Kaddish, Women’s Voices pulls at the heart strings. At times painful, at times funny, and always spiritually rich, it presents the views of many Jewish women on this essential Jewish practice for honoring the passing of our loved ones. Traditionally, the Kaddish Yatom, the Kaddish said for the dead, is read at every Jewish service in which there is a “minyan” or prayer assembly of at least ten men. Following the death of parents, we are commanded to say the Kaddish for a full year as we believe it encourages the soul to rise higher and higher on its heavenly course. It says nothing about death, but praises the source of all life. The traditional teaching requires us to say Kaddish for our parents, for whom the longest period to recite the Kaddish is prescribed. This assumes that because parents have had a decisive role in shaping our lives, we must mourn for a full year. For children, however, we are required to recite the Kaddish for only one month.Of course, there are other rituals for honoring the dead that mark the first week, the first month, the first year,and then the memory of our loved one each passing year at the time of “Yahrzeit” or yearly commemoration of the passing as it is marked on the Jewish calendar. More liberal Jews have added the practice of reciting the Kaddish for the deaths of others and to honor those lost in the Holocaust who have no one to say Kaddish for them.
While in Orthodox Jewish practice, women are “relieved” of this commandment or “mitzvah” (good deed), as they are not burdened by any time-bound “mitzvoth,” Kaddish, Women’s Voices presents what we might call the “other side” of the performance of this “mitzvah.” By other side, I mean at least two different things. First, we recite the Kaddish not only to honor the dead, but to help ourselves heal from the loss. We ritualize our response to death and we do so in community. Among Conservative, Reform, Renewal or Reconstructionist Jews, a community of ten may be made up of women and/or of men, and Kaddish is recited by all concerned regardless of gender. In these congregations, women do perform time-bound holy deeds. Second, as this book shows us so eloquently, women benefit tremendously from being able to participate in this age-old practice. In this book, we meet many women from all branches of Judaism talking about the meaningfulness of this prayer. We read their testimonials and witness the power of this prayer in their lives, in their mourning, and in the healing of the wounds of their losses. Some women speak of parents, some of children. All of them reach deeply into their own hearts and ours.
In some cases, women who identify as Jewish but who have never thought about religious practices come to know the beauty and blessing of prayer. One example in the book is Rachel Mesch, a professor of French, who had not thought about the Jewish practice too extendedly before her experience with Kaddish. Surrounded by community, she and others come to savor the sound and feeling of the ancient words in their mouths. Saying the Kaddish for ones parents can often lead to more meaningful Jewish practice. It is a doorway into the sacred in our tradition for many people who hail from secular backgrounds. Perhaps even more moving, however, is the story of a female Reform Rabbi who is asked to show up as chaplain at the bedside of an Orthodox Jewish father who has just passed. He is surrounded by his family, daughters and sons. The woman rabbi is immediately rejected by the sons and after offering her services and her prayer book, but seeing she is not wanted, she turns to leave and walks solemnly down the corridor of the hospital. She is feeling both rejected and unable to comfort members of her flock. Unexpectedly, the daughter runs to catch up with her and says, “Please, I am not allowed to say the Kaddish for my father. Do you think you could promise to say it for me instead?” The Rabbi, dismayed, agrees. We, too, pause to try to comprehend the unrequited urge.
With this story, the power as well as the shortsightedness of traditional Jewish practice comes fully to the fore. For me, it had the effect of reminding me of just how fortunate I am to be able to pray and share community, to lead services for those who have suffered loss, to teach and to say the Kaddish for my mother in a Jewish community that does not limit my sacred duties. However, there is a wisdom in all practices that call on the divine to fill our lives with love, light, joy and reminiscence. In other words, all styles of Jewish practice adapt to a variety of different ways or styles of honoring those we love and leading us on a path of comfort. The power and beauty of Kaddish Women’s Voices relates to its testimonials from all walks of Jewish women’s lives, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and in between. In every testimony, the Kaddish prayer tells a tale of healing.
I can imagine the book to be the perfect bed-side companion at the time of the loss of a loved one when the divine feels at once so far and yet, so very near. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the healing power of prayer or in the stories of Jewish women forging their own paths of tradition in healing prayer.
This review first appeared on skippingstones.org