When a 12-year-old Jewish girl from Washington, DC, told her family she wanted to have a bat mitzvah like everyone else around her, it raised quite a conundrum.
It wasn’t that Batya Sperling-Milner was female — her family is Modern Orthodox — but that she is blind.
The Washington Post this week reported on Sperling-Milner’s mission and the challenges it presented.
Bar or bat mitzvahs often read from the Torah, as well as conduct other parts of the Shabbat service. And though Braille Bibles exist, there are no Braille characters for the cantillations — special notations that indicate how each word must be sung.
Some blind children learn the cantillations by heart. But Sperling-Milner’s Torah portion was particularly long, and in her community — though it is liberal in some areas — getting even one note wrong would have been an issue.
Sperling-Milner said during one rehearsal: “When I stand up here, I think about people who read before me and I want to do what they did. I want to do what you’re supposed to according to Jewish law.”
The family recruited an Israeli friend, software engineer Danny Sadinoff, to create all-new Braille characters for the cantillations, and to design a program that can take any notated text and turn it into Braille text with the musical symbols.
Sadinoff even created a Braille symbol that alerts readers that a musical notation is coming up, so they are not caught off guard.
The family faced another issue — the questionable legitimacy, in some sectors, of Torah reading by the blind. The issue has long been a contentious one, with some rabbis insisting the reader must see the scroll as the text is read out.
That led Batya’s mother, Aliza Sperling, to prepare a 2.5-hour-long lecture to the congregation on the matter in the lead-up to the ceremony.
In the end Batya’s right to have the ceremony was accepted by all and the festive day was pulled off without a hitch.
The congregation’s leader, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, summed it up: “Every single person in the synagogue showed up to hear her read, and we all felt we were in the presence of greatness.”