbis and laypeople of the respective Conservative congregations. In some synagogues, young women were formally called up to the Torah. This, of course, more-closely paralleled the boys’ bar mitzvah than rituals that resembled mere birthday parties. In others, an actual aliyah was too drastic a departure from traditional Jewish law. Instead, these more moderate Conservative congregations settled for Friday night or Saturday afternoon ceremonies that featured sermons and other festivities. In these varieties, congregations were still free to compose liturgies and furnish new rituals. Either way, this troubled Orthodox observers who on halakhic grounds resisted any attempt to move toward religious egalitarianism and on principle stood in cautious defense of innovation, particularly in the synagogue. Most of all, Orthodox opponents challenged any religious innovation that lacked any firm connection to earlier custom, or as some today speak of it, “Masorah.”10

Certainly, New Yorkers like Rabbi Lookstein and Rabbi Riskin recognized this. Neither was in favor of initiating a bat mitzvah that looked exactly like the male equivalent. Both Orthodox leaders, however, felt that some sort of marker of a girl’s ascendance to Jewish adulthood was a necessary modern accommodation. They were determined to formulate rituals that had meaning, but did not interfere with the standard Orthodox prayer service. To quell potential resistance, Kehilath Jeshurun explained to its constituents that the introduction of the bat mitzvah ritual was unconnected to religious egalitarianism. Rabbi Lookstein was clear that his intention was not to “duplicate the corresponding ceremony for boys,” but to establish a religious mechanism for young women to acknowledge their transition to maturity.11 Rabbi Riskin did not offer a defense for the ritual, but did take political measures to avoid controversy. The announcement for the inaugural Lincoln Square bat mitzvah was broadcast as an understated notice, listed among eighteen other “Congratulations and Mazel Tov” wishes: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Kagan on the Bat Mitzvah of their daughter Elana.”12

However, the situation beyond Gotham was markedly different. Much earlier in the developing Orthodox frontier, rabbis and laypeople had embraced bat mitzvah as an appropriate ritual to recruit members to their communities. The same Orthodox Jews also advocated for “Friday night forums.” In the winter months when the Sabbath started in the workday hours, many Jews refused to end business early and attend synagogue. To accommodate, Conservative congregations hosted late-evening prayer services. This was unacceptable to most Orthodox rabbis who could not countenance “religious miscreants.” In their congregations, prayers were scheduled “on time.” Still, a number of Orthodox congregations hosted late “Friday night forums” that featured lectures and songs; but no evening prayer service. Configured this way, the late Friday night program did not change the prayer schedule but did offer a portal of entry for suburban Jews into the Orthodox synagogue.13

In all likelihood, these congregations would have identified with the women and men of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue who from the outset viewed themselves as “pioneers,” ready to adapt, to morph within certain limits of Orthodoxy to compete in the marketplace of American Judaism.14 Such “frontierism” was a unique feature of American culture. Long ago, historian Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that the pioneers along the American frontier were the primary developers of “American social development.”15 The spread of bat mitzvah along that same frontier reflected the dynamism and development of an Orthodox Jewish spirit in the United States that was willing to take risks to gain a sturdier foothold. In time, New York Orthodoxy also incorporated bat mitzvah into its religious program. The periphery, then, heavily influenced the Orthodox geographic center. The adoption of bat mitzvah among “out-of-town” communities as a necessary means to ensure Orthodox social stability—that was helped along by a sympathetic Israeli halakhic folkway—proved that certain forms of bat mitzvah rituals did not pose a threat to Orthodox life.16 Furthermore, by the close of the twentieth century the battle lines of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism had moved so substantially that bat mitzvah no longer represented the same threat to rabbinic leaders that it had around midcentury. All this helps to explain how—despite early accusations of heresy—bat mitzvah emerged as a bona fide Orthodox ritual.

Bat Mitzvah and the (New York) Rabbinic Mind

In 1963, Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg submitted a three-part article on bat mitzvah to Ha-Pardes. The monthly served as the leading rabbinic journal in the United States and provided a crucial forum for scholars to communicate and debate Jewish law. Though he was hardly enamored with the periodical, Rabbi Weinberg, a Holocaust refugee “exiled” in Montreux, Switzerland, was isolated from rabbinic scholars and frequently looked to Ha-Pardes to quench his intellectual thirsts.17 According to one biographer, Rabbi Weinberg “assuaged his loneliness and narrowed the distance from centers of Torah scholarship by ‘speaking in learning’ through the medium of letters.”18 In this instance, Rabbi Weinberg sought to justify bat mitzvah on the grounds that it did not fall into the prohibition of imitating gentiles and heretics. Offering great encouragement, Rabbi Weinberg ruled that bat mitzvah celebrations should be observed in homes; he decided against ritualizing in the synagogue out of respect for the sensitivities of those who opposed the practice. This compromise, he claimed, was in accordance with a recent ruling of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Rabbi Weinberg marshalled many proofs to support his claim. It was clear, though, as another Rabbi Weinberg biographer has pointed out, that the rabbinic scholar “had made up his mind that the bat mitzvah celebration was a positive manifestation, and he then set out to find the means of justifying it halakhically.”19 This was all too apparent in the final paragraphs of the responsum. There, Rabbi Weinberg addressed the claim that bat mitzvah could never be tethered to traditional Jewish practice:

In truth, however, this is no argument. In previous generations it was unnecessary to be preoccupied with the education of girls for every Jewish person was filled with Torah and fear of Heaven. Moreover, the atmosphere in each and every city in Israel was filled to capacity with the flavor and spirit of Judaism. Girls who were raised in a Jewish home imbibed the spirit of Judaism without doing anything and practically absorbed Judaism from their mothers’ breast. Now the generations have become radically transformed. The atmosphere of the street removed any spark of Judaism from the heart of every boy and girl. Girls are educated in non-Jewish schools or in secular schools that they do not take pains to implant love of the Torah of Israel and of the holy customs of authentic Judaism in the heart of their students … indeed, it is a very painful matter that, insofar as general education is concerned, regarding instruction in languages, secular literature, sciences and humanities, there is concern for girls just as for boys, whereas with regard to religious education, biblical studies, the ethical literature of the Sages and the practical mitzvot regarding which women are obligated, there is utter neglect. Fortunately, the great Jewish leaders of the previous generation recognized this failure and established institutions of Torah and religious encouragement for Jewish girls. The establishment of a great and comprehensive network of Beth Jacob schools is the most splendid accomplishment of our age. Sound logic and the obligation of fundamental pedagogic principles would practically mandate that one also celebrate attainment of the obligation of mitzvot on the part of a girl. Discrimination between boys and girls with regard to the celebration of maturity is an affront to the human feelings of the adolescent girl, who in other respects, as it were, has been accorded the privileges of emancipation.20

