Women change Jewish tradition Orthodox synagogues increasingly approve bat mitzvah services


As her voice carried Hebrew songs of peace to the congregants of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Annapolis, 47-year-old Leslie Gradet celebrated her coming of age this month with a bat mitzvah service symbolic of the changing definition of what it means to be a woman in an Orthodox synagogue.

Most Orthodox synagogues would not have allowed Gradet to sing in the sanctuary because a woman's voice -- or Kol isha -- is said to be seductive and distracting to men in prayer.

But Kneseth Israel is part of a modern Orthodox movement that is realizing that prohibitive traditions of biblical times don't always work well in today's world.

Orthodox rabbis note that bat mitzvah celebrations, which became popular during the feminist movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, were the first issue to drive modern Orthodox away from synagogues holding on to the strict sexual divisions.

Gradet, 59-year-old Shirley C. Aronson, and 43-year-old Amira Goldsmith were the second adult bat mitzvah class at Kneseth Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Annapolis led by Rabbi Pincas Klein.

For two years, they took Hebrew lessons, studied Jewish history and traditions and practiced songs and chants with the rabbi and Cantor Yehoshua Redfern. When their education was finished, they celebrated their coming of age 30 to 40 years late.

At age 12, each became bat mitzvah, or "daughter of the commandments." Jewish girls become responsible for Jewish law when they turn 12 -- or sometimes 13 -- no matter whether a bat mitzvah service is held.

Before the 1970s, bat mitzvah celebrations were not common in Orthodox synagogues. Women were exempt from a man's obligation to lead, and their coming of age meant less than that of a boy. Bar mitzvah celebrations for a boy's 13th birthday took on greater prominence because a man's obligation to prayer is greater than a woman's. A boy also can be called up to read from the sacred text of the Torah -- a practice forbidden to girls in most Orthodox synagogues.

But the Judaic rules stemming from biblical times are not totally compatible with the society in which Jews live today, Klein said, and Judaism has responded. Lavish bar mitzvah celebrations, he said, were an American invention, used to express Judaism in a primarily Christian nation.

"The culture around us provides the body in which we express our Jewish soul," said the rabbi, 48, adding that the bat mitzvah service was a change that reflected women's desire to do more for the synagogue.

During their bat mitzvah at Kneseth Israel, the three women stood on the bima, the platform in front of the congregation, and sang and chanted in Hebrew. They delivered a Haftorah, a reading from the prophets, in front of more than 150 relatives and friends.

"Our bat mitzvah service does not violate the principles of Orthodox Judaism," Klein said, "but it is innovative."

Kneseth Israel allows women to remove the scrolls from the Holy Ark and present the Torah to the congregation. Other modern Orthodox synagogues in Baltimore allow women to read from the Torah, even if only in front of other women.

Such participation does not have a history in Orthodox tradition, but Klein said his congregation was "interested in change."

Some changes in modern Orthodox congregations have been compared to the Conservative and Reform movements, where vTC women and men are equal in almost all aspects of life, bat mitzvah celebrations are common, and women can be rabbis.

Different obligations

That is not the way Orthodoxy should be, said Rabbi Simcha Shafran. Most Orthodox congregations, such as his at Adath Yeshurun in Baltimore, abide by separation of the sexes.

"Girls are not obligated to observe certain laws, which are the obligation of men," he said. "They have religious requirements that are just as important as men, but they don't have as many."

Shafran said synagogues should not blindly follow social trends.

"If it is against Jewish law, we do not accept it," he said. "There is no requirement for a girl to be the same as a man."

Without tradition, he said, "you have no religion."

Tradition can't completely ignore the passage of time, though, and Shafran acknowledged that society dictated the need for changes -- still within Jewish law -- such as offering English translations of Hebrew, abandoning animal sacrifices and increasing educational opportunities for women.

Importance of education

Though differentiation of the sexes remains a core belief, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of Shomrei Emunah Congregation in Baltimore said Orthodox synagogues both liberal and traditional have agreed that women need formal Jewish education.

A sign of that change came on June 4, when the first class of 13 graduates from the Binah Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies in Pikesville received their bachelor's degrees in Jewish studies and education.

Hannah R. Slanger, founding director, said education was important for women to be able to contribute to their family and community.

It was that education Aronson, Goldsmith and Gradet missed as children. They said their bat mitzvah service was secondary to the Hebrew, history and customs they learned by preparing for the service.

Hebrew lessons

Learning Hebrew was important to Aronson, who said she picked up Hebrew songs during service the same way children pick up "Frere Jacques" from playground chants. When she learned proper Hebrew, she was surprised at how many words she had been mispronouncing for decades.

Gradet said she had to toil "syllable by syllable" over the new alphabet and listened to audio tapes of Hebrew songs in her car.

"It was hard, visually, to make a connection," she said. "I developed a certain amount of empathy with people who have dyslexia. It was kind of humbling."

The three women said they followed the prayer book's English translations for decades until they learned Hebrew.

However hard they may have struggled, they said they don't regret the wait.

"At our age, we probably place a little more emphasis on the beliefs and ideas behind the prayers and service," Goldsmith said. "At 13 years old, they're doing it because that's what they're supposed to be doing. They can read and learn the prayers, but not as much thought is put into the meaning of the prayers."

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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