Daughter of the Commandment

January 28, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Conservatives, and sometimes even I, often see flaws in the outcomes of modern feminism, which flowered in the 1960s. I could give you a long list, but not now. Today I celebrate feminism.

Last Saturday, at age 52, my wife Diane became a ''bat mitzvah.'' Let me explain.

Since the 14th century, most Jewish boys in early adolescence have traditionally become a ''bar mitzvah,'' that is, ''a son of the commandment.'' The boys studied Hebrew, Judaic thought and ritual. During a Sabbath service they chanted a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). With those acts and ceremonies, the bar mitzvah boy publicly affirmed his coming of age.

In 1922, the very first bat mitzvah ceremony took place, yielding a ''daughter of the commandment.'' But it was not until the hothouse 1960s that the practice took hold in most synagogues, often after much consternation. After all, it meant a change in a tradition.

So, for women of a certain age, roughly over 40 or 45, a particular opportunity for religious fulfillment simply did not exist. My wife, for example, was ''confirmed'' in synagogue at age 14. But it wasn't the same as a bar mitzvah, not even close. In those days women could not touch the Torah.

Accordingly, a decade or so ago the ''adult bat mitzvah'' began gaining popularity, offering the rewards and responsibilities of the faith to women who missed out the first time. And so it came to pass last week at my congregation (Adas Israel, in Washington) that 33 women, having studied together for 18 months, became bat mitzvot.

The portion of the Torah they chanted was from Exodus. Among the characters present was Miriam, quite a woman, who had saved the baby Moses, and who led the celebration of the Hebrews following their crossing of the Sea of Reeds. (''Miriam, the prophetess took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.'')

A second portion from the Bible dealt with Deborah, the fierce prophetess and judge who led the Israelites to victory over the Canaanites. That triumph was punctuated by a Kenite woman named Jael using a mallet to drive a tent pin through the temple of Sisera, the Canaanite commander, who happened to be asleep.

In addition, the Adas Israel women performed a historical cantata written by their tutor, Avis Miller, a mother of five sons, a rabbi in a formerly all-male profession. Rabbi Miller's cantata included these spoken words: ''As we stand here today, we honor those women who came before us, who struggled for their voices to be heard. And we rejoice at exercising privileges denied to Jewish women throughout our history.''

The power of Deborah and Miriam notwithstanding, there are a variety of views about how much was actually denied. Some scholars stress that Jewish women were honored, but called upon for different duties from menfolk. They lighted the Sabbath candles, a high honorific, not the job of a second-class citizen.

It's wrong, these scholars say, to use today's standards to judge yesterday's lifestyle, and Rabbi Miller does not disagree. But what is indisputable is that this is a different time. Most Jewish women today want all the privileges and responsibilities.

It is part of a potent spiritual revival going on across America, in every religion. Hah! Whoever would have thought that, in at least this case, modernist feminism would boost a religious revival.

And it was good. Thirty-three women -- joined in celebration with proud children, husbands, parents and friends -- felt closer to God and more fulfilled than before.

We ascribe much of what's wrong with America today to what happened in the overly liberating '60s. You've read that, more than once, in this very column. But we shouldn't forget that there is much to be said for liberation. You can read all about it in Exodus.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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