Rabbi Weinberg’s lenient ruling concerned the journal’s editor, Rabbi Simcha Elberg. Perhaps with some reluctance, Rabbi Elberg published the essays, probably on the basis that Rabbi Weinberg was one of the undisputed leading European rabbinical scholars remaining in the wake of the Nazi conflagration. Still, Rabbi Elberg wrote to Rabbi Weinberg to dispute the claim that the latter and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein were in accord on the issue. In fact, the tone of Rabbi Feinstein’s “lenient” ruling differed markedly from Rabbi Weinberg’s enthusiastic support of bat mitzvah. In 1957, Rabbi Bernard Poupko of out-of-town Pittsburgh queried Rabbi Feinstein on the parameters of bat mitzvah celebration. Rabbi Feinstein described bat mitzvah as “meaningless” (hevel be’alma) and of no greater halakhic significance than a birthday party. Rabbi Feinstein forbade bat mitzvah in the synagogue and only with considerable reluctance tolerated it in homes.21 Rabbi Weinberg, then, was far keener on bat mitzvah than Rabbi Feinstein. Nonetheless, Rabbi Weinberg did not recant. He defended his position on the grounds that he and Rabbi Feinstein both allowed bat mitzvah in the home but not in the synagogue.22

Interestingly, Rabbi Weinberg’s essays did not elicit response in subsequent issues of Ha-Pardes. Perhaps, this was the case because the rabbinate in the United States had already decided on the halakhic impropriety of the bat mitzvah ritual and, like Rabbi Elberg, was uneager to reopen the matter to further consideration. This was particularly true for the Eastern European Orthodox rabbis who had a penchant for “resisting” rather than “accommodating” to modern American life.23 Some opposed bat mitzvah on technical halakhic grounds: primarily, they questioned whether the Barukh She-Petarani blessing and Se’udat Mitzvah are applicable for a young girl as they are for a bar mitzvah boy.24 However, the main objection to bat mitzvah centered on its affront to traditional Jewish practice; or, a blatant incorporation of a non-Orthodox ritual. In 1958, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz addressed his colleagues of the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim. His subject was the threat of Conservative Judaism to Orthodox Jewish life in the United States. Among his complaints, Rabbi Teitz spoke at length on the Conservative’s blurring of the gender roles that was evidenced in the installation of mixed pews and the introduction of bat mitzvah ceremonies.25 In future addresses, the leading member of the rabbinical group’s presidium and a prominent rabbi in Elizabeth, New Jersey, spared no opportunity to discourage bat mitzvah ceremonies among the Orthodox.26

Rabbi Teitz was joined by many other respected Orthodox scholars, and not just those in the United States. Rabbi Aharon Walkin of Pinsk coupled bat mitzvah together with other traditional synagogue infractions like the use of an organ in the service, as he called on his rabbinical colleagues to “guard the borders” of Judaism.27 In Brooklyn, Rabbi Meir Amsel blamed Orthodox bat mitzvah organizers for “ignoring the grave sins that cause others to stumble.” These included: “abuse of holy religion, imitating gentiles, mingling of the sexes and moving them toward sexual illicitness, profaning the holiness of the Torah and the sacredness of the synagogue, and much more that cannot be listed here.”28 Nearby in Williamsburg, the Hungarian-trained Rabbi Hananiah Yom Tov Lipa Deutsch dubbed bat mitzvah an “abomination.”29 Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati described bat mitzvah as an “innovation” and “reform” that “should not be observed by the Orthodox.”30 For these prominent and learned rabbis, it was of no consequence how the bat mitzvah ritual was structured and whether or not they could pinpoint which sections of Jewish law were violated in the process. What mattered was that bat mitzvah was a religious reform disconnected from “tradition” and too closely associated with other forms and movements within Judaism.31

Against this abrasive stance toward bat mitzvah, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was the lone “supporter” of the girls’ ritual among leading rabbinic migrants in the United States in the immediate post-World War II period.32 And, of course, Rabbi Feinstein’s tolerance of the ritual was offered with great reluctance. His position essentially downgraded it to a nonreligious lifecycle event. In a later responsum, Rabbi Feinstein permitted a post-prayer service kiddush in honor of the bat mitzvah girl, but only because “it is the custom in this country to host a kiddush for any kind of commemoration.”33 Still, this ruling rendered him vulnerable to the condemnations of those who feared the bat mitzvah—endowed with religious significance or not—as a threat to their traditionalism. Rabbi Feinstein’s opponents seized the opportunity to censure him for his “lenient” stance toward bat mitzvah. They accused him of accommodating a “gentile” practice and parting ways with the elder rabbis in the United States that sought to “defend themselves against reforms of this kind.”34 Owing to this, the majority of Orthodox rabbis in New York could not risk introducing bat mitzvah into their communities.

Orthodox Frontierism

In 1944, a female congregant in Brooklyn’s Congregation Anshe Emes asked her rabbi about the propriety of bat mitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue. “Rabbi, I liked the Bar Mitzvah ceremony very much,” she began. “But, tell me, Rabbi, why don’t you do something for the girls?” Rabbi Jerome Tov Feinstein (no known relation to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) concurred. The reason that Orthodox Judaism had not formulated a public ceremony for young women, explained Rabbi Feinstein, was that it was new. In the past, he—like most other Orthodox rabbis—was aware of the hostility. However, in light of the revelatory conversation with his female congregant, Rabbi Feinstein was now unconvinced by the arguments. “I believe,” he told her, “that you are absolutely right in suggesting that some public ceremony be introduced for the girl when she becomes a Bas Mitzvah.” Within the next few weeks and with the support of the local sisterhood, Feinstein organized a “Bas Mitzvah class” and prepared his first student for the makeshift ritual:

In order to obviate any possible criticism, I decided to conduct the ceremony at our Late Friday Evening Oneg Shabbat. With a bit of publicity in our Bulletin and special Post Cards, we had a record crowd for the Friday of the first Bas Mitzvah and for every other Friday on which we had a Bas Mitzvah. People from neighboring congregations came to see what it was all about. Relatives appeared in large numbers. The parents of the Bas Mitzvah were hosts for the evening and served refreshments. The girls began receiving Bas Mitzvah gifts from their relatives. Occasionally we had a Bas Mitzvah in the evening and a Bar Mitzvah in the morning. Both were treated equally and our girls and women began to feel that they were given a “square deal.” Remarks were uniformly enthusiastic and complimentary.35

Particularly in this period, the success of the Brooklyn-based bat mitzvah was an aberration. Most potential support for bat mitzvah was inhibited by the fierce rabbinic opposition to it that emanated from the synagogues and yeshivot of Orthodox-dense New York. Instead, bat mitzvah obtained its initial footholds along the Jewish frontier. Out there, Orthodox behavior and its overall position were far from fortified. Orthodox leaders were all too aware of this. Leading Orthodox centers like Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn warned their students about the dangers of venturing out of New York. “American Jews,” wrote one Torah Vodaath graduate in his 1955 yearbook, “have and still are spreading out in remote cities and villages, thereby losing contact with the core of Jewish life which had been established in New York.”36 Still, many did not follow this sort of advice. In the post-World War II era, Orthodox Jews ventured into the suburbs and competed with the other religious movements for adherents. Often, suburban Jews invited representatives of Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism to publicly debate the merits of their respective religious movements. In most cases, audiences found the middle-of-the-road Conservative rabbi most appealing.37 Chagrined by these outcomes, innovations such as bat mitzvah helped Orthodox suburbanites— typically young married couples with small children nearing bar and bat mitzvah ages—compete in the open-minded frontier. Jewish suburbanites were typically young married couples with small children nearing bar and bat mitzvah ages. In so doing, suburban clergymen relied on their judgement rather than the harsh declarations of New York rabbis. It helped that there was no set formula for the bat mitzvah ceremony. Orthodox rabbis were free to arrange the girls’ ritual on a Friday night after services or toward the close of the Sabbath on Saturday afternoon. Some preferred to host bat mitzvah ceremonies on Sunday mornings when many family members were free to attend. The common denominator of all these settings and times was that the bat mitzvah would not appear in the context of the standard prayer service.

