Elena Kagan’s Fight for Bat Mitzvah Creates Guilt Trip

Elena Kagan is giving me a guilt trip, but it has nothing to do with her nomination for the US Supreme Court. At age 12, Kagan fought for the right to chant from the Torah in her Orthodox shul to celebrate her coming of age as a bat mitzvah. In 2006, at age 41, I chanted from the Torah and led a prayer service to celebrate my bat mitzvah as an adult. I am chagrined as I write this: I have never chanted from the Torah again. Kagan’s long-ago fight for equality on the bimah is a reminder. I could do more.

Kagan, according to articles in the New York Times and Jewish Week, asked her rabbi if she could read Torah on a Saturday morning to mark a bat mitzvah. The rabbi refused that request and allowed her to instead chant from the Book of Ruth on a Friday night and analyze it in a speech.

US Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan

Kagan’s ceremony in 1973 was the first formal bat mitzvah at her shul, the Lincoln Square Synagogue. I dropped out of Sunday school at age 12 in 1976, three years after Kagan’s historic moment. At the time, it was common place for Reform and Conservative Jewish girls to have bat mitzvah ceremonies. Because of my adult bat mitzvah studies, I am comfortable singing and chanting in Hebrew. I have had a few opportunities to chant from the Torah again since my May 6, 2006, but have not yet accepted such offers. There was an once-in-a-lifetime feel to my bat mitzvah experience, particularly the chanting from the Torah. I was doing something that Jews were doing all over the world at the same time. I still savor that moment.

Leading prayer during my 2006 bat mitzvah ceremony

I spent months learning how to chant from the Torah, studying privately with a Hebrew teacher, playing the CD of my trope repeatedly. It would be easy to get a CD of more Torah trope and memorize another passage. But if I chant again from the Torah, I would want to do what I did four years ago: understand every word I chanted. I suspect I will know when the timing is right for me to work on another Torah portion.

As an adult bat mitzvah student, I studied the history of women’s rights in Judaism. The battle for women’s rights continues among Orthodox Jews. What Orthodox Jewish girls get to do to mark becoming a bat mitzvah depends on the shul. Some congregations let the bat mitzvah girl speak after Shabbat morning services; others restrict participation to a dinner on Friday night; and others may allow nothing at all. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Orthodox adult women are learning how to read and chant from the Torah and typically lead women only during a service with a women’s prayer group.

The news about Kagan’s bat mitzvah is the subject of online chatter in Jewish circles this week. The story of her long-ago struggle for equality as a young Orthodox Jew likely will have a ripple effect even today. For that essay I tucked into my bat mitzvah program four years ago, I interviewed an Orthodox woman who first began studying to read the Torah at age 67. Two years later, in 2003, she chanted a portion before 15 other women in her Hillel study group. Afterward, one of the women came up to her and gave her a hug, saying, “You’ve given me the courage to do it, too.”

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