The Bat Mitzvah of Leah Segal

This Shabbat we have come together to celebrate both the seventh day of the week and the Bat Mitzvah of Leah Segal.  But today is not simply a double celebration.   As we go through the liturgy and read the weekly Torah portion each Shabbat, the feeling that we are participating in a great cycle, week after week, that is repeated year after year, is very reassuring.  A Bat Mitzvah – or Bar Mitzvah – on the other hand, is not at all like that:  Today is a transformational moment – and for one young woman and her family, life will never be the same again.  Becoming Bat Mitzvah means that Leah is leaving her childhood behind and embarking on the next stage of her life’s journey towards adulthood and adult responsibilities.   Life with a capital ‘L’ may be a great cycle; but the life of the individual is a line that, as the years pass by, wends it’s way in one direction.  So, there is nothing reassuring about a young person coming of age…


Now, Leah – and Ruth and Mark – I’m not saying any of this to make today even more nerve-racking than it already is!   Today is a wonderful moment of celebration – and it is very important that we inhabit that moment fully and be completely present.  At the same time, since as human beings we are blessed with consciousness and awareness of the passage of time, it is virtually impossible for us to simply inhabit the present; we are not simple, we are complex creatures – and so as we experience the wonder of today, we cannot help, also, feeling loss, as Leah’s childhood ends, and not a little anxiety about the future.


And so, we cannot help acknowledging that even Jewish life – despite the ever-repeating cycles – is about on-going change and development.  We just have to take ourselves back one hundred years and think about the journeys of our own families and all that they experienced over the course of the twentieth century.  And so, we know that as we complete the first decade of the twenty-first century and embark on a new one, what it means to live as Jews today is very different from what it meant back then.


And if we are not convinced that Jewish life has changed, let us just pause for a moment and think about what we are witnessing today: Leah’s Bat Mitzvah. Leah has already led the service beautifully for us, and in a short while I will call her up to the bimah to give her d’var Torah – her commentary – on the Torah portion and read from the scroll.  A century ago, the notion that a young Jewish woman would celebrate her coming of age in the same way as a young Jewish man was unthinkable – and not just one hundred years ago:  I didn’t celebrate my Bat Mitzvah; I stopped attending cheider – religion school classes – at the age of eight when my brother became Bar Mitzvah.  How many women here I wonder celebrated their Bat Mitzvah when they were twelve or thirteen?   And if you did mark your coming of age, did you celebrate the moment by leading the congregation in prayer and reading from the Torah?   As that nice Jewish boy, Bob Dylan, put it back in the 1960s, ‘The times they are a-changing’.


Jewish life has changed – and not just in the progressive world.  Indeed, since the new millenniam dawned, a small number of women have been ordained as orthodox rabbis – yes, female orthodox rabbis.  The first was Rabbi Eveline Goodman-Thau, who received s’michah privately in Jerusalem on 18th October 2000, and became the first female rabbi to serve in Austria where she led the liberal Jewish Community in Vienna until March 2002 (1).  Interestingly, Rabbi Goodman-Thau, whom I met in Berlin at the Bet Debora conference for women rabbis and scholars in 2000, shortly after her ordination, was a child refugee from Vienna in 1938 and is descended from a long-line of rabbis and Chassidic rebbes.  Finding sanctuary in Holland and surviving the Sho’ah, she moved to Jerusalem in 1956 and went on to become a scholar in Jewish studies, before deciding she wanted to become a rabbi much later in life (2).


