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Bar? Bat? B'nai? B? Bet? -- Chronicle Online/The WORD 05/11/23

Weekly On-line Rabbi's D'var-Torah

May 11, 2023

20 Iyar 5783

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Earlier today, I read that a film called “Between the Temples” wrapped up shooting. Apparently, it is the story of a Cantor and an adult Bat Mitzvah student who just happens to be his grade school music teacher. I don’t know anything else about the plot, but it certainly has me interested. I’m in! I’ve been thinking a lot about B’nai Mitzvah recently. We just assigned dates to the next group of students who will become B’nai Mitzvah in three years. We’ve celebrated some nice B’nai Mitzvah this spring that almost felt like pre-COVID celebrations. And I just started preparatory lessons with a group of students who will become B’nai Mitzvah in the spring of 2024. That’s a lot of Mitzvah! So, even though I may have a stronger connection to this rite of passage than most, I think it is one of the most meaningful Jewish experiences for all of us – the young person going through it as well as the parents, grandparents and relatives proudly watching. The ritual that we know as Bar Mitzvah for boys dates back over a 1,000 years. Bat Mitzvah for girls was added 100 years ago. When some Reform leaders tried to do away with Bar/Bat Mitzvah and replace it Confirmation, it did not go well. People insisted on preserving the traditional Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Just as 100 years ago, our religious leaders recognized that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony needed some tweaking in order to accommodate the religious development of young women, we need to follow in their footsteps to accommodate our LGBTQ youth. We have young people in our community who do not fit neatly into the categories of Bat Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. That’s okay! It shouldn’t be surprising. Over 1,500 years ago, the rabbis of our Talmud acknowledged that there were EIGHT different genders! The complication is that Hebrew is a gendered language – everything and everyone is either masculine or feminine. There is no neuter in Hebrew. Fortunately, Hebrew is a living language and there are some very smart people working on this issue. The Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly has adopted a paper with instructions for how to call non-binary people to the Torah (click here if you want to read it). In addition, it is clear that we need a non-gender specific name for when a nonbinary person turns thirteen years old and takes on the obligations of Jewish adulthood. In English, I usually write B Mitzvah. It works for masculine, feminine, singular, plural and non-binary as well. It’s one term for all situations. Similarly, the Central Conference of American Rabbis came up with Bet Mitzvah. ‘Bet’ is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet and it stands for all of the same words as the ‘B’ in B Mitzvah. Keshet (the organization supporting LGBTQ equality in Jewish life) has suggested a number of alternatives including Brit Mitzvah (covenant of mitzvah) and Simchat Mitzvah (celebration of Mitzvah). It will probably take a little while for us as a community to settle on one name that we like, but it’s important that we start the conversation. This week, we conclude the Book of Leviticus in our Torah reading cycle. Upon completing the book, we add the words “Chazak, chazak v’nit-chazek – be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another.” We are our strongest when we include everyone in our community. Shalom, RAF.

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