Confirmation: The Life And Times of a Modern Ritual

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published June 10, 2005, issue of June 10, 2005.
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Modernity, it was once thought, wreaked havoc with religious tradition, rendering centuries-old rituals obsolete. We now know better. Modernity has not only made room for tradition, it has even given birth to a number of new rituals of its own, among which the rite of confirmation, often celebrated on Shavuot, may well take pride of place.

A mid-19th-century invention, confirmation was initially heralded by Reform Jews in Germany as an alternative to the bar mitzvah that they regarded, along with the dietary laws and the wearing of yarmulkes, as unduly “oriental.” Determined to recast Judaism in avowedly modern terms, as an occidental faith as rational and sensible as, say, Protestantism, the founding fathers of Reform Judaism made a point of developing new rituals such as confirmation to take the place of those now deemed inappropriate.

In its emphasis on the collective rather than the individual, and on educating teenage girls as well as boys in the fine points of Jewish theology and history, confirmation did the bar mitzvah one better. Nothing if not respectable, it even resembled a high school graduation with all the attendant pomp and circumstance: Banks of flowers, orderly processionals and recessionals, rows of young women in pretty white dresses and young men in handsome suits, and a raft of high-minded recitations about devotion, fidelity and progress characterized the occasion.

Crossing the ocean along with the thousands of German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the years prior to and following the Civil War, confirmation soon took hold in the New World. American Jews were especially warmed by its pageantry and, amid the late 19th-century boom in consumerism, by the way it provided a religiously sanctioned opportunity to indulge in gift giving and display.

In no time at all, confirmation succeeded in generating its own commercial momentum. “All over the land jewelers and florists and booksellers and dressmakers and tailors are preparing for their annual harvest; Confirmation Day is at hand,” lamented one somewhat disgruntled eyewitness in 1915, at a time when religiously inspired competition was in full flower. He was not alone in his disappointment. Confirmation, declared one of its fiercest critics, Rabbi Horace J. Wolf of Rochester, N.Y., has deteriorated into an occasion for “loot-gathering.” It’s time to put a stop to all this excess and to “free the day from its parade and artificiality,” he insisted, but his appeals fell largely on deaf ears.

Still other critics took exception to the way confirmation fell far short of its potential, especially when it came to equalizing the status of women. For Henrietta Szold, herself a confirmand, confirmation failed to make good on its promise. Designed to be the “flower of female education,” this ritual turned out instead to be “sterile, ineffectual,” she wrote hotly at the turn of the 20th century. “It failed to stimulate the Jewish development of women, because it was an assertion of the principle of Jewish education in theory only. In practice it put up with a minimum of superficial knowledge and an apology for Jewish training.”

More to the point, perhaps, confirmation developed into a largely one-sided affair, drawing far more young women than men into the fold. Just as religion in general tended to be widely derided in modern America as a “feminine indulgence,” confirmation came to be seen as “girls’ business,” attracting first a plurality and then the overwhelming majority of its celebrants from among the fairer sex.

Troubling though this development may have been to Reform rabbis who, rhetorically at least, placed a premium on gender equality, the female composition of the average confirmation class greatly appealed to colleagues in the Conservative movement who were then casting about for a way to appeal to the young women of their congregations. Confirmation — or consecration, as some Conservative Jews preferred to call the ritual to distinguish it from its Reform antecedents — was the answer to their prayers. Until supplanted by the bat mitzvah, itself another ritual innovation of the modern era, confirmation enabled adolescent Jewish girls within the emerging Conservative movement of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s to feel that they, too, had a stake — and a place — in Jewish tradition.

These days, this “worthwhile innovation,” as one Conservative congregation put it in 1936, has all but faded away, its popularity superseded by both the bat mitzvah and the growth, more generally, of day school education. Even so, it’s well worth remembering — and celebrating — for the way it sought to keep Judaism as fresh and vibrant as spring itself.

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