Elena Kagan’s Bat Mitzvah

As the entire country is abuzz with conversation and speculation about Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, several crucial details emerge. Yes, she would be the third woman on the Supreme Court. And yes, she would be the third Jew on the Supreme Court. And yes, there will be no Protestants on the Supreme Court, which is itself highly symbolic of the social changes that are occurring across America.

But here’s the other detail.The New York Times reported that as a young teenager, Elena Kagan openly challenged her rabbi on certain details of her bat mitzvah ceremony.

This is nothing less than a massive victory for us as Jews, and certainly for Jewish women. Unless Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrated becoming bat mitzvah, Elena Kagan will be the first Supreme Court justice to have experienced this modern and quintessentially American rite of passage. But more than that: we can take pride in the fact that Ms. Kagan’s first learned her skills at argumentation by challenging her childhood rabbi. The media has not revealed any of the details of her battle with her rabbi; perhaps this will come out in the confirmation hearings (!). What was the “theme” of the controversy? Did she not like her assigned Torah portion? Did she demand more aliyot for her family? Did she want to do less (or more) prayers in the service? Did she and the rabbi disagree on the subject of her devar Torah?

Let this give courage and inspiration to American Jewish teenagers.

Yes, Judaism teaches kavod ha-rav — the respect that is necessary for rabbis and teachers. But kavod ha-rav can also mean challenging your rabbi, spiritually and intellectually, when it is appropriate to do so. Protest and challenge are woven into the very fabric of Jewish existence — from Abraham to Moses to the psalmist to Job to Tevye to Elie Wiesel. It’s why we are Yisrael, the God Wrestlers. The term chutzpah doesn’t only mean “gall”. It also has a theological dimension — chutzpah c’lapei shamaya, audacity in the face of God. And our tradition notes that God needs it. God even loves it, rejoicing when we “win” — “My children have defeated Me!” God sighs, lovingly.

I would like to imagine that the young Elena Kagan challenged her rabbi on a matter of deep principle. I am not even ashamed to say that I hope that she won the argument.

And I should like to think that her childhood rabbi is smiling broadly. After all, he (or she) gave young Elena her first experience in argumentation, and maybe also in listening and responding. No doubt she has carried that lesson with her — from the Upper West Side to Princeton to Harvard to Chicago — and now, let us assume, to the bench of the highest court in the land.

It’s good for the Jews. And it is very good for America

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