​Drash on Parashat Tzav 2022

Drash on Parashat Tzav             

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW   

“I cannot believe it!!” I said to myself, as Rabbi Kaminsky reminded me it was my turn to write the drash this week. Now, it was not the fact that I had to write the drash, although to be fair, it is always a bit of a surprise when the reminder comes, but rather, the next thing she said: “By the way, it’s the 100th  anniversary of the first bat mitzvah, in case you want to say something about it.”

“The 100th anniversary?” I thought to myself, “She must be talking about a different 'first bat mitzvah'. I need to look it up!” And look it up I did and Rabbi Kaminsky was talking about the bat mitzvah of Judith Kaplan and it was indeed 100 years ago this Shabbat! I could not believe it!

One hundred years since that momentous day, when Judith, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (it’s hard to be the child of a rabbi!) stood before the community, and alone, read from the Torah for her bat mitzvah. She did not read from the scroll, she read from the chumash, but it marked the first time that a woman in America did that in a public ceremony. Judith said: “No thunder sounded and no lightning struck. The institution of bat mitzvah had been born without incident, and the rest of the day was all rejoicing.”

Judith Kaplan made history. In that moment, she taught that your gender does not matter when it comes to reading Torah, that we can all have access to the ancient teachings of our tradition, that the Torah is indeed for each and every one of us. We all stood at Sinai, and that day, she may not have realised it, but she opened a door which has led to girls and women all over the world, celebrating their bat mitzvahs by reading from the Torah scrolls.

A number of events and programmes have been established to commemorate this milestone, including an imagining of what the Instagram posts of that day and time would have been! We can all celebrate in different ways but one of them is connected to the parasha for this Shabbat. The portion details the numerous sacrifices which are to be brought for different occasions. One of them is the Todah, the thanksgiving sacrifice, the one sacrifice which the tradition teaches will not be abolished even at the time of the messiah’s arrival. All the other sacrifices will be eliminated, but this will remain because of the vital importance of acknowledging and marking moments of blessing in our lives. This Shabbat, we can consider the Todah sacrifice being offered in honour of Judith Kaplan, the young girl who said: “It would be less than the whole truth to say that I was as full of enthusiasm about the subject of the ceremony than my father was. I was worried about the attitude of my own peers.”[1] She also had two disapproving grandmothers who pleaded with her father to stop this madness and not go ahead.[2] But she found the courage and strength, despite her misgivings, and she led the way. Her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a leader and advocate for the rights of women and his daughters, making the space, envisioning the future for them where they too would connect with the Torah, celebrate their milestones in the same way as their male counterparts. The strength and vision of this father and daughter paved the way for every bat mitzvah who today reads from the Torah and celebrates in a synagogue, and for that, we say to Judith Kaplan and Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, “todah” thank you.

[1] My Jewish Learning “The First Bat Mitzvah”

[2] Ritual Well “A Recollection of the first US Bat Mitzvah”

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