Question Answered

Earlier in the week, I blogged about the one question Elena Kagan needed to answer: What battle did she wage with her rabbi before her bat mitzvah?

The New York Times had disclosed that there had been a brouhaha “over some aspect of the ceremony,” without explaining what, precisely, had been at issue.

Well, thanks to the New York Jewish Week for asking — and answering — that question.

It seems that Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee had the moxie to stand on principle — even at the tender age of 12.

This issue was this: Kagan wanted a bat mitzvah; the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, where her family belonged, did not have bat mitvot for girls.

Kagan went to her rabbi and told him she wanted to recite the Haftorah, just like the boys, and moreover, she wanted her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning — just like the boys.

Her rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, told the Jewish Week that such a request was unprecedented.

To his credit, though, the rabbi worked with her. She could have the ceremony on a Friday night, he said; and instead of reading a traditional Haftorah, she could chant, in Hebrew a section from the Book of Ruth.

“I was very proud of her,” [Riskin] said. “She did very well. After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time. … She was part of my education. This was for us a watershed moment.”

It couldn’t have been easy, in 1973, for a 12-year-old girl to stand up to her Orthodox rabbi for what she thought was right. At an age when most of us are more preoccupied with the bar/bat mitzvah after-party, Kagan not only spoke truth to power, but she forged a compromise that blazed a new path for all the girls who came after her.

Not to make of this long-ago incident than it deserves. But with abortion rights being chiseled away (women in some states will soon be forced to look at ultrasounds, and have the fetus described, before having abortions — even in cases of rape or incest) and immigrants being targeted through the law (did anyone see that Arizona just restricted ethnic studies classes, on the grounds that they promote “ethnic chauvinism”?), Kagan’s moral fearlessness could be a bold corrective.

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