I am almost finished saying kaddish for my mother. I have said kaddish hundreds of times in a dozen places. But the first Monday morning in November won’t go away, no matter how much I tell it to. The memory brings distress, shame, and sadness. I am writing about it in the hope of sparing other women the same painful experience.
I was away from home at a conference with other religious day school educators. We didn’t have a Torah scroll at our hotel, so we went to a local shul for the Shacharit service that Monday. One of the other women and I were saying kaddish for our mothers. There we were, dressed in long skirts, long sleeves, high collars, stockings, and shaitels (wigs), me holding a well-worn pocket siddur and she with a siddur in one hand and a gemara in the other. Both of us were obviously familiar with the siddur and the weekday davening.
When it was time for Kaddish d’Rabbanan, after the braita of Rabbi Yishmael, we began: “Yitgadal v…” But that’s as far as we got, because the hazan loudly began, “Mizmor shir hanukat habayit l’David,” and everyone present followed him. The rabbi then came into the women’s section to tell us that “if you say kaddish, that’s like being the hazan, and we’re Orthodox here, so women don’t do that.” But, he said, he would say a kaddish with us after Aleinu.
At the end of davening, after that one kaddish that we were allowed to say, the rabbi came back into the women’s section to further explain that Orthodox Jews don’t let women lead prayers. What he thought we were, I have no idea. Do non-Orthodox women frequently come into his shul to daven, dressed in long sleeves, thick stockings, high collars, and wigs? At no point did he acknowledge that we were obviously both frum (religious). Nor did he make any attempt to ask us anything about ourselves or to welcome us as guests to his shul. After we left, he came running out after us to say, “I’m guessing you’ve each lost someone; I’m sorry for your loss.” Outside shul, one of the men from our conference expressed distress at how we were treated.
I was bothered by what happened that morning because I was treated as an outsider and an “other.” I was in a place where I expected to feel at home and I was made to feel unwelcome. But let us imagine, for a moment, that I had been exactly what that rabbi imagined me to be — a non-Orthodox woman, ignorant of the ways of Orthodoxy, who had come to his shul by mistake or because the local non-Orthodox synagogues don’t get a weekday minyan. Actually, that would have been much worse. I will be committed to Orthodoxy and halacha, regardless of one experience. Someone who is present only briefly may never come back, if she is made to feel uncomfortable. I will keep Shabbat and kashrut, regardless of how one rabbi treats me. An outsider may stop considering Shabbat and kashrut observance. I see people with kippot as “my people” no matter what. She may now avoid them. In short, to mistreat me is to create a small internal problem. To mistreat an actual outsider is to create a massive chillul Hashem.
My experience on the first Monday in November left me feeling humiliated, unwelcome, and misunderstood. It left me sad about tefilah (prayer) in general and tefilah b’tzibur (communal prayer) in particular. It left me with recurring flashbacks when I say kaddish. It seems like a small thing, and it should be a small thing. But feelings are not logical and you never know, when you speak to another person, whether it will be a small thing for them or not.
And so I come to you with a plea: If it falls to you to enforce your shul’s policy that women not say kaddish, please remember:
- Someone saying kaddish is there because they are grieving and in pain.
- Grieving in public in front of strangers is hard, even if you are welcome. When you are unwelcome, it leaves scars.
- When someone is made to feel bad about davening, that feeling resurfaces during davening for an indeterminate time into the future. The person you shame during davening may associate davening with feelings of shame for the rest of her life. (This is something day school teachers and anyone else charged with disciplining children during davening should keep in mind, too.)
- Nobody (male or female) comes to shul to say kaddish out of a desire to make a political statement. We’re all there for the same reason — to offer comfort to our loved ones’ souls by praising Hashem.
- If I weren’t committed to Orthodoxy, I wouldn’t be in your shul. I’m here precisely because I share your commitment to Orthodoxy. But even if I am not Orthodox, this is your chance to show me that commitment to Orthodoxy is inexorably intertwined with kindness and good manners.
- In my home community, it is normative practice for women to say kaddish for their parents, and has been for more than a generation. For me, saying kaddish is part of being Orthodox, not apart from it. Feel free to disagree with my rabbi, but not by being unkind to me.
- Interrupting someone else’s davening is rude.
- A man entering the women’s section during davening to talk (uninvited, no less) to a women is bad manners, just as a woman entering the men’s section during davening to talk to a man would be.
- A woman saying kaddish may be the only one saying kaddish for that deceased relative. If you stop her from saying kaddish today, nobody else is going to say it. Don’t assume she’ll take that less seriously than a man would in her situation.
- Frum and learned people deserve to be treated as such, even when you disagree with them and/or disapprove of their behavior.
- Humans deserve to be treated as dignified beings with feelings, no matter what.
- You are a descendant of Avraham Avinu. As such, you should be characterized by kindness and a desire to welcome guests.
Keeping all of that in mind, if you need to enforce your shul’s policy against women saying kaddish, please wait until tefilah is over (in the meantime, say kaddish with her, but don’t silence her) and then use the following script:
I saw you saying kaddish. I’m so very sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry to intrude on your grief this way, and I’m sure that kaddish helps soothes your late mother/father’s soul, but I’m afraid that women don’t say kaddish here. So may I say kaddish for your mother/father for the duration of your stay here?”
Needless to say, your next step is to come to shul three times a day and say kaddish for the woman’s relative for as long as she is visiting. Someone has to, and you’re not planning to let her do it, so take responsibility. May you know only simchas, in the merit of the kindness you do.
I am hopeful that writing this essay will let me move on to more productive feelings, like gratitude. Gratitude to Hashem, for giving me a loving mother and father, three wonderful sisters, a community that feels like home, four supportive children, and a husband whose love and support are unwavering. Gratitude to my mother, for being who she was. Gratitude to my husband’s family, who don’t believe in women saying kaddish, but nonetheless gathered as a minyan separately from their community every day for a week so I could say kaddish during a family gathering. Gratitude to various communities near and far that made safe and comfortable spaces for me to say kaddish. Kaddish couldn’t have happened for me without all of that. I am grateful that I was able to give my mother the same boost on her way to heaven that she gave each of her parents.