Bat mitzvah also helped Orthodox Jews cooperate with other religious movements to foster Jewish communities. This was far less important to Orthodox Jews in New York who did not require the Jewish infrastructure provided by Reform and Conservative institutions. Take, for instance, the 1956 rabbinic ban on interdenominational dialogue.38 The “prohibition” was endorsed by leading New York-based scholars like Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Aharon Kotler. In fact, nine of the august eleven rabbinic signatories of the well-circulated censure hailed from New York.39 The whole matter was a highly disputed issue among and within Tri-State Orthodox communities. In many small out-of-town locales, it was a near-impossible position to adhere to this policy.40 In large measure, bat mitzvah was a similar feature of suburban Jewish life that the Orthodox could ill-afford to reject. In the second-half of the twentieth century, bat mitzvah emerged as a popular lifecycle event that invited and impelled the participation of Jews from all sectors of the community. For Orthodox congregations, it was a mechanism to recruit the religiously uninitiated and a ritual that became all-too-standard in close-knit suburban Jewish communities.

A survey of several suburban Orthodox communities is instructive. In the postwar era, few Orthodox Jews in Baltimore could fathom that others considered bat mitzvah a controversial ritual. By this time, it was well-entrenched. In the 1930s, Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt initiated the bat mitzvah ritual at Beth Tfiloh. At first, he was opposed by male lay leaders who, claimed Rabbi Rosenblatt, suffered from a “lack of imagination.” The young rabbi persisted with his plan and recruited an inaugural class of five girls to prepare for their bat mitzvah programs. According to Rabbi Rosenblatt, that first group of young ladies made quite an impression. The number of bat mitzvah students continued to rise. Moreover, the positive outcome of the Beth Tfiloh innovation compelled “all Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, led by English-speaking rabbis [to] follow suit.”41 To Rosenblatt’s point, Rabbi Uri Miller of Baltimore’s Beth Jacob wrote in 1958 about the bat mitzvah ceremonies in his congregation without any sense that it was off-limits in New York.42 In the 1950s, the reach of bat mitzvah extended to the rightward-leaning local Bais Yaakov school. In that time, the Ladies’ Auxiliary urged the school’s principal to offer a program to prepare and celebrate bat mitzvah girls. A relative newcomer to Maryland, the Brooklyn-educated Rabbi Hirsch Diskind was surprised by the request and turned to his father-in-law, the well-respected Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, for guidance. The latter’s response—in contrast to other Eastern European extracts at this time—surprised the young principal:

Much to Rabbi Diskind’s surprise, Reb Yaakov thought it was a terrific idea to impress upon the girls that they were no longer ketanos but gedolos. Doing so in a school setting was a great way to accomplish this, he said. As a matter of fact, Reb Yaakov told his son-in-law that he himself had held a family melava malka in honor of his two daughters’ bat mitzvas—for the eldest while he was a rav in Lithuania, and for the youngest, Rabbi Diskind’s wife, while he was a rav in Toronto.43

In addition, Chicago’s Orthodox Jews were quick to embrace the bat mitzvah ritual. In 1940, thirty-two-year-old President Oscar Fasman of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Hebrew Theological College (HTC) in Chicago announced that his group was “discussing the possibility of framing a dignified ‘Bas-Mitzvah’ ritual for girls.”44 Four years later, Rabbi Fasman published an article in an Orthodox Union periodical in which he urged that the “modern scene necessitates the creation of a ceremony by which the girl who becomes twelve years of age will be impressed with the importance of her status and will feel that Judaism does not ignore her.” Similar to Rabbi Jerome Tov Feinstein of Brooklyn, the Chicago-trained rabbi strongly recommended that Orthodox congregations take a “wise step by instituting some form of Bat Mitzvah procedure.”45 A well-read and savvy religious leader, this was assuredly Rabbi Fasman’s method to reject the claims of the anti-bat mitzvah rabbinate while not engaging in a full-fledged halakhic disputation.46

Rabbi Fasman and other HTC graduates were responsible for much of the spread of bat mitzvah and other accommodations in Jewish suburbia. Yeshiva University in New York held a firm grasp on the placement of rabbis in the far more Orthodoxly-dense East Coast. Well-aware of this, HTC rabbis more often found work in Orthodox congregations in the Midwest and West Coast of the United States. They also populated the pulpits of so-called “Traditional Synagogues” that made a number of—ostensibly temporary—concessions to recruit women and men and to introduce them to a traditional (i.e., non-Conservative) prayer service. To accomplish this, these congregations often featured mixed seating and used a microphone on the Sabbath.47 And, in the same spirit—but far less halakhically problematic—the rabbis of Traditional synagogues also sanctioned and encouraged bat mitzvah rituals.48 In 1963, the Council of Traditional Synagogues of Greater Chicago recommended to all constituent congregations “that the Bas Mitzvah ceremony could be conducted for the family and friends.”49 Rabbis were not the only ones who promoted bat mitzvah. The Yeshiva Women of the Hebrew Theological College produced a Mother’s Day play for its Midwestern sisterhoods to perform in their congregations. Describing the lifecycle of the “Orthodox” or “Traditional” Jewess, the script included the following benchmark: “Millie is a young lady now. She has just had her Bas Mitzvah at the shul, and has more fountain pens than the Waterman Co.”50 These efforts on behalf of bat mitzvah achieved considerable success. The local Jewish newspaper in Chicago recorded a number of bat mitzvah ceremonies conducted at Traditional Synagogues:

Cong. KINS of West Rogers Park will celebrate its first Bat Mitzva Sabbath night service on Saturday, March 14. This special Melaveh Malka service will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the sanctuary of the congregation, 2800 W. North Shore.51

Mr. and Mrs. Harry Warshausky of Lincolnwood announce the Bat Mitzva of their daughter Merle Debra, Friday Oct. 9, 8:30 p.m.

Merle Debra’s Bat Mitzva will take place at the Lincolnwood Jewish Cong., 7117 N. Crawford, Skokie.52

Sharon Joy Greese, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Greese, will become Bat Mitzva, Nov. 27, 8 p.m. at the Skokie Valley Traditional Synagog, 8840 N. Monticello, Skokie.

