Orthodox Women Saying Kaddish

A few weeks after my year of mourning for my father ended, and I stopped saying kaddish for him, I wrote an essay that appeared in the New York Jewish Week describing my feelings about it. Seven months later a second article appeared, in which I discussed sitting shivah for my mother, who died a year and a half after my father.

Many people responded to both articles with kind, perhaps even overly generous comments, for which I was (and still am) grateful. And yet I noticed that not only did the response to the article about sitting shivah generate a significantly greater response that did the one about saying kaddish, the reaction split unevenly across gender lines. More women commented on the second one I wrote than on the first one.

I’m not certain why this was the case. Perhaps it was because both Jewish women and men sit shivah, so both easily could understand and agree — or disagree — with the thoughts I described in my article. And I did receive many comments from friends and acquaintances, male and female, about their shivah experiences. This resulted in some engaging discussions about the many similar feelings people have while sitting shivah, some of the differences, and an attempt to understand why the similarities and differences exist.

But saying kaddish — and the cessation of that obligation — are different. In Orthodox circles, it has been the norm that only men recite kaddish following the death of a relative. Many of my female friends did not have the personal involvement with kaddish that they had with shivah. They therefore were unable to weigh their experience against mine, or truly empathize with what I felt. Please don’t get me wrong. Those women who did comment were thoughtful and considerate. But there were noticeably fewer of them.

This norm, however, is slowly evolving in the modern Orthodox community. More women — many with serious Jewish educations, who often have personal and direct involvement and participation in Jewish liturgy through women’s tefillah groups and partnership minyanim and/or are the equal of their male counterparts in boardrooms, laboratories, classrooms, courtrooms, and the like — are drawn to the ritual. While some women still find it uncomfortable to recite the prayer out loud from behind the mechitzah, in the past several years many more women have been joining in its recitation. Indeed, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of Great Britain recently said that “it is important that women who want to say kaddish feel comfortable and supported doing so.”

Since there is no religious obligation for women to say kaddish, they have more flexibility in how they observe the tradition. Some follow the norm for men in the Orthodox community and make a serious effort to attend services three times a day (or twice, if they’re lucky enough to attend a minchah/maariv service), getting up as early as 5:30 a.m. some mornings, before the sun rises; running around midtown trying to find a minchah in someone’s office on a snowy January afternoon because she’ll get home too late to attend her local minyan; or rushing off to maariv late at night, after supper has been cleaned up and the kids put to bed.

Others take it upon themselves to say kaddish once a day, choosing which service to attend based on their schedules and time constraints. Others say kaddish when they happen to be in shul on a Shabbat or yom tov, or for a simchah. Yet others say it only during shivah and on a yahrzeit. And, of course, there are still many women who are satisfied with, and find comfort in, the way their grandmothers and great-grandmothers observed mourning rituals, and remember their departed loved ones in other, perhaps more traditional Jewish ways.

And how have shuls, especially Modern Orthodox ones, met this challenge? Based on a very non-scientific survey (that is, on personal observation and online discussions), the answer is mixed. Some, like my shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, have done a fine job. Women truly are welcome at all minyanim and may say kaddish out loud, even if there are no men saying it, and the men answer amen and yehei shmei rabbah. Another Teaneck shul has a policy permitting women to say kaddish only if there is at least one man saying it as well. Yet as the then-rabbi of that shul told my wife when she asked him if she could catch a minchah and say kaddish there, there is a critical addendum to that rule: If no man is saying kaddish, it’s the gabbai’s job to find or appoint one to do so, or to say it himself. Thus, every woman who wants to say kaddish will be able to.

Unfortunately, that is not true in all Orthodox shuls, even Modern Orthodox ones. All too often the women’s section is closed or there are men davening or learning there, forcing women either to pray in the hall or to oust the male intruder — an unpleasant task which many women find most uncomfortable. Others do not have the second Teaneck shul’s policy, and thus if no man is saying kaddish a woman may not do so. And there are some that discourage women from reciting kaddish out loud, to ensure that men can’t hear or respond, while in others the men don’t respond even if they can hear. And like the shuls, the afternoon Teaneck minchah minyanim also range from warm and welcoming to coldly permitting to not allowing. It’s getting better, but we’re not there yet.

So let me end with a positive story. Once, when I was saying kaddish, my wife and I spent a week at a friend’s house in the Berkshires. I had found a Chabad daily minyan not too far away, where I went every morning and afternoon. My wife had yahrzeit on Thursday evening and wanted to say kaddish. I had asked the rabbi that morning if she could do so at maariv, and he said yes.

When we arrived at the minyan that evening we found that the shul’s mechitzah had been taken down after the morning prayers, because women rarely attended minchah/maariv. When I introduced my wife to the rabbi, he immediately apologized for not having already re-erected the mechitzah. He then asked her where she would be comfortable sitting, so he could set up the mechitzah appropriately. She answered that since it was his shul she would gladly sit wherever he wanted her to. He responded: “Where I want you to sit is wherever you’ll most be comfortable.” And that was exactly where she sat.

No, we’re not there yet — but we’re getting there.

  • • •

Or maybe not. After submitting this essay for publication, I read an article in Haaretz by a Datei Leumi rabbi called “For Orthodox Jewish Women in Mourning, the Right to Recite Kaddish is Fading.” This sad news is true, he asserts, even within the religious Zionist community, and he tells a very depressing story about the discomforts his wife experienced during her year of aveylut — of mourning.

Why the difference between my positive outlook and his negative one? Perhaps it’s an Israel/America split, perhaps I’m more of a glass half full type of guy, or perhaps one of us is simply wrong. I’m not sure. But if I am the one who is wrong, then, in the immortal words of Emily Latella, never mind.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
Related Topics
Related Posts