Becoming a Leader: The Bat Mitzvah of Kate Goffi

A few moments ago, the person standing here in the pulpit, leading the Shabbat Morning Service, was a young woman: Kate Goffi.  Today, we are witnessing the moment when Kate becomes a bat mitzvah, literally, a ‘daughter of the commandment’, and by standing before us, signals that she is taking responsibility for her own Jewish life, and beginning her journey towards Jewish adulthood.


Kate is doing this in a very particular way: by leading the congregation in prayer and in the study of the sacred text which is at the heart of Judaism: the Torah. In a few minutes, Kate will come up again to the bimah – the platform, which stands in front of the Aron ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark, and she will give a d’var Torah, her commentary on the Torah portion of this week, which is Yitro. She will then read from the Sefer Torah, the Scroll of the Torah, on behalf of the congregation. In other words, Kate will, once again, lead the congregation. And so, before she starts reading from the scroll, she will call the congregation to the Torah reading with the words, Bar’chu et Adonai ha-m’vorach, ‘Bless the Eternal, who is blessed’ – the words with which she also called the congregation to prayer, earlier in the service.


Kate: I’m not sure that when you were preparing for today, you thought about yourself as a leader-in-waiting – but here you are, leading us! You have been helped, of course, by your tutor Harry, and you couldn’t have done it, without the support of your parents. But even with all the help you have received – including from your teachers, Melanie and Eileen – you have done it. I’ve not decided to retire early – and I’m pretty sure becoming a Rabbi has not featured in your thoughts about your future occupation – at least, not yet! Nevertheless, you have demonstrated today that in an important sense, you are fast learning the skills you need to become a leader.


How does one become a leader? By leading. The story of the Exodus from Egypt shows us that the first leader of the Exodus, was not Moses, but Miriam, his elder sister: If it hadn’t been for her initiative, Moses might never have survived, when his mother and sister placed him in a basket in the reeds of the River Nile, in an effort to save him from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree. It was Miriam, who stood by and waited to see what would happen, and when Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby, arranged that Moses’ mother became his wet-nurse (Exodus 2). But Miriam didn’t, simply, like the midwives, Shiphrah and Pu’ah before her, who saved the lives of the new born boys (Exodus 1), facilitate her baby brother’s survival: last week’s portion, B’shallach relates that at the time of the Exodus, Miriam was designated as a prophet – n’vi’ah – led the women in song and dance, with timbrels, when the waters of the Reed Sea parted. And she didn’t just lead the women, like Moses, she sang on behalf of all the congregation (Ex 15:20-21)


Miriam became a leader by taking the lead. But given that Miriam was the elder of the triumvirate of leader siblings: Miriam, Aaron and Moses, and that she clearly played such an important leadership role in the Exodus, and the subsequent journey through the wilderness, it is astounding that the Torah actually tells us so little about her. But then, we all know that she lived during patriarchal times, when fathers and husbands ruled their daughters and wives, and sisters played second fiddle to their brothers.


But, significantly, Miriam never became any man’s wife. This made her position in the social order rather anomalous, but it also gave her more room to manoeuvre: struggling with a younger brother (Numbers 12) is not quite the same as having to deal with the power of a husband. Interestingly, the haftarah, the reading from the prophetic books that accompanies B’shallach, is the Book of Judges chapter four, verse 4 to chapter 5, which centres on the leadership of the prophet, Deborah. Deborah, like Miriam, sang a song of victory – and, significantly, Deborah was also unmarried. In addition to calling her a ‘prophet’ – n’vi’ah – the text also tells us that she was eishet lappidot. Most translations, translate eishet lappidot as ‘wife of Lappidot’. However, there is no character called Lappidot in the whole of the Hebrew Bible – so, clearly, the Hebrew means something else. In Hebrew, the words, ‘woman’ and ‘wife’ are the same word: ishah; so, eishet means wife of…, or, woman of… Interestingly, the Hebrew word lappid, means ‘torch. Since Lappid is a masculine noun, the usual plural is lappidim. However, since Deborah is referred to as eishet lappidot – the ot ending is the feminine plural – in the absence of a man called Lappidot, the most logical literal translation is ‘woman of torches’ – or, in more comprehensible English, ‘a torch-bearing woman’, or, simply, and more bluntly: ‘a fiery woman’. The association of Deborah with torches – and, indeed, fire – makes a lot of sense: she did, after all, as Judges chapters 4 and five relate, not only serve as a Judge and leader of her people in times of peace, but also, together with the general, Barak, she led the people in times of war – which is how she got to sing a song of victory with him.


So, both Miriam and Deborah were not simply like the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, strong women, they were also leaders. And – they were also both unmarried – which is probably why they were able to occupy leadership positions in societies that were usually led by men. Of course, male domination is not simply a thing of the past: there are many societies in the world still today, where men hold all the public power, and women are relagated to the private sphere of the home. And it’s not just in other countries that women’s lives are circumscribed in this way: in parts of the Jewish and Muslim communities here in Britain, for example, while boys are taught to participate in the public arena, girls are trained to be wives and mothers, whose primary purpose is to serve their families.


