I understand egalitarianism. I really do. I understand why a community would want to honor the desires of all its members to participate fully in services, count in minyan, and be in leadership roles. But moving bat mitvzah to 13 is a big mistake, a disservice to the bat mitvzah itself, and shows a misunderstanding of what Judaism is about on the most basic level.
Contrary to unfortunate popular opinion, bar and bat mitzvah is not a symbolic ceremony meant to show a young adults Torah reading skills, capacity to lead services, do a mitzvah project, or demonstrate a capacity to be responsible. Those are useful pursuits, but they are beating around the bush: bar and bat mitzvah are meant to provide order and direction when puberty kicks in.
Developmentally, puberty ushers in an entirely new phase physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and spiritually. As the brain develops through its stages, it gains the capacity to abstract, to understand other points of view, and to relate to larger questions of meaning and purpose. It also struggles with identity.
The transition from pre-pubescence to puberty, then, is an important one. As new tools become available to the young adult, as new desires take center stage, as new issues of identity and identification emerge, a young Jew deserves the opportunity to form a relationship to those new capacities within the context of ancient, time-tested Jewish wisdom. Our books and our leaders have so much to say about how to deal with sexual urges, self-image issues, and the conflict between, on one hand, the need to fit in and, on the other hand, the emergence of a unique self.
This is what bat and bar mitzvah is all about—helping a kid transition to adulthood under good, strong guidance. Once the transition is well underway, though, it is much harder for that guidance to bear fruit.
And, by 13, a girl has already set that process in motion. That’s because girls actually mature 1-2 years earlier than boys. An article on puberty reports: “For girls, puberty begins around 10 or 11 years of age and ends around age 16. Boys enter puberty later than girls-usually around 12 years of age-and it lasts until around age 16 or 17.” Bat mitzvah at 13 could miss the boat.
People who think this essential rite of passage is independent of the biology and psychology of development are underestimating the purpose, power, and brilliance of Torah. The Torah is not separate from reality—it is in fact quite tuned in.
So, I get it if you want to be in an egalitarian environment. But give your daughter the chance to truly benefit from the ancient wisdom of the Torah and to truly bond with Jewish values and tradition at a time when her mind is most open to it.
Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder is the rabbi of Kehilath Aish Kodesh, and is the author of the book Relationship 1:1 – The Genesis of Togetherness which is available at Amazon.com.