Coming of Age

Thursday, April 23, 2009

After circumcision, the next right of passage for all Jewish children is the coming of age. That is, the assuming of all of the obligations of an adult. Girls are formally considered of age and required to keep all the religious laws pertinent to women at the age of 12. Boys, at the age of 13.

Upon reaching these ages, children are required to keep Mitzvoth, which means commandments. Hence, a boy is referred to as a Bar Mitzvah. Translated literally, that means son of a mitzvah or son of commandments. In essence, it means belonging to the commandments. A girl is a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of commandments, but actually meaning belonging to the commandments.

Historically, the reaching of majority was not a cause for extraordinary celebration. The fact is that neither the Bible nor the Talmud really devotes any space to ceremonies when a person reaches that age. Today’s festivities are really a much more recent development

A Jewish boy who arrives at the age of Bar Mitzvah will now take an active part in all synagogue rituals. Women were precluded from actively participating in many of these rituals, so it was simply not that manifest that a girl had reached her majority.

Sensitivity towards sexual equality, however, has led both the reform and conservative communities to level up the religious playing field for girls. Bat Mitzvah ceremonies are now common in the synagogues. Orthodox Jews who also wish to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah, would usually do this in a manner unconnected or not connected directly to synagogue ritual.

I should really insert here that this is an issue that has being addressed the past few years by the modern orthodox elements within Judaism. They are constantly reassessing the role of women in ritual and in religious life. This is going to be one of the defining issues in future years in the development of Judaism: a reappraisal of the role of women.

The Education Process

A more informal right of passage, but not less significant than the technical reaching of majority, is the introduction of children into the education process. The study of Torah was historically considered one of the central religious obligations of Jews. In antiquity, male children were introduced into this context at the age of 6 or 7, and they would stay on as far as their intellectual talents or their family finances might carry them.

This was the situation in modern times as well in countries from Eastern Europe and North Africa. Although many children would enter the education process at its most elementary level, that is to say learning how to read the Torah, the fact is that very few stayed on for the higher levels of learning. Families that were wealthy or that recognized that their child was a young genius worth supporting through higher levels of academic pursuit could afford this. In only those cases a child would remain in some sort of academic framework.

Girls were usually left out of this process, not withstanding some frequently cited exceptions in Rabbinic literature. Those exceptions probably prove the rule.

In recent years, more and more women are becoming involved in higher levels of traditional education. Even among the ever-growing orthodox circles, women are now regularly being introduced into the entire corpus of Judaic learning. Women are now beginning to study and teach Talmud at the highest levels, and this is something almost totally not existent just one generation ago. This is a huge change in Jewish communal life, and its effects on future generations will be very significant.