Sharon is an honor student at the Skokie Valley Traditional Synagog Hebrew School and attends Old Orchard Junior High School in Skokie.53

HTC men propagated bat mitzvah beyond Chicagoland.54 Rabbi Joseph Krickstein brought the girls’ ceremony to Beth Israel in Hamilton, Ohio. Rabbi Isaac Nadoff found it a home in Omaha, Nebraska, as did Rabbi Bernard Schwab in Lexington, Kentucky.55 In Los Angeles, Rabbi Simon Dolgin introduced bat mitzvah as late Friday night “Oneg Shabbat” program to the well-heeled Beth Jacob Congregation in 1956 (one of the very first was Ms. Saralee Dolgin).56 Chicago-trained rabbis also gained positions in Philadelphia, where, in the 1950s, a third of the Orthodox synagogues held bat mitzvah celebrations. That figure grew steadily in subsequent decades.57

To be sure, HTC was far from alone in its support of bat mitzvah. In 1956, for example, B’nai Emunah in Tulsa, Oklahoma, inaugurated bat mitzvah. On this occasion, the Yeshiva University-trained Rabbi Arthur Kahn arranged a Friday evening program for Ms. Ronnie Faye Kahan.58 Like so many other Orthodox pioneers along the American frontier, Rabbi Kahn recognized the importance of bat mitzvah to accommodate to postwar sensibilities. Still, New York-based Orthodox organizations such as National Council of Young Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and Yeshiva University remained ambivalent toward the “ceremonial innovation” for young girls. Simply put, the ritual raised far too many questions and challenges from the old-guard Orthodox establishment. In fact, the annual RCA sermon manuals published from the 1940s to the 1980s contain many entries for “occasional bar mitzvah” celebrations but none in observance of bat mitzvah. In locales such as New York and Boston, therefore, it was still, in the 1960s, very much the perception that “Bas Mitzvah is only a recent custom and that usually orthodox Jews do not practice this ceremony.”59 In fact, in the 1970s one member of the Young Israel of Brookline complained that her Mirrer Yeshiva-rabbi did not permit the celebration in the synagogue. Instead, the family of the Maimonides School twelve-year-old held a “conventional birthday party.”60

Conclusion: Israeli Folkways and Graver Dangers

In 1973, Rabbi David Ben-Zion Klein felt compelled to write in opposition to bat mitzvah rituals. Months earlier, Rabbi Chanoch Zundel Grossberg of Israel authored a short article that argued in favor of bat mitzvah, despite that it was a new practice, hardly anchored in Jewish tradition and sources. Nevertheless, for Rabbi Grossberg bat mitzvah could still be considered a full-fledged “mitzvah.” But, in consideration of other leading rabbinical figures, he advised that such celebrations be restricted to family members.61 The fellow Israeli scholar, Rabbi Klein, was alarmed. Bat mitzvah, he alleged, was the religious stuff of “innovators” and “reformers.” He therefore reminded Rabbi Grossberg and other colleagues about the nineteenth century Hungarian leader, Hatam Sofer, who championed the Ultra-Orthodox mantra: “new (innovation) is forbidden according to the Torah.”62 In turn, Rabbi Grossberg responded by defending his position. He suggested that the Hatam Sofer’s concern over innovation made more sense for Jews in the United States. “However,” countered Rabbi Grossberg, “here in Israel, thank God, we do not see nor hear of any Reform customs taking root in the daily lives of our brethren in the Holy Land.”63

Indeed, bat mitzvah received a warmer reception among the Orthodox-dominated Israeli rabbinate than it did in the United States.64 For example, earlier halakhic decisors such as Rabbis Ovadia Hedaya and Rabbi Meshulam Roth tolerated bat mitzvah celebrations arranged as modest affairs.65 Perhaps, the Orthodox rabbis who had deployed the ritual in American suburbia justified this decision (in their minds but not in print) based on these early Israeli rulings. Later on and with greater enthusiasm, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner justified bat mitzvah with Talmudic sources and supported the ritual so long that it was conducted with traditional forms of modesty.66 Probably the most important position was that of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. On several occasions, the Sephardic Chief of Israel ruled in favor of bat mitzvah celebrations. In 1982, a popular New York Jewish weekly reported on Rabbi Yosef’s view to interested Orthodox Jews in the United States:

Yosef conceded that Bat Mitzva celebration was not formerly common among Jewish communities, but he explained that this was perhaps because Jewish girls in olden days “absorbed religious values in the home.”

Nowadays, in the much more open society around us, it was essential “from a pedagogic point of view” to encourage girls by giving them Bat Mitzva parties and not causing feelings of resentment among girls by “discriminating” between them and boys, the Chief Rabbi stated.67

No doubt, American Orthodox rabbis benefited from the Israeli rabbinate’s more favorable attitude toward bat mitzvah. Since the Six-Day-War in June 1967, Jewish communities in the United States had looked increasingly to Israel and its political and religious leaders for guidance and direction.68 Without question, however, the primary reason for the emergence of bat mitzvah in Orthodox Jewish life had far more to do with the religious negotiation that Orthodox Jews had engaged within frontier communities. Back in New York, resistance persisted into the final decades of the twentieth century. In 1984, the outgoing president of the Rabbinical Council of America pleaded with his colleagues to decide on a host of religious issues. “I leave to my successor [Rabbi Louis Bernstein] the urgent request to create such a commission which would deal with at least the following—membership for women on Synagogue boards, women’s Hakafot, women’s davening groups, Torah study, [and] Bat Mitzvahs,” advised Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman in his farewell address. “Again this is to establish guidelines that need not be mandatorily imposed on Synagogues, but will provide a halachically valid guide for those who want and/or need it.”69 In reality, though, by the 1980s, it became increasingly clearer that bat mitzvah did not pose a threat to the spirit of Orthodox Judaism. In this later epoch, many Jewish Gothamites had been raised in frontier communities and could testify to this.70 One New York Jewish writer opined with more than a modicum of exasperation that “in the last decade … the Orthodox [had] begun to integrate Bat Mitzvah celebration as part of community norms.”71

By the close of the decade, an astute observer noted that “these celebrations have become commonplace in many Orthodox circles, with families sometimes traveling great distances to be at a Bat Mitzvah, just as they would for a Bar Mitzvah.”72 In the most ardent rightwing Orthodox sectors, bat mitzvah was still not celebrated; but it was not denigrated as it had been in the immediate postwar period. Further, each community performed the bat mitzvah ritual in a manner that reflected a negotiated balance of tradition and innovation. Of course, this had much to do with the sanction of a new generation of American-born Orthodox rabbis who did not share their predecessors’ view of bat mitzvah.73 No doubt, the new rabbinic outlook was informed by decades of Orthodox bat mitzvah rituals—championed most vocally by the pioneering Rabbi Haskel Lookstein—that conformed to Orthodox standards and emphasized traditional piety.74

