Getting the girls’ message

Nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a piece for a Jewish student magazine on the excitement of giving my first dvar Torah, or mini-sermon, at my Orthodox synagogue in Montreal.

I observed that what for me was a revolutionary act might seem like small fry to women in other communities, who were already saying kaddish, learning gemarah on shul premises — and in New York, even being appointed as “para-rabbis”. Perhaps they did not even realise that women like me were still struggling with issues they had resolved years ago.

I was reminded of this by Angela Epstein’s piece last week, “Parties for boys, yes. For girls? No.”

Ms Epstein, a regular writer for the Daily Mail, revealed that while she made large parties to celebrate her three sons’ barmitzvahs, her daughter would have to make do with a Friday night dinner at home.

I had hoped that we had moved beyond this basic issue

It was the religion’s fault, she said: to become barmitzvah, a boy “has to” be called up in shul, with all the attendant effort, while anything done to mark a girl’s coming-of-age “is a construct. With or without it, a Jewish girl will flow just as seamlessly into religious maturity.”

As the recent public debate around women’s role in Orthodoxy has revolved around megillah leyning, dancing with sifrei Torah, and chairing shuls, I had hoped that we had moved beyond the more basic issue of batmitzvahs. Online, some asked with disbelief whether the article was a spoof.

So let’s set the record straight.

Ms Epstein is wrong about a boy’s barmitzvah having a different halachic status to a girl’s batmitzvah.

Both girls and boys automatically come of age, and assume the full mantle of mitzvot in the eyes of Jewish law, on their 12th and 13th birthdays, respectively.

Unlike other Jewish lifecycle events such as a brit or marriage, there is nothing else they have to do; it has become customary to call boys up to the Torah, but they are “barmitzvah” regardless. (Think, for example, of boys during the Holocaust.)

There is a tradition for boys to hold a seudat mitzvah, or celebratory meal, but this is not an obligation, and contemporary halachic authorities such as Rav Ovadia Yosef z’l, hold that a girl’s dinner is considered a seudat mitzvah as well.

The crux of Ms Epstein’s argument is that barmitzvahs are “authentic”, while batmitzvahs are an invention. In fact, there are strong indications that our barmitzvah rituals date back only to the late Middle Ages.

Her implication that boys have earned their party by learning to leyn while girls have not, is not an excuse to downgrade the girls’ celebrations, but rather to provide them with an equally rigorous and profound programme – something Ms Epstein can still do for her daughter, who is only nine.

Why is all this important? Because those who continue to insist that barmitzvahs count, while batmitzvahs don’t, send a direct message to their daughters: when it comes to Jewish, communal and even family life, you are a second-class citizen.

This has sown the seeds of resentment and doubt among many young girls, and undoubtedly led many away from religion. The tragedy is, it’s completely unnecessary.

Ultimately, it’s not about the party. As I wrote here in September, I believe these often miss the point of the bar/batmitzvah anyway, and that both genders must find more meaningful ways of celebrating.

But our girls need to know that their milestone — and by extension, their Judaism and themselves — are as serious as their brothers’.

To do otherwise is to fail them badly.

Last updated: 1:45pm, October 31 2013