Rabbi Goodman-Thau is very clear that she calls herself a ‘Rabbi’) (ibid.) – so, too, Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, an orthodox woman living in Jerusalem, who was ordained privately by Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky in Tel Aviv in 2006, while gaining a Phd. in Talmud and raising five small children at the same time (3).  Needless to say, as yet, most of the orthodox world refuses to acknowledge these women as rabbis.  And as it has turned out, the cost of public recognition within orthodoxy has been quite high – and very controversial.  The trail-blazing orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg was very enthusiastic when, on 22nd March 2009, in an orthodox synagogue in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, Sara Hurwitz, ‘a learned and devout Orthodox Jewish woman was conferred the new title of MaHaRa’T by Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’ (4).  The title Maharat is an acronym for Manhigah Hilchatit, Ruchanit, Toranit, which means ‘Leader in Jewish Law, Spirituality, and Torah’.  It basically describes a rabbi’s role.  However, some have asked whether the creation of a special title for women, rather than using the time-honoured one, doesn’t simply reinforce the message that it is unacceptable for women to become orthodox rabbis (5).


The debate rages on… But the very fact that there is a public debate and that orthodox women are studying as men have done for millennia, and are being recognised for their knowledge by their orthodox male teachers, tells us how much has changed – even in the orthodox Jewish world.  On December 27th 1935 Regina Jonas became the first ever woman rabbi, when, having studied at the progressive seminary in Berlin, she was ordained privately by Rabbi Max Dienemann in Offenbach (6).  As I discovered when I undertook my research into her life and work in the early 1990s, before the Sho’ah the idea of ‘women’ rabbis was too much even for Progressive Judaism – although interestingly, Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry at that time, authorised Rabbi Jonas’ ordination certificate in 1942 six months before she was deported to Theresienstadt.   Rabbi Jonas was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 and it was not until the feminist movement of the 1970s challenged the patriarchal status quo that Progressive Judaism began to ordain women as rabbis.  And now, today, half the progressive rabbinate in Britain – around 74 rabbis in all – is female; and in the United States, the figure is several hundred (7).


Who knows what the future will bring?   Of course, not all Jewish women want to become rabbis.  The issue is not only about equal access to Jewish leadership, but equal access to Jewish life – and the struggle for gender equality is taking place across the Jewish world – even in the ultra-orthodox heartland of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Some of you may have heard of the current controversy concerning the ‘Women of the Wall’.  For twenty-one years now women dressed in tallitot – prayer-shawls – have been praying each Rosh Chodesh – New Moon – at the Western Wall, and reading from a Torah scroll.  They have been spat on and abused verbally and physically by orthodox men praying on the other side of the m’chitzah, the fence that separates the sexes.  But now the law is being used against them.  Rabbi Sh’muel Rabinovich, appointed as Rabbi of the Wall by secular leaders, who have always left Judaism in the hands of the orthodox, has taken action to stop the Women of the Wall.  And so, in November 2009, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested during the Rosh Chodesh service because she was wearing a tallit and kippah and carrying a Torah scroll.  And so, on January 5th, Anat Hoffman, the leader of Women of the Wall, who is also Director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a human rights organisation, was ‘summoned to the Jaffa Gate Police Station’ and ‘warned’ that she was ‘being investigated for committing a felony’ – that is, for performing ‘a religious act that offended the feelings of men (8).   It looks like the ultra-orthodox are winning; but I’ve met Anat Hoffman; she won’t be intimidated – and remember: the suffragettes were also arrested – and imprisoned – and the vote was finally won.


So, Leah was has all this got to do with you?   Well, today, with the support of your parents and your teachers, and the guidance of your tutor, Andy, you become Bat Mitzvah. You have already stood before us in your tallit, with it’s tzitzit, its fringes, symbolising your new status as a ‘daughter of the commandment’, taking responsibility for your Jewish life.   And, in short while you will not only read from the Seifer Torah, you will read from this week’s portion, Yitro, which relates how a rabble of ex-slaves entered into the covenant with the Eternal One at Mount Sinai.  Moses was there, of course – and his older sister, Miriam, too; the men were there – and so were the women.  The Torah has Moses speaking only to the men: ‘Be ready for the third day, come not near a woman’, he is reported to have said to them (Exodus 19:15) – and for over three thousand years since, Jewish men – both the leaders and the followers – have assumed that Judaism centres around what they say and do, as they have laid total claim to the public space of Jewish life.  But Jewish life is changing:  Here you are at the centre of this public space, this Sanctuary in your synagogue: your synagogue:  As of today, no longer a child – it belongs to you – although you’ll be pleased to know that you won’t be expected to pay a membership fee until you have completed your education, and are earning some money!   The point is, Leah, you have the absolute right to play an equal part, and to choose how you want to lead your life as a Jew – not as a Jewish woman – as a Jew.


