by Joel B. Wolowelsky
This anthology speaks to women who are considering acting on the permissibility of saying Kaddish. But it also speaks to those living in a community where no women say Kaddish-where (aided by a sensationalist-seeking press) the image of women saying Kaddish is that of the Women of the Wall protesting at the Kotel wearing talit and tefilin. It helps them understand how halakhic authorities of the first order actually did permit it-because in these communities a woman wanting to say Kaddish is no different from her wanting to eat in a sukkah. She does so not “to be like a man,” but to be like a member of the family now able, because of unprecedented increased opportunities in Jewish education, to more fully participate in the traditional mourner’s expression of grief and loss. Indeed, the reminiscences in this anthology generally give poignant testimony to Eisenberg’s portrayal of the women’s motivation to say Kaddish. These are not the Women of the Wall engaged in a public protest to challenge halakhic norms. These are simply heartbroken mourners using a time-honored and legitimate norm to confront and express their grief. This will no doubt come as a surprise to some people.
The anthology also gives the opportunity to hear of the pain some experienced when their motives were wrongly denigrated.
Once, the tenth man in a Mincha minyan-a personal acquaintance of mine-walked out just as Kaddish was starting, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to say Kaddish as a result. My internal struggle to be kind and understanding vs. feeling angry and resentful was a serious challenge at times (217).
Once, I had a rather toxic experience, ironically at the school that I was running. When it came time for Kaddish at a Maariv minyan, after an evening event for families, I joined in. I heard murmurs and whispers from the men’s section and could feel eyes piercing through me. When I mustered up the courage, I looked up. Jaws were dropped. Some men left the room, asking whether this was a school for Reform Rabbis. I have never felt more humiliated as a member of the Orthodox community than during the time that I said Kaddish for my mother (141).
We were going to Atlantic City. I knew there was an Orthodox community near our hotel, and I called the rabbi to ask where I could find a minyan the next morning. He told me, “There is none.” I asked about the yeshiva high school and he said, “No.” I asked if he knew where I could go to say Kaddish, and he answered: “Why don’t you call the Conservative rabbi?” I’m sure if my husband had called him to find a minyan, he would have had no problem. I did call the Conservative rabbi, and he was so nice! He told me he would make a mechitza for me and have a minyan. I went the next morning and was relieved and honored that he went out of his way for me (112).
There were other pleasant surprises:
One time, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia and arrived at an Orthodox shul just minutes before Mincha. When we entered the sanctuary, there was no place for women to pray and men occupied every corner, so I stood in the doorway. I was soon approached by the most religious-looking man in the room, with a full white beard, long peyot (sidelocks) and Chassidic garb which included a large hat, black coat and gartel. I explained to him that I wanted to say Kaddish, but there was no place for me. He said, “Come with me.” In moments, he cleared the men out of that part of the room, and moved a small bookcase over to serve as a mechitza, so I could enter the room and daven. He commented, “That’s what we call Southern hospitality.” “No,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “That’s pure kindness” (144).
Kaddish, Women‘s Voices allows us to reconsider how we want to understand the motivations of those who follow a legitimate halakhic position different from our own. As the rashei kolel of Makhon Eretz Hemda pointed out, this informs the spirit of the responses to the questions of how to relate to women who want greater involvement in public worship. It is an important read both for women who are considering saying Kaddish and for anyone who opposes their doing so.
This excerpt was taken from a review essay on Kaddish, Women’s Voices which appears in Hakira, the Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought.