As many of you know, my main calling these past twelve years or so has been to work with b’nei mitzvah. I started this work, or perhaps it found me, to enlarge the scope of what was possible for girls in the South African Jewish community (it has come to include boys, but that’s for another blog). At first, reading from the Torah in halachic contexts became the cornerstone of my work for girls and I’ve blogged a bit about that journey. But over time, reading from Torah has become one of many facets on a bat mitzvah journey. It has come to include learning, community work, social awareness and more. But one of the pieces that has become essential to my Jewish coming of age process, is a final ceremony, which culminates in a rock pool swim.
At first glance, this day, with the braai, the singing, the art work and the swimming might seem like a fun day where the girls get to bond one last time, one last hurrah. For me, on a deeper level, this ceremony is a response to the dominant patriarchal line that has woven its way through Judaism and has split off masculine god imagery from feminine god imagery and the soul from the body. For me, this type of ceremony is one way to return the repressed energy of the feminine to Jewish life.
Bat Mitzvah occurs when a girl is transitioning into adolescence, a time of evident sensitivity, vulnerability and potential power. Mary Pipher Riley and others have spoken about this incredible time in a young girl’s life and how generally, our culture fails our young women as they enter the world. Just consider the messages they receive from television, magazines, pop culture and now of course, social media about what it means to be a young woman. One of the ways Pipher-Riley says we can help our girls, is through ritual. Because I wear the hat of both a psychologist and a Jewish educator and because I remember how hard this time of adolescence was for me in some ways, I have always wondered: what ritual could we do for our b’not mitzvah to give them the very best start in this next phase? If ritual really has power (and I believe it does)…if ritual matters (and I believe it must), then goddammit, let’s find the very best rituals to help Jewish girls become women. My initial focus was making it more possible for girls to lein and read from the Torah. In South Africa, I was sometimes accused of ‘wanting to be a man’ for advocating this option (I know and that this is seen as an insult, no less…). For me however, I always felt that the actual act of reading from the Torah is quite gender-neutral and beautifully human. It is about literacy, about ancient languages being brought into the moment, about story telling, about history, about song and about community. Still, bat mitzvah rituals are relatively new, dating only as far back as the 19th century. I strongly believe that girls and women who wish to read from the Torah should be able to do so. But the bat mitzvah should not just be a space of mimicry where we accept inherited models of what boys have done, and copy them. Precisely because it was not previously defined, bat mitzvah remains an emergent ritual space, ripe for potential creativity and innovation.
Bat Mitzvah is not simply a time of assuming Jewish legal responsibility. From a Jewish point of view, bat mitzvah is a time of soul expansion; something shifts in terms of the moral capacities of a young person, they are able to engage with the yetzer harah and the yetzer tov. From a physiological perspective it is around this time, that women’s bodies change, from menstruation to developing breasts and hips to the awakening of sexual desire. There is NOTHING in our tradition that honours and celebrates this transformation of the body from girl to woman. When I was growing up in an orthodox community, the only acknowledgement of these changes was to be told by my teachers that I now needed to wear knee-high socks or stockings as opposed to ankle socks, that I needed to be careful how I placed my legs on the lower bars of the desks so that the Rabbi teachers couldn’t ‘see’ and that one day I would need to observe the laws of mikvah when I was married. Ze Hu! The overt message of ‘cover up’ concealed some underlying assumptions, ‘your body is holy and sacred yet potentially dangerous’. I dare say, these messages were just as impoverishing as the messages that the Western world feeds women about their bodies needing to conform to a certain ideal that fits the ‘male gaze’.
How is it possible to give our girls the message that their bodies are amazing, every flow, every curve, every ache and longing? More, how to give our girls this message without splitting off from Judaism but just the opposite to connect the marvelous awakening of the body to their Jewish selves? This is a crucial question and if I may be so bold, I would suggest it is a question that ‘adult’ women need explore as much as I am asking it about b’not mitzvah.
Towards the end of the year that I work with girls, I start to address these issues more directly. I bring mystical ideas to class that talk about the body as a holy vessel. We look at the idea of Shechinah as the immanent aspect of God that resides in our bodies and I slowly introduce them to an idea of a feminine God, in our bodies that brings about our bodily changes and desires. Let me add, that twelve year old girls are blushing their way into these transitions and I present these lessons in humorous, light, sometimes indirect ways. But the girls GET it. I also talk about Western expectations of women as communicated through the media and how girls tend to be overly critical of their bodies as they become teens. There is an instant mirror recognition. Like a flood opening, they talk about how girls have started putting themselves down ‘your hairs too curled’, ‘I am too tall’, ‘you are too fat’, ‘you need more makeup’. Without knowing it, these girls have already been initiated into the Western Woman’s Way. And it’s a cruel initiation. So in the class, I drop these ideas about being kind to ourselves and each other and I link it to Shechinah, to a feminine God that loves our bodies.