You know this already, of course.  You are part of a generation of young Jewish women who expect to play an equal part in Jewish life.  When I asked you what being Jewish means to you, you responded – and I quote:  ‘Being Jewish means having people who are always there for you, and who you have something in common with, instantly.  It means being part of a community and connecting with people – people from all over the world, and also those who aren’t with us anymore. I love the fact that I will be able to pass this on, these rituals and traditions, and they will continue throughout the generations.’  Yes, Leah, you realise, as you put it, that becoming Bat Mitzvah ‘means growing up and officially taking on my responsibilities as a Jew today’ – and that it is also about , ‘being a part of my family’.  You understand that when you receive the scroll through the generations of your family, you will be following in the footsteps of those who went before you as you become responsible for transmitting Judaism to others – and for continuing to learn about Judaism with others: – that’s why you have already started participating with your ‘friends who are in the Kabbalat Torah class.’


Leah: it is clear that you are not the same person you were a year ago: you are, as you put it, ‘more sure of myself… I have grown up and I think that I can now understand my feelings and those of people around me far better….  I can now take more responsibility for myself and am far more independent.’   Leah, what is so special about your increasing independence is that you feel able to enjoy being part of community, where – and I quote: ‘everyone is welcome here despite all our differences.’  Leah, becoming Bat Mitzvah is about becoming more fully yourself – so it is important that for you, as you put it, ‘the synagogue is a place where I can come to learn, to be with my friends and just to think. I like the feeling of community I get… Everyone is so friendly that it is easy to just relax and feel a part of things.’


Leah:  you love being with others – and, also, ‘good with words’, you don’t just ‘love to talk’, you also, ‘like to learn about books’, as well as ‘read them.’  And then there is music, which you ‘enjoy listening to and playing.’   You are excited by life and all its possibilities for learning and enjoying yourself – which is why, at the moment, you have ‘no idea’ what you’d like to do in the future, although you do know that – and I quote:  ‘I would like to do some kind of work that interacts with other people, or helps those who are less fortunate in some way’ – and you are passionate about helping ‘the environment… because’, as you put it, ‘ every single person has to live in the world that we are creating, and if we keep on like this, it will all be ruined.  We, in the developed world, use far more than our fair share of the earth’s resources, and the hunger of poorer people is directly our responsibility. I would like to be able to change this.’


Leah:  I have no doubt that you will be involved in helping to change the world – and that you will also contribute to the continuing transformation of Jewish life.   May the achievement of this day be a source of inspiration to you as you continue your own very special Jewish journey.  And let us say:  Amen.



Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

6th February 2010 – 22nd Sh’vat 5770



(2)  The Jerusalem Post, 17.03.2005).

(3) Women’s Archive).

(4) Oct 1st 2009…/women-orthodoxrabbis-heresy-or-possibility – United States –).   Blu Greenberg wrote the ground-breaking book, On Women and Judaism.  A View from Tradition. Published by the Jewish Publication Societ of America (Philadeplphia) in 1981      it was the first book to come out of the modern Jewish feminist movement.

(5) Leora Tanenbaum;…/a-rabbi-is-not-a-rabbi-in_b_189767.html).

(6)  Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah: ‘Rabbi Regina Jonas, 1902-1944: Missing Link in a Broken Chain’. In Hear Our Voice.  Women Rabbis Tell Their Stories. SCM Press, 1994; ‘The Discovery of Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas: Making Sense of Our Inheritance’. European Judaism, 95:2, December 1995.

(7) See Union of Reform Judaism:

(8) See Anat Hoffman’s e-letter in The Pluralist – Newsletter from the Israel Religious Action Centre, 11th January 2010 –