A Woman Doesn't Eulogize a Woman

The Petah Tikva burial society bars women from eulogizing loved ones in the funeral hall; it also separates the men and women during the burial procession. So what if there is no halakhic prohibition on eulogies by women.

They remember the funerals perfectly, one infuriating detail after another. Rivka Lubitz's father died two years ago, Assaf Bar's mother a year later. Both are residents of Petah Tikva. In both cases, they say, the funeral service - under the supervision of the Hevra Kadisha (burial society) at the Segula Cemetery - severely discriminated against women.

Bar and Lubitz, who describe themselves as modern Orthodox, say that even though they were stricken by grief, during the shiva (seven day-mourning period following the death of a first-degree relative) they were preoccupied by the separation between men and women that was maintained during the funeral, that their families couldn't stay together. But mostly, they were offended by the fact that women were not permitted to eulogize their loved ones in the funeral hall. They were permitted to do so only after the completion of the burial procession, beside the grave.

This week, Lubitz and Bar petitioned the High Court of Justice. They are saying, through their attorney Aviad Hacohen, that the Segula Cemetery engages in discriminates on two levels: the actual discrimination against women and the fact that preventing women from giving eulogies is nothing more than the personal whim of the Hevra Kadisha in Petah Tikva, which is a monopoly in the city, and not the practice elsewhere in the country. This discrimination, they say, damages the principles of equality, human dignity and freedom as well as freedom of expression and religion.

According to Hacohen, before submitting the petition he approached the Petah Tikvah Hevra Kadisha regarding this matter, and came away empty-handed. He also spoke with the chief rabbinate, which decided not to intervene. Despite this, the Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger wrote in a letter to Hacohen saying that there is no problem in halakha (Jewish religious law) with women giving eulogies.

In Petah Tikva, the Hevra Kadisha is subordinate to the city's chief rabbi, Rabbi Baruch Shimon Solomon. The rabbi's response (conveyed by his wife in his name): "Since its establishment, Petah Tikva has followed the custom of Jerusalem, according to which women do not give eulogies at funerals. There is no cause to change this."

Rabbi Shaul Farber of the Itim Institute in Jerusalem - an organization that represents people having difficulties with the religious establishment in matters of marriage, burial, conversion and others - said that three years ago the main Hevra Kadisha in Jerusalem, Kehillat Yerushalayim, which is responsible of 85 percent of the funerals there, decided to allow women to give eulogies and even permit the recitation of the Kaddish mourner's prayer by women. The news that there are women in Jerusalem giving eulogies apparently has not reached the home of the Petah Tikva chief rabbi.

The petitioners want to give expression to the status of women in contemporary religious society. But from a broader perspective, their petition is also against religious coercion, and is of more than local interest. The petitioners are pluralistic religious people and they have a reasoned argument that is backed by the world of halakha. It is hard to accuse them of anti-religious sentiments or ignorance, as one might of secular people railing against religious coercion. At the beginning of the petition there is a clarification: "The petitioners are Torah and mitzvah-observant people who are well aware of the sensitivity of this issue. They do not seek to complain or oppose. Specifically because the Torah of Israel and its values are dear to them, they wish to correct an injustice that is ostensibly based on Jewish halakha but actually is totally unrelated."

"I have no problem with separation of men and women when the crowd is Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and interested in that," says Hacohen. "But it's impossible to impose strict norms of adherence on a large group that does not want it - and most residents of Petah Tikva are secular. Moreover, 95 percent of the budget of the city's Hevra Kadisha comes from state funds (the National Insurance Institute)."

Can this petition - submitted by Orthodox Jews - pave the way for change in the problematic area of ties between religion and state? "Until now," says Hacohen, "in the many petitions filed by, for example, the Israel Religious Action Center (belonging to the Reform Movement), the High Court of Justice refrained from expressing an opinion on ties between religion and state, in order to avoid appearing as though it was changing the status quo and harming the Orthodox establishment.

"Marriage is a more problematic area as far as the High Court of Justice is concerned, because the rabbinate decides in this area, in accordance with the law. In the case of burials, there is no such law, and it [eulogies by women] is not a halakhic issue, rather the whim of a rabbi, and furthermore the petitioners come from within the Orthodox world. Therefore, the chances are greater that the High Court of Justice will intervene in this case," says Hacohen.

