10/22/2012 02:27 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

On Teenage Girls, Stories and Stones

In Birmingham, England, a brave and inspiring teenager fights for her life. She took on the Taliban, religious extremism and misogyny all simply to pursue an education. A girl wanted to go to school.

My daughter is two years younger than Malala. Across the Atlantic from Malala's hospital bed, my daughter and I discussed Malala's condition this morning over hot chocolate (hers) and cappuccino (mine) before she went off to her middle school. "Malala is the same age as my friend Emily," she considered. She then confessed, "I don't think I could be as brave as she." I had to concur. "I don't think I could be either, sweetie." How does a young teenager risk her life and brave violence in order to speak out for girls' rights?

In many ways, my daughter's life in New York City couldn't be more different from Malala's in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. My daughter is busy touring public high schools, studying for the specialized tests some require, and dancing at yet another school most afternoons. Educational opportunities abound. Her social calendar is full as well. Virtually every Saturday this fall she has attended a bar or bat mitzvah, including her own, a Jewish rite of passage in which 12- and 13-year-olds join their communities by reading from the Torah (and/or the Haftarah) and which requires additional schooling.

At first glance it seems as if American teens share little with an astoundingly courageous girl in Pakistan. Admittedly, our rites of passage have created an industry that feeds on indulging the extremes of adolescent (and parental) narcissism. Teens may seem to focus more attention on the choice of a party "theme," a sparkly cocktail dress, or the promise of gifts than on what it means to join a community as an adult. How can one discuss in the same breath a girl in sequins calling great Aunt Ethel to light a candle on a four tier cake and a girl fighting for her life for the right to go to school?

And yet my recent experience enabled me to dig beyond the potentially glossy surface and reevaluate the bat mitzvah. The name of this rite of passage actually translates to mean son or daughter (bar or bat) of a good deed (mitzvah) -- what Malala most certainly is. Going through the process with my daughter reminded me of the possibility for teenagers, no matter what their faith or nationality, to grapple with responsibility, learning, empathy and action. While teens may be denigrated as paragons of narcissism and rebellion, the tradition of placing these awkward, pimply kids in braces center stage actually recognizes their potential. Teenagers are beginning to think deeply about the other. Acknowledging their moral agency, they can join the women around the world holding an "I am Malala" sign.

If coming of age demands acting ethically, then in the Jewish tradition this rite of passage also requires study and interpretation -- finding one's voice in relation to the religion's foundational text. The bar or bat mitzvah customarily reads (or chants) the parsha -- the weekly Torah portion that is recited on that Sabbath day -- and then writes a dvar Torah or interpretive speech. My daughter's parsha described numerous rules commanded to the Jews in the Sinai desert in order to cross the Jordan River to Israel, the "Promised Land." These rules included plastering stones and building an altar with them. My daughter's dvar Torah considered how we follow, refuse or question rules in order to arrive at a "promised land" -- whether a literal or metaphorical one. How can rules help us to achieve goals and how can they close us off to possibilities? Which rules are fair and what rules are not? What to do with the stones?

Malala had to ask such questions literally and by risking her life.

As I prepare my kids' breakfasts in the mornings and pack their lunch boxes, I listen to NPR's "Morning Edition" on the radio. While my kids have grown up hearing about the world in the background, it is only recently that my daughter has started discussing the news stories on a daily basis. She zeroed right in on the coverage of Malala. Her thoughts picked up upon her dvar Torah. Why have rules that prohibit girls from learning? And why, she wanted to know, would people want to kill a girl who simply wanted to go to school?

I answered by explaining that while she is encouraged to question and her dvar Torah focused on wresting with rules, other people read and interpret their Bibles differently. The stories they tell themselves lead them to believe that girls should not be educated and they should not break men's rules. Sometimes people tell themselves stories that even encourage violence. The people who targeted Malala believe a story that denies girls an education and justifies killing children.

The teenage years can unlock new ways to question stories, to reinterpret tradition and to challenge authority. How we empower girls to trust their questions and interpretations as they try to reach their goals is all-important.

For our daughter who happens to love acting, we found an organization called Storahtelling to lead her bat mitzvah since they foreground performance and the reinterpretation of Torah stories. We held it by the Cape Cod bay where we spend our summers with our extended family, our own version of the Jordan River. There was no four-tier cake or candle lighting ceremony but rather my daughter and her teacher wrote and acted out a play based on her parsha. As these two young women performed on the beach surrounded by friends and family, we considered the significance of "crossing over" -- of going to a promised land and of growing up. How do we follow and question rules in order to get there? Before the service we placed a stone on every seat. Each guest was free to do with the stone as she or he saw fit -- to build something, to toss or to hold. Some decorated the stones and returned them to my daughter as a gift.

My daughter and I had spent a magical morning collecting those stones on the beach. We found them just where the waves broke upon the shore and they symbolized many things for us -- the ground under our feet, the border to entering the water and what we eventually become. In a way, life is about what we do with stones we find, how they may come attached to religious or cultural rules, and how we decide to act. Do we build an altar or a bridge? Do we cast our stones into the water or throw them at a girl? Teenagers, as they cross from children to adults, are poised to question, to investigate stories, and to challenge and change them. Malala is a model of maturity and commitment to justice. Learning of Malala's bravery can inspire girls and boys to action and courage, as it inspires me. How we guide our children as they become adults -- as they navigate the rules of the adult world by questioning stories and carrying stones -- can be a matter of life and death.