In 1995, the RCA published a rabbi’s manual for lifecycle events. In it, the editor, Rabbi Reuven Bulka, included an entry for bat mitzvah, as “there are many who celebrate this entry into Judaic responsibility with a meaningful ceremony reinforcing the significance of the Bat-Mitzvah.” The leading Orthodox national rabbinical organization’s lifecycle guide acknowledged that “there are a number of potential ingredients which can combine for a meaningful ceremony” and offered “one suggested format from among a host of possibilities” that included a sermon and a carefully worded liturgy.75 This represented a major departure from the RCA’s long-held ambivalent stance. Of course, not all varieties of bat mitzvah were universally accepted among the Orthodox. In 1986, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union wrote to Shaarie Torah of Portland, Oregon, to complain about the bat mitzvah of Ms. Stacey Lebenzon that was too egalitarian and represented a “deviation of the congregation from orthodoxy.” He threatened Rabbi Yonah Geller that the “Orthodox Union can hardly justify maintaining the membership of a congregation in light of the type of service the congregation is prepared to tolerate for a bat-mitzvah.”76 Another episode is also illustrative. Two years after the production of the RCA manual, the Vaad Harabonim of Queens banned a form of the ritual that was certainly beyond the “possibilities” that Rabbi Bulka had in mind.77 In 1997, it was common for young girls to distribute bat mitzvah invitations to their male and female classmates. On this occasion, however, the notice announced that the young girl was to be “called to the Torah to read” in a local women’s prayer group.78 The principal of the Yeshiva of Central Queens alerted the local rabbinical group and the rabbis banned the event as a violation of “Masorah”—a condemnation of the prayer group, not bat mitzvah altogether.79 Notwithstanding these cases, several Orthodox congregations have, with considerable success, adopted these more liberal bat mitzvah rituals.80

In the final analysis, the emergence of bat mitzvah within America’s Orthodox community was not a victory over rabbinical censure. Rabbis still aimed their crosshairs at rituals developed in Orthodox communities such as women’s prayer groups that appeared, to many, too close to non-Orthodox innovations.81 These fresh polemics mirrored the earlier attacks on bat mitzvah. On some occasions, opponents raised important halakhic considerations, while others railed against the advent of rootless customs.82 By this time, however, bat mitzvah—performed in an “acceptable” manner and with a few stellar rabbinic approbations—had proven to be an important rite of passage. Its acceptance within the Orthodox fold took significant time, and only came after Orthodox rabbis and laypeople fashioned rituals that distinguished it from Conservative and Reform bat mitzvah ceremonies that called young girls to the Torah and encouraged them to chant from it. Most of all, Orthodox Jews had to give bat mitzvah a chance. Unsurprising, therefore, the ritual was a product of the out-of-town Orthodox pioneers who dared to take risks along the American frontier. Decades later, it was long forgotten that bat mitzvah was ever a controversial item. In a sense, it had found a place within tradition. Bat mitzvah, then, had become Orthodox.

Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He was ordained at Yeshiva University. His most recent books are Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford, 2016) and Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS, 2016).

Menachem Butler is a contributing editor at Tablet Magazine, the Special Advisor for Jewish Law Projects at The Julis-Rabinowitz Program in Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog.

 
The next installment in this symposium will appear Sunday night, May 29. See previous installments here: link
 


  1. We dedicate this essay to Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, our beloved teacher. With nuance and sensitivity, Rabbi Schacter has written and taught on the complexities of the rabbinate, Orthodox Judaism, and Judaism’s encounter with modernity. It is fitting, therefore, that we honor him with this article that engages all of these themes. We also express our thanks to friends and colleagues who commented on earlier versions of this essay. In particular, we are grateful to Daniel Gutstein and Rabbi Yitzi Ehrenberg. Other individuals are mentioned in specific notes.

    [1] “Three B’not Mitzvah to be Honored at Seudah Shlishit this Shabbat Afternoon,” Kehilath Jeshurun Bulletin 41 (December 15, 1972): 3. A month later, Kehilath Jeshurun celebrated another bat mitzvah in similar fashion. See “Seudah Sh’lishit in Honor of Lisa Kassover,” Kehilath Jeshurun Bulletin 41 (January 19, 1973): 2. The New York-based synagogue bulletins used in this research were identified using the Yeshiva University Digital Library (http://digital.library.yu.edu/new-york-synagogue-bulletins). We offer our thanks to Shulamith Z. Berger and Deena Schwimmer for their great efforts to support the research of Orthodox Jewish life in the United States.  

  2. “Bat Mitzvah,” Kehilath Jeshurun Bulletin 41 (April 6, 1973): 2. 

  3. Of note, thirty-seven years later, Kagan was appointed a Supreme Court Justice. See Meira Bienstock, “Riskin: Kagan Showed Great Wisdom in her Youth,” Jerusalem Post (June 29, 2010): 6. See also Lisa W. Foderaro, “At 12, Kagan Tested Her Faith’s Confines,” New York Times (May 13, 2010): A25, and Kagan’s remarks delivered at the November 2014 General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIahUJDura4. 

  4. See, for instance, “Chanukah, 5734,” Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin 8 (January 1974): 4; “News & Notes of L.L.S.,” Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin 8 (Tu B’Shvat 1975): 5; and “Hebrew Education for the Learning Disabled Child,” Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin 11 (Chanukah 1975): 10. 

  5. Norman Lamm, “Tradition and Innovation,” November 2, 1974, The Lamm Archives at Yeshiva University, New York, NY. 

  6. J. David Bleich, “Survey of Recent Halakhic Periodical Literature,” Tradition 14 (Fall 1973): 126. Reprinted in J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. I (New York: Ktav, 1977), 77-78. 

  7. Interestingly, for a short while in German Jewish communities, Orthodox congregations hosted some form of bat mitzvah ceremony in synagogues, at the direction of Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger. On this, see Mordechai Breuer, “Orthodoxy between Withdrawal, Fortification and Creativity,” Ha-Ma’ayan 12 (Tevet 1972): 22. See also Judith Bleich, “Between East and West: Modernity and Traditionalism in the Writings of Rabbi Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg,” in Engaging Modernity: Rabbinic Leaders and the Challenge of the Twentieth Century, Moshe Z. Sokol (Northvale: Aronson, 1997), 204n81, who writes: “In 1830, when confirmation was a subject of heated controversy in Germany, Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger, who at the time served as Klaus Rabbi in Mannheim, ruled against instituting confirmation ceremonies but suggested to the Baden Jewish Council that they introduce a public final examination day with a formal assembly that would serve a social and pedagogical purpose similar to that of the confirmation ceremony but avoid the halakhic problems associated with taking an oath as well as the question of hukkat ha-goy.” See also her expanded analysis in Judith Bleich, “Jacob Ettlinger, His Life and Works: The Emergence of Modern Orthodoxy in Germany” (PhD diss., New York University, 1974), 167-75. For a recent discussion on the confirmation controversy, see Klaus Herrmann, “Abraham Geiger in Breslau and the Controversy about the Jewish Confirmation for Boys and Girls,” in Jüdische Existenz in der Moderne: Abraham Geiger und die Wissenschaft des Judentums, eds. Christian Wiese, Walter Homolka and Thomas Brechenmache (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013), 133-60. 

  8. See Mel Scult, Judaism Faces the Twentieth Century: A Biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 415n31. See also Jeffrey S. Gurock and Jacob J. Schacter, A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 139; and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, “No Thunder Sounded, No Lightning Struck,” in Eyewitness to American Jewish History, vol. IV: 1915-1969, ed. Azriel Eisenberg (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1978), 30-32. Republished online at http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/recollection-first-us-bat-mitzvah. 

  9. See Paula E. Hyman, “The Introduction of Bat Mitzvah in Conservative Judaism in Postwar America,” YIVO Annual 19 (1990): 133-46; and Regina Stein, “The Road to Bat Mitzvah in America,” in Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives, eds. Pamela S. Nadell and Jonathan D. Sarna (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2001), 223-34. See also David Golinkin, “The Participation of Jewish Women in Public Rituals and Torah Study, 1845-2010,” in The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Response (Jerusalem: Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2012), 4-7. 

