When Rachelle Fraenkel Recited the Kaddish, the Chief Rabbi Said 'Amen'

The Mourner's Kaddish has never before been recited in public in Israel by an Orthodox woman of such stature and in front of cameras.

Yair Ettinger
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Avi (C) and Rachelle (R) Fraenkel and their son (L), hold a reading close to the body of their son Naftali Frenkel, 16, (unseen) during his funeral service, July 1, 2014.Credit: AFP
Yair Ettinger

The murder of the three boys will be engraved deeply in our memory for many reasons. The most obvious of them are connected to security and politics, and perhaps to the social aspects of the saga as well. But the funeral ceremonies also included a seminal moment from a religious perspective, a personal moment with far-reaching public significance.

At the end of the eulogies delivered before Naftali Fraenkel’s covered bier on Kibbutz Sha’alvim, his mother, Rachelle Fraenkel, rose to recite the Kaddish together with her husband Avi and their younger son Tzvi Amitai. This was no demonstrative act; it was the act of a bereaved mother saying the Kaddish for her son, immersed in the Aramaic text.

Still, there was great significance in her doing so before a large crowd of people, including Chief Rabbi David Lau and Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, the dean of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, who sat in the front row, and the Knesset members who attended the funeral — all of whom, coincidentally or not, belong either to national-religious circles or to Shas.

Most of them had probably heard of women who recite the Kaddish, but it is doubtful whether they had ever had the opportunity to respond “Amen” to a woman who actually did so. More important, most of the thousands of people in attendance, and the even larger number who watched the funeral at home, had never seen a woman reciting the Kaddish before.

The recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish by women is gaining momentum, particularly in Modern Orthodox communities. Although it has rabbinical approval, it has never had such great exposure as it had on Tuesday and it is still far from the consensus.

Rachelle Fraenkel became a public leader, a national heroine and, just as important, a religious heroine as well, over the 18 days that her son and his friends were missing. Both men and women looked up to her because of her restraint, her faith and the profound statements she made about the prayers being offered for the three boys’ return. Her statement to the teenage girls praying with her at the Western Wall that, “God is not our servant,” revealed a new religious language.

The Kaddish — a prayer entirely in Aramaic that makes no mention of death, but only praises God and expresses yearning that the greatness of his name be increased — may be recited only in a minyan, or quorum of 10 men. That is why there is such public interest in it and in the desire of women to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish for their fathers or other relatives in their own synagogues.

Jewish legal literature contains accounts of women who recited the Kaddish, and some halakhic authorities, such as Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in our generation, allowed it. But they permitted women to do so only in private, never in the main synagogue (the woman had to convene a prayer quorum in her own home,) and only if the bereaved daughter had no brother to recite it for her.

Some community rabbis allow women to recite the Kaddish in the synagogue on a case-by-case basis. One rabbi of more recent times who openly permitted women to recite it in his synagogue was Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa, who died last year. Last year, the Beit Hillel organization published a religious responsum examining the issue, with a bias toward the public recitation of Kaddish by women.

It has now been revealed that Rachelle Fraenkel participated in writing the responsum issued by Beit Hillel, an organization of rabbis which collaborates with women who specialize in Halacha. But there is a big difference between a theoretical paper published by a group that is identified with liberal circles and the actual deed being done by a woman — one who is a heroine and a symbol for many women and men in the religious sector — in front of the cameras. Much might be said about her act and about how not only the national but also the religious aspects of mourning are moving into the private and personal domain. But significantly, her act cannot be set aside as having come from the liberal religious circles.

It came from the heart of the national-religious community, on the fringe of the Haredi Zionist community, though such definitions can be misleading. A small and particularly vital religious feminist movement has sprung up in a certain part of this community. Its members, who are completely committed to religious observance, are occupied mainly with high-level Jewish study, but it also pushes the envelope of social convention in other areas, even if it does not violate the law itself.

A Hebrew-language book of religious responsa by women entitled “What Is Your Wish, Esther? It Shall Be Done” was published just this week under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat. The religious feminist movement is not new. It has been taking shape for many years with the full cooperation of high-ranking Orthodox rabbis, but it is not every day that it gets the kind of exposure engendered by a woman’s public recitation of Kaddish.

Not surprisingly, Rachelle Fraenkel, who many men and women know as Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel, has foundational shares in that movement. She is the director of the Advanced Halakha Program at Matan, a high-level women’s institute of Jewish studies in Jerusalem, which despite its pioneering feminist nature has remained within the social conventions of Orthodox society. Sprecher Fraenkel also teaches Jewish law at Nishmat, another women’s institution of high-level Jewish learning in Jerusalem. In both places she is called “Rabbanit,” a title usually reserved for rabbis’ wives, but in her case it stands on its own, given to her by virtue of her learning.

For years, both women and men have contacted her and other women, known as halakhic advisers (yo’atzot halakha in Hebrew,) for guidance on matters of Jewish law. But now, for the first time, in the tragic circumstances of her son’s murder, tens of thousands of people responded to her prayer with “Amen.”

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