My husband and I recently attended the Bat Mitzvah of a dear friend’s daughter. Our daughters are all adults, but our friend from college days married a younger woman, and so his oldest child is just becoming a teenager. His lovely wife is Jewish, which explains why a friend from a Catholic university invited us to his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.
The ceremony took place during the regular Shabbat morning service at the temple. Although I have been to several Hanukkah celebrations, a couple of Seder dinners, and one Jewish funeral, I’d never gone to a Bat Mitzvah before. The program we received at the door announced the occasion of our friend’s daughter becoming a Bat Mitzvah, which made sense when I read the explanation: Bat Mitzvah literally means “Daughter of the Commandment”. (For boys, Bar means “Son”.) We were, on that spring morning, commemorating a young girl’s turning an age when she is now obligated to observe the commandments of God.
My eyes, of course, spilled tears when our old friend gave a moving, beautifully written speech in honor of his daughter. And what a daughter! She ably led most of the service, in Hebrew. She read from the Torah, chanted prayers, and even gave a brief, insightful homily on a reading from Leviticus concerning the treatment of lepers. She was confident and sincere and vibrant. I thought that, compared to the preparation and study required for this occasion, the sacrament of Confirmation was a walk in the park for my daughters. They’d been confirmed with twenty or so other Confirmands, but a Bat Mitzvah stands alone. My daughters had attended two years of classes and performed hours of community service, but they had not ever had to lead a service or organize an individual service project to benefit others. They had never been so singled out in front of their congregation.
The Shabbat service was rich in tradition and yet fresh in intention, strikingly alive with the commitment to making the world a better place. There were similarities between the Shabbat service and the Mass: the traditional dress of the presider, the responsorial psalm, the communal prayer of the faithful, the Scripture reading followed by a homily, the cantor leading us in song, the reverent treatment of the Torah scrolls, whose central location in the ark was akin to the Eucharist in the tabernacle. I imagined Jesus with his family at his local Shabbat service. I imagined the early Apostles adapting the tradition in which they had grown up to the mystery of the new Paschal meal. A Catholic in the Jewish temple, I felt curiously at home.
I also understood starkly what it must be like to attend a Catholic Mass for the first time: the sitting, the standing, the gestures, the responses, the music, the ritual, the reverence accorded to seemingly normal objects; above all, the complete nonsensical quality of it all to a newcomer. At the Shabbat, I didn’t comprehend the language. People wearing shawls suddenly rocked up on their toes in unison. The prayer book was read from back to front. My husband wore a yarmulke on his head. I thought of all the friends of our children who had accompanied us to Mass over the years, just because they had slept over at our house, and I had a dawning respect for the grace with which they had sat through our unintelligible worship.
A great party followed the Shabbat service: good food and drink, sweet desserts, smiling friends and family, interesting conversation, music, dancing, gifts, and lightness of heart. Our friend’s daughter is a Bat Mitzvah now. Already a gifted child wise beyond her years, she is a daughter of our loving God, a daughter of the future. With daughters like her, it is a future in which we can place our trust and faith.