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bet mitzvah: A MORE INCLUSIVE NAME

08/31/2023 12:20:00 PM

Aug31

Rabbi Dan Feder

As we usher in the new year, we are introducing a new name for our B’nai Mitzvah program, and it reflects core values in our Peninsula Temple Sholom community. At a joyful orientation for this year’s new cohort of youth who will celebrate their Jewish coming of age ceremony by leading a Shabbat morning service, Cantor Yonah Kliger and I shared our decision to give our program a new name that communicates our desire for a term that is more inclusive and acknowledges all gender identities and gender expressions of the youth in our synagogue. The new name is “bet mitzvah.”

We are following the lead of the Worship and Practice Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), our movement’s rabbinical association, which was assigned the task by the CCAR’s Board to search for an all-inclusive, general term for the coming-of-age milestone in CCAR publications, statements, and social media channels.

For us at PTS, the new term will be how we refer to our program, meaning what was formerly called our b’nai mitzvah program, will now be called our bet mitzvah program. While for several years we have used the term b’nai mitzvah rather than bar/bat mitzvah, it was still a gendered term, as b’nai is the third person masculine term that would be used to refer to a group of both boys and girls. The desire to find words that were more inclusive and non-gendered necessitated finding a new term.

The CCAR Worship and Practice Committee prioritized finding a term that would accomplish three things. The term needed to be:

  • inclusive of all gender identities and gender expressions
  • honor the Hebrew language in its usage and meaning
  • familiar or existing language so that it would be understandable, usable, and “sticky” (i.e., it would be inclined to be used).

The committee solicited colleagues in the CCAR and American Conference of Cantors (ACC) to share the terms they used and why. Members surveyed the thoughts of American, Israeli, and British colleagues. They asked questions of experts in feminist theory, gender theory, and queer theory. Members read sermons on changing language around this Jewish milestone. They also consulted the Nonbinary Hebrew Project (which has developed a third grammatical gender system as an alternative for when the original binary doesn't work) and Keshet (which is dedicated to LGBTQ Equality in Jewish life).

From an original list of sixteen possible new terms, and weighing the values of tradition, creativity, and imagination, they settled on “bet mitzvah” for three compelling reasons:

  • Bet is the first Hebrew letter of the traditional name of this lifecycle event—whether bar or bat mitzvah—so the term is gender neutral. It is worth noting that the Nonbinary Hebrew Project recommends the term bet mitzvah, and the term is already in use in several congregations.
  • The word Bet is richly resonant because it is the first letter of the Torah, the original source of our tradition’s wisdom and tradition. And the letter bet is symbolic—it is wide open on its right side, pointing us forward to and open future—a future that we yearn for that is more accepting of diversity and equity than our present world. In this way, the term bet mitzvah points us toward a world that honors all of God’s creations, just as the opening Torah portion teaches explicitly that we are all created in the image of God, and toward a world of possibilities.
  • The committee also wanted to settle on a term that would be memorable both to those members of our communities who are Hebrew literate and those who are not Hebrew literate. Like the more traditional familiar terms, it is one syllable. The committee believed this term could become “sticky.”

The CCAR Worship and Practices Committee felt that bet mitzvah best reflected the committee’s determinants of inclusivity, honoring Hebrew, and using familiar or existing language. The CCAR Board accepted the proposal.

It’s important to note that the intention here is not to replace the terms “bar mitzvah” and “bat mitzvah” but rather for “bet mitzvah” to be an additional, inclusive option for families and youths. Every youth will be encouraged to choose the term that’s most meaningful to them and our certificate will reflect their choice. They may choose bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, b’nai mitzvah, or bet mitzvah. The new term evokes traditional terms and at the same time honors diverse gender inclusivity and expression.

It is both liberating and exciting to be part of a religious community that is deeply rooted in the values of tradition, equality, human dignity, and change. This guides our mandate as a synagogue community and we will always strive to both elevate the human soul, create room for all under our large tent, and transmit the ancient wisdom of our beautiful Jewish tradition.

May this High Holy Day season and this year bring you renewed light in your soul and elevation in your spirit. And may we continue to go from strength to strength.

Tue, April 23 2024 15 Nisan 5784