And then we prepare a ritual in the mountains. We prepare it together. I explain to them that in Judaism we don’t have recorded rituals of our changes from girl to woman. So we will create a ritual. At the core, we will swim in bathing suits in rock pools. I explain the healing, transforming power of natural water and its origins in Jewish tradition in the gathering of natural waters, called a Mikveh. Don’t get me wrong: This is not a mikveh in the traditional sense. Firstly, we aren’t completely naked. And secondly we don’t say the traditional Tevilah blessing (although one could). But we use the symbolism and power of this ancient Jewish practice of ritual immersion in spring water to help these young girls transition positively, with love, hope, and intention to this next phase in their lives. Each year, the girls have different suggestions of how to do it. This is what we did this year:
We arrived in the beautiful Magaliesberg mountains and immediately learned about Miriam from Biblical and Rabbinic text. Miriam: prophet, dancer, singer, poet, and water woman. Besides for the well known ideas about Miriam from Bible and Midrashic sources, that she was responsible for Moshe’s birth, that she led a song at the sea, we also look at lesser known sources. One source in the Zohar describes how Miriam facilitated women’s soul gatherings during their wanderings in the desert. I share the source because it is so inspiring:
All of the righteous women of that generation used to come to Miriam at those times. They would rise up like a pillar of smoke in the desert. That day was called the day of joy. On Sabbath eves and holidays the women would all come to Miriam and work at achieving knowledge of the Master of the Universe. Blessed was that generation among all others. (Zohar, Emor 116)
Wouldn’t you love to know what Miriam did with the women? When I ask the girls to imagine Miriam’s tent and how she helped the women get to know God, they are clear; the women baked bread together, studied Torah, danced, sang, ate, swam and prayed.
This year, straight after learning about Miriam, the girls had requested a Henna ritual. Each girl chose a different Jewish symbol, from a Hamsa, to stars of David, from the words of the Shema to hearts. There’s an old quote from the consciousness raising group Riot Grrrrrrlz which warns women of the damage we do to each other when we criticize our own bodies. The quote ends something like this, ‘It’s just not cool to criticise your body sista.’ There’s been a lot of literature to talk about girls being mean to each other in different ways, about social exclusion and putting each other down. But, surely the antidote to this phenomenon is loving each other and ourselves. The henna painting was an act of care for each other’s bodies. It was fun, it was playful AND it was loving. As each girl chose a symbol she wanted on her body and her friend caringly painted it on, I was overcome by how women can love and support and indeed, help to heal each other. As the girls chose Jewish symbols to paint on their bodies, they connected their Jewish life with their feminine body-self. No words.
Then the girls put on their bat mitzvah dresses with bathing suits underneath and we walked to a group of cascading rock pools. I wished for a photographer to capture the girls in their gauze and taffeta, their beautiful bodices and pointy A-line frocks, in pinks and reds and blacks and whites. We formed a colourful group against the earth-red African mud path and the clear and generous blue skies. We walked the last walk of young girls and came to the rock pools. Then symbolically the girls removed their beautiful frocks and stepped into the water. A beautiful rock slide emerged and the girls said ‘let’s each say a word we want for this next part of our life as we slide down the rock’ We all waited at the bottom of the slide as each girl ascended and called out her word to us and to the Universe. Each word was a prayer: ‘Love’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Success’, ‘Happiness’ ‘Adventure’. They called out and then gave themselves a push to roll down the slide, arriving with a splash, a little submersion and then a loud cheer from the rest of the group.
Afterwards, there was ah exchange of gifts. Nothing expensive, purely symbolic: “this is what this group and this journey has come to mean to me.“ Enriched with their friendship gifts, with the soft afterglow of rock pool water on their skins and the sun lowering behind us, we drove back to the city.
We live in a world where sometimes our strongest rituals are the ways in which we make our coffee in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, I am not belittling anyone’s coffee! But in an increasingly secularized world, I fear we have forgotten how to use ritual for healing and transformation. Our rituals have become so secular and often revolve around technology, cell phone voyeurism or the holy gathering around the television at night time. At worst this disconnect leads to more extreme rituals, the unconscious rites of overeating, binge drinking, drugs and more. On the other side, with the strengthening of religious fundamentalism, religious ritual is in danger of becoming blocked, staid and stripped of all meaning. In between the worlds of no god or only God, we forget that ritual is a reservoir of symbolic play and huge transitional power and energy. Unlike the messages some of us received at twelve and thirteen which split soul from body, and a masculine from a feminine god energy, my hope is that these girls take with them a soul memory of this day, something they can return to throughout their lives when the criticism and self doubt creeps in. This soul memory is whispered through the rituals of learning, dance, art, Henna and water immersion. Here’s some of the whispers on the wind:
Hashem is masculine and feminine
you are wonderful
your bodies and appetites are wonderful
you are beautiful as you are
your life is celebrated
live your truth
Be kind to yourself and each other.
Raise the sparks of this world.