  10. See Michael K. Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York and Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1992), 23-84. See also, Gerald J. Blidstein, “From the Home to the Synagogue: On the Innovations of the Post-Talmudic Synagogue,” in Ta Shma: Studies in Judaica in Memory of Israel M. Ta-Shma, vol. I, eds. Avraham (Rami) Reiner, Joseph R. Hacker, Moshe Halbertal, Moshe Idel, Ephraim Kanarfogel, and Elchanan Reiner (Alon Shvut: Tevunot Press, 2011), 105-34. 

  11. “Three B’not Mitzvah to be Honored at Seudah Shlishit this Shabbat Afternoon,” Kehilath Jeshurun Bulletin 41 (December 15, 1972): 3. 

  12. “Congratulations and Mazel Tov,” Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin 8 (June 1973): 3. 

  13. See Jeffrey S. Gurock, “The Late Friday Night Orthodox Service: An Exercise in Religious Accommodation,” Jewish Social Studies 12 (Spring/Summer 2006); 137-56. 

  14. Henry Cohen, “Religion and Culture,” Lincoln Square Synagogue Bulletin 1 (November 20, 1964): 4 

  15. Frederick J. Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at its Forty-First Annual Meeting (Madison: Democrat Printing Company, 1894), 80. 

  16. See Emanuel Feldman, “The Case for ‘Out-of-Town’,” Jewish Observer 1 (September 1963): 13-20. 

  17. See Kitvei Ha-Gaon Rebi Yeheil Yaakov Weinberg, vol. I, ed. Melekh Shapiro (Scranton, 1998), 6, 26, 46, and 376. On Weinberg’s dim view of the writing in Ha-Pardes, see ibid., 8. 

  18. Bleich, “Between East and West: Modernity and Traditionalism in the Writings of Rabbi Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg,” 173. See also “Letters of the Gaon Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, z”l,” Ha-Pardes 40 (May 1966): 39. 

  19. See Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg (Oxford: Littman, 1999), 212. 

  20. Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, “Is it Permitted to Celebrate Bat Mitzvah?” Ha-Pardes 37 (April 1963): 7. Translated in Bleich, “Between East and West: Modernity and Traditionalism in the Writings of Rabbi Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg,” 203. See also the translation in Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy, 212. Rabbi Weinberg described the Bais Yaakov schools as “the most splendid accomplishment of our age,” in Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Responsa Seridei Esh, vol. III (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1966), 97, noted in Judith Bleich, “Between East and West: Modernity and Traditionalism in the Writings of Rabbi Yehi’el Ya’akov Weinberg,” 202. On the establishment of Bais Yaakov, see Deborah Weissman, “Bais Yaakov: A Historical Model for Jewish Feminists,” in The Jewish Woman, ed. Elizabeth Koltun (New York: Schocken, 1976), 139-48; Shoshana Pantel Zolty, “The Establishment of Universal Jewish Education for Women: The Beth Jacob Educational Movement,” in ‘And All Your Children Shall Be Learned’: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History, ed. Shoshana Pantel Zolty (Northvale: Aronson, 1993), 263-300; and Shoshanah M. Bechhofer, “Ongoing Constitution of Identity and Educational Mission of Bais Yaakov Schools: The Structuration of an Organizational Field as the Unfolding of Discursive Logics” (PhD diss., Northwestern University, 2004); Rachel Manekin, “‘Something Totally New’: The Development of the Idea of Religious Education for Girls in the Modern Period,” Masekhet II (2004): 63-85; Caroline Scharfer, “Sarah Schenirer, Founder of the Beit Ya’akov Movement: Her Vision and Her Legacy,” Polin 23 (2010): 269-275; and Leslie Ginsparg Klein, “‘No Candy Store, No Pizza Shops, No Maxi-Skirts, No Makeup’: Socializing Orthodox Jewish Girls Through Schooling,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 9 (Winter 2016): 140-58. Tamar Ross has written how “R. Weinberg’s ruling allowing bat mitzvah celebrations on the assumption that the impetus for this custom is sincere intention (leshem miẓvah), and not a desire to imitate the non- Jewish world.” See Tamar Ross, “Modern Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Feminism,” in Constructing Faith, eds. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson and Aaron W. Hughes (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 208. 

  21. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, vol. I (New York: Noble Book Press, 1959), 170. For a position in between Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Weinberg, see Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, She’elot u-Teshuvot Gevurot Eliyahu, vol. II, ed. Daniel Osher Kleinman (Brooklyn: Mekhon Ha-Rav Henkin, 2016), p. 166. We are indebted to Rabbi Gil Student and Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman for bringing this source to our attention. 

  22. See “Letters of the Gaon Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, z”l,” Ha-Pardes 40 (July 1966): 36. Interestingly, there are important differences in Rabbi Weinberg’s treatment of Rabbi Feinstein’s position in the former’s original Ha-Pardes responsum and the version later published in Seridei Eish. Rabbi Weinberg deleted a small section in his original essay in which he claimed that he was in full agreement with Rabbi Feinstein. In the later publication of his collected responsa, Rabbi Weinberg reinserted the paragraph in which he puts forward in more adamant terms his agreement with Rabbi Feinstein, perhaps due to the concern raised by Elberg. See Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Seridei Eish, vol. III (Jerusalem: Mosad Ha-Rav Kook, 2003), 297. We thank Marc Shapiro for his e-mail correspondence that helped clarify this discrepancy. 

  23. On this, see Jeffrey S. Gurock, “Resisters and Accommodators: Varieties of Orthodox Rabbis in America, 1886-1983,” American Jewish Archives Journal 35 (November 1983): 100-87. Reprinted in Jeffrey S. Gurock, Jewish Orthodoxy in Historical Perspective (Hoboken: Ktav, 1996), 1-62. 

  24. See Yitzhak Nissim, “On the Blessing of Barukh She-Petarani,” Noam 7 (1964): 4-5; Erica S. Brown, “The Bat Mitzvah in Jewish Law and Contemporary Practice,” in Jewish Legal Writings by Women, eds. Micah Halpern and Chana Safrai (Jerusalem: Urim, 1998), 232-58; Alfred S. Cohen, “Celebration of the Bat Mitzvah,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 12 (Fall 1986): 5-16; and most recently, Zvi Ryzman, “Barukh She-Petarani and Bat Mitzvah,” in Sefer Ratz Ka-Tzvi, vol. I (Jerusalem, 2005), 103-113. 

  25. “Rabbi P.M. Teitz’s Speech,” Hamaor 8 (October-November 1958): 13. 

  26. See “Speeches Delivered at the Agudath Ha-Rabbonim Convention,” Hamaor (November-December 1960): 17; and “Agudath Ha-Rabbonim Convention,” Ha-Pardes 35 (January 1961): 42. 

  27. Aharon Walkin, Zaken Aharon, vol. I (New York, 1958), 13-14. 

  28. “On Bat ‘Mitzvah’ Celebrations,” Hamaor 8 (December 1958): 19. 

