For Orthodox Jewish Women in Mourning, the Right to Recite Kaddish Is Fading

Threatened by a 'new world' of partnership minyans, women rabbis and an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, Orthodox rabbis are taking more stringent stances in areas where their predecessors once showed leniency.

Orthodox women demonstrating against the Women of the Wall while praying.
Michal Fattal

My wife’s year of reciting Kaddish for her mother ended last week. She and I took on this obligation as a couple. At the start, we consulted with a prominent rabbi in our Orthodox community and he assured us that there was no problem with a woman saying Kaddish aloud at our local synagogue. Debbie began attending the 6 A.M. service with me on a daily basis. The time was special, sacred, an opportunity to do something for her mother, to still feel her presence. The regulars in the minyan (prayer quorum) seemed to accept the new voice from the women’s section, joining me and the other mourners in the Kaddish prayer.

But after six months, a rabbi in an Israeli yeshiva who is the son of one of the regulars joined us one morning. As we recited the Rabbi’s Kaddish at the beginning of the service, this guest screamed out for quiet in the women’s section. After a moment of stunned silence and an unpleasant interchange that I initiated, I checked on Debbie. She was shaken. Her Kaddishes were inaudible for the remainder of the service. We talked about it afterward, also discussing how another rabbi at our synagogue had once told Debbie that women reciting Kaddish was not minhag hamakom, the custom in this place.

Debbie decided it best to switch to another synagogue in our neighborhood, one known to have a large Anglo population, where women were welcome to say Kaddish aloud. It’s there where she finished her year of Kaddish in a supportive environment. I, with a lingering discomfort from the episode, remained in my local synagogue, where I am a gabbai, assisting with the logistics of the service.

Women have been saying Kaddish since the 20th century, when leading poskim, halakhic decisors, such as Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Ahron Soloveitchik, among others, ruled that it is permissible for women to say Kaddish in synagogue. However, this group mostly lived in the United States and their authority is not generally recognized in Israel.

There is a similar ruling recognized in Israel – that of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), the Rabbi of Vilna and a widely recognized authority in the ultra-Orthodox community worldwide. He was asked whether a woman at a Beit Midrash, study hall, with no mechitza, partition – just a men's section – who needed to say Kaddish could step inside to say it with the men, or whether she should stay outside. In his answer, Rabbi Grodzinski ruled that the woman should enter, and that the service could continue while she was there. He apparently took for granted that a woman has the right, even obligation, to say Kaddish.

For those poskim who adopted lenient halakhic positions on Kaddish and other ritual observances by women, the operative principle was to allow some degree of feminine expression where it was possible, so as to avoid needing to rule on other questions that from their perspective would be outright transgressions – like, for example, women being called up to the Torah.

Yet there have always been poskim who stringently rule against women joining men to say Kaddish aloud. And it feels particularly pronounced today, with the Orthodox world feeling threatened by a “new world” of Open Orthodoxy, partnership minyans, women rabbis, Women of the Wall and other perceived attacks on traditional mores. The general response from right-of-center poskim has been to prohibit any leniency, with humrot, stringencies, becoming the standard. These decisors even rolled back previous leniencies, labeling them "misguided."

The most recent example of this happened just last week. It did not take long for the threat presented by an expanded egalitarian section at the Kotel to be met by imposition of new punitive stringencies by the ultra-Orthodox establishment. As reported in Haaretz, Orthodox women who choose to wear a tallit, prayer shawl, or put on tefillin, phylacteries, at the Kotel were previously able to do so discreetly. Yet, with announcement of the compromise that would create an egalitarian prayer space by the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Western Wall rabbi, declared that at the existing section, which will remain under ultra-Orthodox rule, “Women will pray in accordance with Jewish tradition and heritage – without tefillin and prayer shawls.”

There are over 1,500 Orthodox-identifying synagogues in the United States. While perhaps not an exhaustive list, there are only 150 U.S. synagogues listed on the JOFA, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, website as permitting women to say Kaddish. That only 10 percent allow it is shameful.

In Israel, the situation is worse. The  synagogues where women are permitted to say Kaddish are generally only those populated with mainly Anglo communities. With the Chief Rabbinate being an extension of the ultra-Orthodox establishment, stringency in women’s ritual expression in community shuls is the norm. In this regard, the Religious Zionist rabbinic establishment is no better. A colleague of mine was visiting his Israeli Religious Zionist cousins in Petah Tikvah recently, and they expressed shock to him that any women say Kaddish. When assured that yes, they do, the cousins responded: "in Conservative shuls, right?” My colleague was baffled to explain that no, also in Orthodox synagogues. Another colleague reached out to me asking at which shul in northern Israel his American female cousin could say Kaddish. My failure to find such a synagogue for her confirmed my suspicion that women saying Kaddish is not even an issue being discussed in the religious communities there.

The recent collection of reflections edited by Michal Smart, "Kaddish: Women’s Voices," details women’s experiences with the mourning process, in particular navigating the synagogue experience. While there are cases of compassion and support, the numerous examples of insensitivity by men in Orthodox settings is nothing short of disgraceful.

Recently, British Chief Rabbi Mirvis came out to encourage support for women saying Kaddish, coinciding with publication of a booklet by the United Synagogue. He is to be applauded, but he is not likely to be changing the status quo elsewhere.

The current climate, which is becoming increasingly politicized and polarized on women’s issues – be it leadership roles in America or prayer at the Kotel in Israel – makes it unlikely that more Orthodox synagogues in either country will in the near future openly welcome women to mourn by saying Kaddish aloud. That is something of which we Orthodox men should all be ashamed.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly stated that JOFA lists only 18 synagogues as permitting women to say Kaddish.