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A Secular Humanist Bat Mitzvah in Israel

A Jewish family, living on the east coast, approached me in order to help them have a bat mitzvah ceremony at the Western Wall that would include their daughter reading a part from her Torah portion. It was obvious to me that a ceremony like that could not be held at the main prayer plaza in front of the wall, because the space’s status is equivalent to an Orthodox synagogue. This means that there is a division between men and women, and according to Orthodox laws women are prohibited from reading aloud in front of a crowd.

Women from liberal Jewish currents, represented by the Women of the Wall organization, paved the way by fighting to implement their right to pray and read aloud, to be covered with a prayer shawl and to have a Torah scroll near the wall. After a long legal fight the Israeli Supreme Court decided and compelled the Israeli government to spend nearly 2 million NIS to prepare an alternative plaza at the archaeological park on the southern end of the wall. The new plaza was inaugurated in August 2004. In order to comply totally with the court decision, a concrete path was built, enabling disabled access, and a wooden structure was erected that makes it possible to touch the stones of the wall. Because this plaza is intended also for the use of the progressive Jewish streams, there is no division between males and females.

Although these arrangements have been made, discrimination still exists. Entrance to the archaeological park is limited and costs money, while the main prayer plaza is free and open 24/7. The feeling remains that the non-Orthodox majority is pushed to a remote corner. Still, the place allocated is dignified, allowing personal expression and access to a Torah scroll.

What do Secular Humanist Jews have to do with the Wall?

Humanistic Judaism has a different perspective on the Western Wall. Atheistic in essence, it does not accept the claim that there is inherent holiness, or something metaphysical, in the stones themselves or on the Temple Mount. Moreover, the Western Wall is not a relic of the Temple; it is only a supporting side wall to the renovations made by King Herod to the Second Temple. They originally did not serve as a prayer spot and near the wall there were streets and shops and commerce, just regular human living without any sacredness attached. The first evidence that the wall became a known prayer site began only in the 15th century. The absurd article appearing on signs leading to the Western Wall says that “The Shekhinah (God’s presence in the world) never leaves the Western Wall of the Temple,” is found in ancient writings, but refers to the wall of the Temple, not to Herod’s support wall.

For Humanistic Jews, the Kotel (a Hebrew name for the Western Wall) serves as a historic monument and a central symbol to the Jewish culture. But we do not forget that on a second mount, facing the Temple Mount, we have all the sovereignty symbols of the State of Israel — the national mount (Givat Haleom in Hebrew, also called Givat Ram) — upon it are the most important institutions of the state: the parliament, the high court, the government, the Hebrew University and the Israel Museum. These two hills, facing each other, represent two focal perspectives: the religious-historic and the national-cultural. A Humanistic bat mitzvah is a celebration of identity and should encompass all facets of Jewish culture so both of these perspectives are important to Jewish culture and identity, one supplementing the other.

A Secular Humanistic Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall

For a lot of Jews, reading from the scroll in the surroundings of the ancient relics of the Temple Mount is a potent symbol meant to reaffirm the Jewish identity, sometimes lacking outside of Israel.

But the ceremony we did was not a religious worship ritual, rather an affirmation of the bat mitzvah girl and her family’s Jewish cultural identity. The Torah scroll is merely a book to read from the torah portion that tells the mythical story of the Exodus. Symbolically, the reading was on Passover, a few days after the Seder. Other family members received special honors to read other parts from the portion, and the bat mitzvah girl gave a speech interpreting the story of the birth of the people of Israel and her own take on that as a person starting her process of maturation.

After the ceremony we walked to a restaurant nearby had a festive lunch, during which a guestbook was passed around, allowing friends and family to share advice with the girl based on their experience in life. There was a toast and speeches thanking all the people that came. But the bat mitzvah was not complete without a tour to all the institutions symbolizing Israel’s national sovereignty on the adjacent hill.

Rabbi Nardy Grun

Rabbi Nardy Grun, a Secular Humanistic Rabbi from Jerusalem, is Editor of Tkasim – Portal of Jewish-Secular Rites in Israel.