  29. Hananiah Yom Tov Lipa Deutsch, Taharat Yom Tov, vol. IX (New York, 1959), 40. 

  30. Eliezer Silver, “On ‘Bat Mitzvah’ Celebration,” Hamaor 8 (December 1958): 25.  

  31. See Yitzhak Isaac Liebes, Beit Avi, vol. II (New York, 1980), 85-86. 

  32. Later on, one of Rabbi Feinstein’s leading disciples, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, published a number of responsa in support of bat mitzvah. See, for example, Ephraim Greenblatt, Revevot Ephraim, vol. I (Memphis, 1975), 124-25. 

  33. Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, vol. IV (New York, n.d.), 47-48. 

  34. “A Letter of Protest against the Disrespect to the Honor of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein,” Hamaor 14 (December 1964): 22. See also S. Deblitsky, “More on the Prohibition of Artificial Insemination,” Hamaor 15 (February 1965): 19. Many of the attacks on Rabbi Feinstein in this period were provoked by his permissive position on artificial insemination. See “A Brief on the Preservation of the Holiness and Lineage of Israel,” Hamaor 14 (October-November 1964): 5-20. 

  35. Jerome Tov Feinstein, “The Bas Mitzvah Comes to our Synagogue,” Orthodox Union (October 1944): 25. See also Jenna Weissman Joselit, The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 128-29. 

  36. David Horowitz, “The Propagation of Our Eternal Light,” The Scroll (June 1955): 35. We offer our thanks to Marvin Wiener for sharing this source with us. 

  37. See Albert I. Gordon, Jews in Suburbia (Boston: Beacon, 1959), 97-98. 

  38. See Jonathan J. Golden, “From Cooperation to Confrontation: The Rise and Fall of the Synagogue Council of America” (PhD diss., Brandeis University, 2008). See also Nathaniel Helfgot, “Orthodoxy, the Synagogue Council and the American Jewish Community,” in Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, ed. Nathaniel Helfgot (Hoboken: Ktav, 2005), xxii-xxviii. See also the exchange between Shubert Spero, “Orthodoxy vis-à-vis the General Community: Does Participation Imply Recognition,” Tradition 8 (Winter 1966): 56-64; and Ralph Pelcovitz, “Relations to Non-Orthodox Groups,” Tradition 9 (Fall 1966): 156-61. On Pelcovitz’s role in seeking to bridge the various ultra-Orthodox rabbinic organizations in 1953, with an explanation as to why the effort was ultimately unsuccessful, see Louis Bernstein, Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate (New York: Shengold, 1982), 132-35. 

  39. This “pesak din” was signed by Rabbi Avraham Joffen, Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ha-Levi Ruderman, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, Rabbi Menachem Yosef Zaks, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and dated on March 1, 1956, and then publicized in Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers and Torah journals. The non-New York exceptions were Rabbi Katz of Cleveland and Rabbi Ruderman of Baltimore. The printed text appears in Louis Bernstein, “The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate” (PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1977), 556, and the rare facsimile of the document, in Hebrew and English, written by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of the Agudath Israel of America, who personally wrote the pesak din of the Roshei Yeshiva, is reprinted in Yonason Rosenblum, Rabbi Sherer: The Paramount Torah Spokesman of Our Era (Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, 2009), 134. 

  40. See Raphael Medoff, Building Orthodox Judaism in America: The Life and Legacy of Harold M. Jacobs (Toronto: CreateSpace, 2015), 142-47. 

  41. Samuel Rosenblatt, The Days of My Years: An Autobiography (New York: Ktav, 1976), 128-30. See other sources cited in Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 411n35. We offer our thanks to Jonathan Sarna for identifying the Rosenblatt source. 

  42. See Uri Miller to Oscar Z. Fasman, May 2, 1958, Hebrew Theological College Archives, Skokie, IL. 

  43. Margie Pensak, “Raising the Bar on Bas Mitzvah,” Where What When 19 (May 2004): 102. We offer our thanks to Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky and Chaim I. Waxman for identifying this source, and to the magazine’s editors for making a copy available to us. 

  44. “Rabbis Discuss New Ritual for Girls,” Jewish Advocate (August 16, 1940): 6. 

  45. Oscar Z. Fasman, “This Friday Night Forum,” Orthodox Union 11 (February 1944): 6. 

  46. See Irving Wolin to Oscar Z. Fasman, November 1, 1962, Hebrew Theological Archives, Skokie, IL. 

  47. See Joel Lehrfield, “The Rabbi’s Study,” Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation Bulletin (January/February 2011): 1. 

  48. The non-Orthodox took notice. See S. Felix Mendelsohn, “The Question Box,” The Sentinel (May 27, 1943): 11. 

  49. Isadore M. Friedman to Traditional Synagogues of Greater Chicago, January 7, 1963, MS-125.55, Spertus Institute Archives, Chicago, IL. 

  50. Lillian Krupnick, Cavalcade of Motherhood (Chicago: Yeshiva Women, n.d.), 3. 

  51. “KINS Holds its First Bat Mitzva on a Saturday Night,” The Sentinel (March 12, 1964): 27. To be clear, K.I.N.S. held non-Saturday evening bat mitzvah celebrations before 1964. See “Judith Mendelsberg to Mark Her Bat Mitzva Next Friday,” The Sentinel (March 22, 1962): 23. 

  52. “Merle Warshausky Celebrates Bat Mitzva at Lincolnwood Cong.,” The Sentinel (October 1, 1964): 21. 

  53. “Greese’ Daughter to be Bat Mitzvah,” The Sentinel (November 12, 1964): 29. 

  54. Curiously, in the 1960s and 1970s upstart Orthodox synagogues in Chicago either halted bat mitzvah rituals or did publicize itthem? as Traditional Synagogues had done. See, for instance, “Bar Mitzvah Dates,” Or Torah Bulletin 1 (Shavuot 1979): 5. Bat mitzvah returned in full force to Or Torah in Skokie, IL, and other Chicago suburban congregations by the early 1980s. 

  55. See “Derer Bat Mitzvah,” Southern Israelite (June 30, 1967): 16. 

  56. E-mail communication from Saralee (Dolgin) Glasser to Zev Eleff, March 21, 2016. E-mail communication from Ernest Katz to Menachem Butler, March 24, 2016. Interestingly, the other major traditional synagogue in the area, Shaarei Tefila, did not institute bat mitzvah until the 1990s. This was probably because Shaarei Tefila was located in a New York-style neighborhood. E-mail communication from Allan Lowy to Zev Eleff, March 23, 2016. 

  57. Jack Porter, “Differentiating Features of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish Groups in Metropolitan Philadelphia,” Jewish Social Studies 25 (July 1963): 192. 

  58. B’nai Emunah: Tulsa Oklahoma, 1916-1966 (Tulsa, 1966), 89. 

  59. Sadie Goulston, “Today I am a Woman,” Jewish Advocate (April 10, 1967): A3. See also a number of very interesting sources in Esther Nussbaum, “On the Bat Mitzvah Celebration: An Annotated Bibliography,” Ten Da’at 3 (Spring 1989): 33-34. 

