Why would anyone want to go through the work of becoming a bat mitzvah at age 75?
What follows is my answer, how it relates to the Torah portion Mishpatim, and lessons about social justice.
I was fortunate (or as they say in the South, “blessed”) to have grown up in a family of Jews whose lives were focused on social justice. For my parents and me, the ethical and moral precepts of Judaism were the pillars upon which we based our lives, how we treated others, and what was most important in life. Early on, I became involved and committed to tikkun olam, repair of our broken world. Not only did I work as a public health nurse, I devoted off-hours to advocate for better and more equitable care of poor women and children.
But something was missing in my Jewish life. As my sons prepared for their b’nai mitzvah, I felt I did not have much to contribute to their Jewish education because I was insufficiently educated. Though I went to religious school in the ’50s and was confirmed, I grew up at a time when bat mitzvah was not an option for women. It has only been in the last 30 years that Reform women have been able to make major contributions to liturgy, spiritual practice, and leadership.
Until I moved to Asheville, N.C., in 2005, I had never been part of a congregation where adult learning and social justice were so integral to congregants. As chair of the social justice committee, I became very involved with both the temple and larger western North Carolina Jewish community. I found a rabbi who was willing to teach me, and I enrolled in Hebrew classes – despite recognizing the difficulty of learning a language like Hebrew when one has reached the eighth decade of life. I decided to explore whether I could become a bat mitzvah.
It is serendipitous that my Torah portion is about the rules and commandments that a civil society adopted in Biblical times. Most of these rules involve the essence of social justice and can apply to issues that confront us today. For example, it includes:
- Oppression and responsibility to care for the stranger
- Unfair business practices
- Protecting our environment
- Protecting hurt animals, even of one’s enemy
- Requiring impartial judges
- Compensation for personal injury
The parashah (Torah portion) has much to teach us.
Parashat Mishpatim commands us to “love the stranger,” saying, “We must not oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is a reminder that we have a special obligation to the stranger – the immigrant, the outsider – to treat others as we want to be treated, remembering our own history as the ger (outsider). Today, that teaching has special significance for how we respond to immigration issues and policies that might keep the “stranger” out of our country.
This Torah portion also has much to say about capital punishment, requiring that a murderer forfeit his life. The ancient rabbis recognized the sanctity of life and the danger to justice of allowing fallible human beings to end the life of another. From the Torah’s own requirement that two eyewitnesses testify before death may be imposed, they constructed so many conditions that in essence it is practically impossible to actually carry out the death penalty. How helpful this guide can be in our own response to the death penalty! Torah reminds us to use every other remedy to punish a capital crime.
The parashah teaches that we cannot ignore the plight of others. As Rabbi Hillel is attributed to have said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” The Torah obligates/commands us to care and work for social justice. In his newest book, Putting God Second, Rabbi Donniel Hartman reminds us what is most important – not to act because religion says we must, or because of our notion of what God wants demands it. Rather, we act first out of our moral obligation to prioritize the ethical treatment of others over blind religious mandates.
My study of Torah provided me the basis for understanding the Jewish roots for “not standing idly by.” I appreciate the fundamental voice that women have brought to Reform Judaism and will continue to insist that in order to be a whole community, we need to include women as well as men’s perspectives.
Whatever our age, we must never stop learning; the quest for lifelong learning is vital. We can use the knowledge to better ourselves, as well as to understand the world to decide how we must act. As Jews, we are compelled to perform tikkun olam, and as a Reform community, we are committed to organize and advocate for the common good.
Judith Kline Leavitt is a retired professor of nursing and health policy living in Asheville, N.C. Having been a social activist her entire adult life, Judith currently chairs the western NC chapter of Carolina Jews for Justice after serving as chair of the social justice committee of Congregation Beth HaTephila, where she continues to be an active member.