Thursday, August 30, 2012

A woman's complaint

The kaddish wars are not over. Yesterday at davening there were two people saying kaddish, myself and a woman. After the service, I spoke to her briefly. She said her father had recently died and had been saying kaddish for him. She appreciated that I made eye contact with her and recited kaddish at a reasonable pace so that we could recite it in unison. She reported that at some other shuls she'd attended, the men recited kaddish so quickly she couldn't keep up. At another shul, the rabbi tried to hush her up when she said kaddish. The rabbi told her she was not allowed to say kaddish. When she asked him where in the Torah it says that a woman may not say kaddish, the rabbi walked away. This left her shocked and upset.

It seems that, in Orthodox shuls, there are three positions about a woman saying kaddish. The most lenient one is that a woman may say kaddish just as a man. In other shuls, a woman can recite kaddish only along with a man. Some shuls which hold this position are more thoughtful of a woman's needs and make sure that, if a woman is saying kaddish, a man whose parent has died will say kaddish as well. At other shuls, if no man is saying kaddish, the woman is out of luck. The strictest position is that a woman is not allowed to say kaddish in shul under any circumstances.

In 1994, the late E.M. Broner wrote a book entitled Mornings and Mourning about her struggles trying to say kaddish for her father in a small Orthodox Shul. (see Since then, there has been a lot of progress in a woman's ability to say kaddish, but, as my conversation reveals, there is still is a way to go.

Frankly, I don't see what the big deal is about. Saying kaddish is not a matter of Jewish law. It is not a commandment. It is a minhag (tradition). Permitting a woman to say kaddish will not undermine the fundamentals of Orthodox Judaism. Here are reasons why kaddish should not be a matter of gender:

   1) by reciting kaddish, the child fulfills the mitzvah of honoring his or her parents, a commandment that extends after the life of the parent;
   2) the purpose of kaddish is to sanctify God's name in public, an end that should not be limited by gender;
   3) kaddish serves to remind the child of his or her loss and provides an anchor to the process of mourning;
   4) by reciting kaddish, the child provides evidence of the merit of his or her parent;
   5) to the extent saying kaddish elevates the soul of the deceased, there is no reason why the gender of the person saying kaddish should matter;
   6) denying a woman the ability to say kaddish may have the effect of pushing women away from traditional Judaism. (See Berkovits, A Daughter's Recitation of Mourner's Kaddish, p. 87).

The above referred to book shows that one of the major reasons why women were not allowed to say kaddish in shul was that since kaddish must be recited in a minyan, and a minyan is made up only of men, there was no physical location in shuls from which a woman could be considered to be in the presence of the minyan. The medieval rabbinic discussions of a woman saying kaddish therefore focused on a daughter saying kaddish in her home at a private minyan (id., at p. 84). Just last year, the former chief Sefardic Rabbi of Israel, Ovadiah Yosef, ruled that a woman who has no brothers may recite kaddish for a parent at a minyan in her home. (See, in many Orthodox shuls now, the women's section can be considered "part of the same domain as the men's section" (id., at p. 80).

It seems to me that the real issue is whether or not women are part of the shul. If "shul" includes women, and women are praying just like men, then a woman should be able to say kaddish like a man. If "shul" is just men, and women are just an appendage of the "shul," the answer is otherwise. I am fortunate the "kaddish wars" don't exist at the two shuls where I daven. But they're not over.

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