  60. See Rachel Isserow, “Some Thoughts on Women and the Orthodox,” Young Israel Viewpoint (April 1976): 3. In addition to Boston, another non-New York community that was slow to embrace bat mitzvah was Atlanta. For years, its leading Orthodox congregation was Beth Jacob, led by Ner Israel-trained Rabbi Emanuel Feldman. See Robert A. Cohen, “Everything You Need to Know about Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah,” Southern Israelite (October 7, 1977): 10. 

  61. Chanoch Zundel Grossberg, “Bat Mitzvah Feast,” Ha-Ma’ayan 13 (Tevet 1973): 41-42. 

  62. On Hatam Sofer, Jacob Katz, “Towards a Biography of the Hatam Sofer,” in Profiles in Diversity: Jews in a Changing Europe, 1750-1870, eds. Frances Malino and David Sorkin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), 223-66. Reprinted in Jacob Katz, Divine Law in Human Hands: Case Studies in Halakhic Flexibility (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1998), 403-43. See most recently Maoz Kahane, Halakhic Writing in a Changing World: From the Noda bi-Yehuda to the Hatam Sofer, 1730-1839 (Jerusalem: Shazar, 2016). 

  63. David Ben-Zion Klein and Chanoch Zundel Grossberg, “On the Issue of Bat Mitzvah Feast,” Ha-Ma’ayan 13 (Nissan 1973): 69-70. 

  64. See Dov Sadan, “Bat Mitzvah,” Dat u-Medinah (Jerusalem, 1949), 59-61.

    For an important exceptional case, see Eliezer Yehudah Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer, vol. XVIII (Jerusalem, 1990), 59. 

  65. See Ovadia Hedaya, Yaskhil Avdi, vol. V (Jerusalem, 1940), 30; and Meshulam Roth, Kol Mevaser, vol. II (Jerusalem: Mosad Ha-Rav Kook, 1962), 91. 

  66. Shlomo Aviner, “Bat Mitzvah Celebration,” No’am 21 (1979): 318-20. See also David El’azaraf, Imrei David (Tel Aviv, 1970), 22-24. 

  67. “Bat Mitzva Ruled Valid by Sephardic Rabbi,” Jewish Week (October 29, 1982): 2, reporting on the publication of the article in Ovadiah Yosef, “On the Celebration of a Bat Mitzvah, If It Is Considered a Seudat Mitzvah,” in Shanah be-Shanah (1983): 157-61. For his earlier responsum on bat mitzvah, see Ovadiah Yosef, Responsa Yehaveh Da’at, vol. II (Jerusalem, 1978), 109-112. 

  68. See Chaim I. Waxman, “Culturally Variant Neighborhoods in the Global Orthodox Village: Israel and the United States,” in Essays for a Jewish Lifetime: The Burton D. Morris Jubilee Volume, eds. Menachem Butler and Marian E. Frankston (New York: Hakirah Press, forthcoming). 

  69. “On Cooperation with Reform, Conservative, Blacks and Women,” Jewish Press (June 8, 1984): 10B. 

  70. See Zev Eleff, Living from Convention to Convention: A History of the NCSY, 1954-1980 (Jersey City: Ktav, 2009), 85. 

  71. Blu Greenberg, How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household (Northvale: Aronson, 1983), 277. See also, Chana K. Poupko and Devora L. Wohlgelernter, “Women’s Liberation—An Orthodox Response,” Tradition 15 (Spring 1976): 51. 

  72. Sylvia Barack Fishman, “The Impact of Feminism on American Jewish Life,” American Jewish Year Book 89 (1989): 45. See also, Paula E. Hyman, “Where Do We Go from Here: Feminism and Changing Gender Expectations and Roles in Jewish Communal Life,” in Creating the Jewish Future, eds. Michael Brown and Bernard Lightman (London: Altamira Press, 1999), 185-98. 

  73. See Aryeh A. Frimer and Dov I. Frimer, “Women’s Prayer Service—Theory and Practice,” Tradition 32 (Winter 1998): 98n168. 

  74. See Rafael Medoff, “Rav Chesed: The Life and Times of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein,” in Rav Chessed: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Dr. Haskel Lookstein, vol. II, ed. Rafael Medoff (Jersey City: Ktav, 2009), 418-19. Related to this, see Jeffrey S. Gurock, “The Ramaz Version of American Orthodoxy,” in Ramaz: School, Community, Scholarship and Orthodoxy, ed. Jeffrey S. Gurock (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1989), 40-82; and Adam S. Ferziger, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015), 42-57. Rabbi Lookstein was responding to the following articles: Lang Phipps, “Mitzvah or Mania?: Party-Hopping at the High End of the Theme Bas and Bar Mitzvah,” New York Times (April 21, 1996): CY1; and Ralph Gardner Jr., “Bash Mitzvahs!” New York Magazine (March 9, 1998): 20. 

  75. Reuven P. Bulka, The RCA Lifecycle Madrikh (New York: Rabbinical Council of America, 1995), 63-67. For other varieties of bat mitzvah rituals, see Joel B. Wolowelsky, “Bat Mitzvah Celebrations,” in Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzvah, ed. Ora Wiskind-Elper (Jerusalem: Urim, 2003), 84-89. 

  76. Pinchas Stolper to Yonah Geller, June 5, 1986, Box 33, Folder 2, I-66, American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY. 

  77. See Norimitsu Onishi, “Reading the Torah, an Orthodox Women’s Group Takes On Tradition,” New York Times (February 16, 1997): 43. 

  78. See Jeff Helmreich, “Rabbinical Supervision,” Long Island Jewish World (January 31, 1997): 8. 

  79. See Elicia Brown, “The Politics of Prayer,” Jewish Week (January 31, 1997): 14. See also, Joseph C. Kaplan, “Bat Mitzvah Celebrations,” Sh’ma 21 (February 8, 1991): 54-55. 

  80. See, for instance, Harold M. Simansky, “In Newton’s Modern Orthodox Shul Women Have Greater Role,” Jewish Advocate (July 12, 1990): 1. See also Rivka Haut, “Women’s Prayer Groups and the Orthodox Synagogue,” in Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, a Survey of History, Halakhah, and Contemporary Realities, eds. Rivka Haut and Susan Grossman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 135-157; and Tamar Ross, “Balancing Tradition and Modernity: The Case for Women’s Participation in Synagogue Ritual,” in Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, ed. Chaim Trachtman (Jersey City: Ktav, 2010), 1-25. 

  81. See Norma Baumel Joseph, “Women in Orthodoxy,” in Women Remaking American Judaism, ed. Riv-Ellen Prell (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007), 181-209. See also Rachel Adler, “Between A Rock and A Hard Place: Rav J.B. Soloveitchik’s Perspectives on Gender,” in Between Jewish Tradition and Modernity—Rethinking an Old Opposition: Essays in Honor of David Ellenson, eds. Michael A. Meyer and David N. Myers (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2014), 209-20. 

  82. See Rachel Adler, “Innovation and Authority: A Feminist Reading of the ‘Women’s Minyan’ Responsum,” in Gender Issues in Jewish Law: Essays and Responsa, eds. Walter Jacob and Moshe Zemer (New York: Berghahn Books, 2001), 3-32. 

About Zev Eleff

Rabbi Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He was ordained at Yeshiva University. His most recent books are Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford, 2016) and Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS, 2016).

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