Fortunately, however, there is more than one way of practising Judaism. Today marks the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the death of the first female leader of Liberal Judaism in this country, Lily Montagu – zichronah livrachah, may her memory be for blessing, who died at the age of 89, on January 22nd 1963.  Lily Montagu, together with Claude Montefiore and Rabbi Israel Mattuck, was one of the three leaders, who formed Liberal Judaism in this country – one of the ‘3 Ms’, as they are affectionately called. In her article on Lily Montagu, published in 1994 in Hear Our Voice (edited by Sybil Sheridan and Sylvia Rothschild, SCM Press), the first anthology of women rabbis writings, Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi, now the Rabbi of Birmingham Progressive Synagogue, writes about this ‘pioneer in religious leadership’, who also, throughout her life, engaged in social work, mostly in London’s East End, and was dedicated to improving the lot of young working women. Brought up in an observant Orthodox Jewish family, Lily Montagu became attracted by the Reform movement in Germany and the United States, and after meeting Claude Montefiore at the age of 25, became committed to this new form of Judaism. A year later in 1899, she wrote an article for the Jewish Quarterly Review on, ‘The Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today’, which was so well received that it inspired a gathering of like-minded people, which led to the establishment of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902.


Lily Montagu was the catalyst for the development of Liberal Judaism in England. But interestingly, she asked Claude Montefiore to lead the new movement. And then, when the Liberal Jewish Synagogue was founded in St John’s Wood, London, in 1911, and Dr Israel Mattuck came over from the US a year later to be its first Rabbi, he took centre stage. And so, although Lily Montagu led children’s services and Shabbat afternoon services at her Girls Club, which later became the West Central Synagogue, she was reluctant to lead services at the LJS. Indee, it was not until June 1915, at the request of Rabbi Mattuck, that she gave her first sermon there. Subsequently, Lily Montagu did stand regularly in the pulpit, and also became one of the co-founders of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, and was one of the principal organisers of World Union activities for many years. She was also one of the founders of the London Society of Jews and Christians, which still exists, and which predated the Council of Christians and Jews by several years.


Both Claude Montefiore and Rabbi Mattuck, saw themselves as leaders; was this how Lily Montagu saw herself, too? Interestingly, she never married: was this why she was able to devote so much time to Liberal Judaism? If she had married, would her duties to her husband and family have come first? Questions like these are never asked of men because they simply would not be relevant: historically, men have never had to choose between marriage and family and a role in the world. Of course, during the 20th century, women’s lives changed dramatically, as women began to challenge the patriarchal status quo. But still today, while more and more women work, and are also found in the professions, most of the leaders remain men in every sphere: in business, politics, law, education, medicine – and, of course, religion.


Which brings me back to Kate. Kate: thankfully, unlike Miriam and Deborah and Lily Montagu, you have the choice to get married, if you want to, and go out into the world. Just look at your parents: your mum and dad both have careers, and they both look after the home, and share the care for their children: you are very fortunate to have such wonderful role models! And if the confident and accomplished way you have led the service this morning is anything to go by, you have real potential to be a leader. When I asked you, as part of your preparations for today, to think about what it all means to you, your answers revealed a deep level of understanding and real maturity. For you, ‘Being Jewish is all about friends, family and festivals. About getting together and doing things as a community. It’s also about both old and new traditions.’ I think you managed to summon up everything in just a few short words! And your reflections on becoming bat mitzvah were just as pertinent: ‘My Bat Mitzvah marks a point where I start to take responsibility for my actions, and I am recognized in my own right. I will also start to try and give more of a contribution to the synagogue as a whole.’ You are very aware of how you have changed over the past year – again, let me quote you:  ‘I feel I have got more confident in both myself and my Judaism. I have got more independent and responsible, and am relying less on other people.’ You are also rather pleased that you have ‘got a few centimetres taller’ and are now ‘taller than Nana!’ Like many young people, you ‘love spending time’ with your ‘friends, whether it’s just hanging around or going on a trip’, but you also love reading – and not just because it’s a way of getting out of tidying your room! You love the opportunity that reading gives you to enter ‘another world… that’s totally different’.  At the same time, your feet are firmly on the ground: you don’t know what you want to do in the future yet, but you do know that you ‘want to do something that interacts with people… something useful that helps others.’ In this spirit, thinking about what you could do to help make the world a better place to live in, you ‘would like to help young carers who have to look after and support their families because their parents are unable to.’


Kate: I don’t want to pre-empt your wonderful commentary on today’s portion on the subject of leadership – but I do just want to say one thing in that connection before I close: When Moses’ father in law, Yitro, advised him about how to identify leaders – of course, they were all ‘men’ – to share some of the responsibilities of leadership, Moses’ role as a leader was actually enhanced, not diminished. As the eldest sister, you have already taken the lead in your family, and today you are demonstrating your ability to lead the congregation in prayer and study. May the achievement of this day inspire you to continue to be a leader in all that you do. And let us say: Amen.



Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

22nd January 2011 – 17th Sh’vat 5771