|My friend and colleague, Rabbi Linda Targan, recently published a memoir on becoming a female rabbi.|
This Shabbat we are celebrating the Bat Mitzvah of Sofia Immergluck. Coincidentally, This Shabbat, March 18, 2022, also marks the 100th anniversary of the very first bat mitzvah that took place here in the United States. On Shabbat morning, March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, stood before the congregation and chanted the text from the Torah portion of the week. Her synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism was on West 86th Street in New York City. This first Bat Mitzvah was different from what Sofia will do tomorrow. Sofia will chant directly from the Torah scroll. She will chant from the Prophetic portion for the week. Sofia will give a speech – a “devar torah” that she wrote analyzing the Torah and Haftorah and connecting it to her own life. And she will help lead our services – all, of course, up here, on the bima.
In 1922, Twelve-year-old Judith Kaplan stood below the bima, on the floor of the sanctuary. The Torah scroll was in sight, but covered. She was not allowed to touch the scroll. Judith chanted the blessing before reading the Torah, then read the Torah text out loud, first in Hebrew and then in English. She read from her own personal chumash which she held in her hand. She then chanted the blessing after reading the Torah. That was her bat mitzvah ceremony. No lavish dance party afterward. No themes. No flood of gifts.
As brief and as limited as this bat mitzvah was, it was still an auspicious beginning on several levels. No girl had ever had a bat mitzvah before! In Jewish law, a girl reaches the age of maturity at 12 and a boy at 13. We mark the occasion of a boy reaching legal maturity with a bar mitzvah. But, prior to Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, no girl had bat a bat mitzvah ritual to mark this milestone. Her father, Mordechai Kaplan, had intended his daughter’s bat mitzvah as the beginning step of a movement in Judaism to give females equal status to that of males in Jewish ritual life. He sought to encourage the education of girls so that as grown women that they could teach their own children about Judaism. As you can imagine some people had a difficult time accepting this modern and rather revolutionary idea. As an adult Judith Kaplan later recalled, “[My bat mitzvah] was enough to shock a lot of people including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles.”
It took a long time for the idea of a bat mitzvah to catch on. The Reform Movement developed “Confirmation” in which young men and women marked the conclusion of their formal synagogue education in a group ceremony at the age of 15. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s when the bat mitzvah became widespread in Conservative synagogues. Today the bat mitzvah is an important ritual in both Reform and Conservative synagogues as well.
The “bat mitzvah” has also slowly been adopted by Centrist or Modern Orthodoxy. Today in these communities boys and girls are given the same kind of rigorous Jewish education. In addition, in many Orthodox communities today the coming of age of a girl is marked by her delivering a drasha, or speech, to the community on the Shabbat morning following her 12th birthday. This teaching is the culmination of intense study over a long period of time and offers an opportunity to share her insights and wisdom publicly. In other Orthodox communities the bat mitzvah is allowed to read from the Torah in a service attended by women only.
As bat mitzvahs became the norm in Conservative synagogues in the 1960’s the Conservative Movement began to grapple with another central issue in Judaism – the issue of women’s participation in services. In traditional Judaism women are exempt from the obligation of attending and participating in religious services. This was the obligation of a man alone. But did it make sense that a girl could be called to the Torah for her bat mitzvah, but the following week she could not be given an aliyah because she was a woman? This question opened up yet another transformative development in Judaism – the increased participation of women in ritual life.
In 1972 Sally Priesand was the first American woman ordained as a Rabbi by the Reform Movement, and in 1985 the Conservative Movement ordained Amy Eilberg as its first female rabbi. More recently, we have seen a small number of women ordained as rabbis through Modern Orthodox seminaries.
The importance of what female clergy bring to Jewish life – whether they are rabbis or cantors – must not be underestimated. In a 2018 book exploring women in the clergy, Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin showed that women who grew up with female clergy had higher levels of self-esteem as adults. They also had lower levels of depression and anxiety. This research also shows that women who grew up with female clergy were more successful in developing relationships, had higher job satisfaction and were more motivated for personal improvement than women who did not have a female clergyperson growing up. Women whose most influential youth congregational leader was female were more likely to be employed full-time as adults and had, on average, one year more of higher education than other women.
In our parasha for this Shabbat we read about the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests in the Tabernacle. In Biblical times only males were ordained as religious officials. There were a number of female prophets in the Bible, but no female was allowed to become a priest and serve in the Temple. This reflects the patriarchal structure of society in which men held all of the religious and political power.
Today, fortunately, much has changed. More than 1500 women have been ordained as rabbis around the world in the last 50 years. Women rabbis hold senior leadership positions in many synagogues, and women rabbi-scholars teach in rabbinic seminaries and in some cases head rabbinic schools. Rabbi Hara Person, President and CEO of the Reform Movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, and herself a woman, estimates that today one half of the active rabbis in this country are female. And this does not even take into account the enormous influence and contributions that female cantors have played in American Jewish life.
I started this sermon with an account of the first American bat mitzvah and have focused on the transformative effect of women in the American Rabbinate. But the first woman Rabbi ordained in modern times was not ordained in America. Her name is Rabbi Regina Jonas. Rabbi Jonas studied at a rabbinical seminary in Berlin in the early 1930s. As part of her appeal to the Board of Directors that she be ordained, she wrote a thesis titled, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Jewish Law?” In her thesis she explored the Bible, the Talmud, and rabbinic literature and concluded that a woman could indeed be ordained a rabbi according to Jewish Law. The Board of Directors of the seminary disagreed and would not ordain her. She was privately ordained in Berlin in 1935 and is widely considered to be the first female rabbi. She perished in Auschwitz in 1944.
Rabbi Regina Jonas was interviewed by a German Newspaper in June, 1938. Recalling her groundbreaking journey to become a rabbi, she said, “God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given.”
To that we can all say, “Amen”