Hacohen cites in this connection the High Court petition submitted by Leah Shakdiel asking that women be allowed to serve on the religious council in Yeroham, which prompted a change. The current petition is also based on High Court rulings on the petitions of Castelbaum and Frederica Shavit v. the Hevra Kadisha regarding engraving the Gregorian date on tombstones. In the latter case, the court ruled that stringent norms should not be enforced for both the religiously observant and the secular, as if they were state laws.

Wait until the funeral's over

Prof. Yeshayahu Charles Liebman, an Israel Prize laureate in political science, died in 2003 at the age of 68. His funeral was a large and dignified affair, as befitted him and his daughter, Rivka Lubitz. Lubitz, a rabbinical court pleader by profession and the wife of the rabbi of Kibbutz Nir Etzion, planned to eulogize her father, as the rector and president of Bar-Ilan University had done. "I was very close to my father," she says, "I always knew that I'd eulogize him."

When they arrived at the funeral hall, the Hevra Kadisha representative informed them that "here in Petah Tikva, women don't give eulogies." Lubitz agreed to compromise and deliver her eulogy after the end of the burial.

"At that time, I didn't understand that basically in terms of the rite, it would not be considered a eulogy, and that's why I didn't make a big deal about it. But afterward, it disturbed me very much. It was a very hot day and there was air conditioning in the hall. It was a dignified place and had a roof overhead and microphone. Why do I have to keep quiet until the end of the burial, while other people had already delivered eulogies?"

As one who until recently represented Yad La'Isha, an organization that works on behalf of agunot (literally, "chained women" whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious bill of divorce), Lubitz, 44, is at the forefront of the fight against the rabbinical courts. She is also a member of the feminist Orthodox organization Kolech. "After the fact, I was sorry that I didn't just step up to the podium without asking anyone," she says. However, she says, during the funeral she felt she didn't have the strength to deal with the Hevra Kadisha people.

After the shiva, Lubitz published an article about the funeral in the national religious daily Hatzofeh that resonated among the religious public. "Feelings are more intense when it comes to death," she says. "One woman wrote to tell me that her mother requested that her pallbearers be women. There were women who said that they had wanted to take part in covering the grave with earth and were reprimanded for this. Among those who contacted her was attorney Assaf Bar, who wanted to join her in her petition.

Orthodox against religious coercion

Bar's mother died of cancer at age 58 on the eve of Tisha B'Av last year. "We wanted two friends of my mother's to eulogize her, but the Hevra Kadisha man didn't agree and in the end, they eulogized her beside the grave, in searing heat." Bar, 33, is a member of the board and legal adviser for Ne'emanei Torah Ve'avodah - part of the religious kibbutz movement. He says that at the funeral, he felt as if he was of an inferior status.

Bar is finishing a master's degree in general philosophy and did his final exam on the writings of American feminist theoretician Susan Moller Okin. He says he is interested in feminism as an area of human rights. As a religious person, he feels that the status of women in Judaism is problematic and that the woman is perceived as inferior. It was clear to him that he would not let the discrimination against women in the cemetery slip by unnoticed. "Rabin's granddaughter, Noa, eulogized her grandfather on Mount Herzl. Why shouldn't that take place in our circles?" he says.

He and Lubitz decided to act because they saw the funeral issue from a broader perspective related to the imposition of an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, which has caused much suffering for them as individuals. "My family was totally separated, starting from the separate entrances," says Lubitz. "My brother and husband stood on the dais. I stood in the women's section and my 13-year-old son was standing among men he didn't know. It was terrible.

"When they started walking behind the body, a man shouted at me `first the men and then the women.' We moved forward - my mother, my sister and I - toward the door, but a guard blocked the way. I told him `excuse me, this is my father's funeral.' In the end, somehow we managed to get pushed through," Lubitz says.

Bar says it took him time to find his wife, who was quite a distance behind him, with the women. "It was emotionally difficult," he says.

At the end of a funeral, it is the custom for the mourners to walk between two lines of consolers. "It's a sad and slightly embarrassing ceremony," says Lubitz. "My mother was insulted that the congregation stood to offer comfort, but only to the men."

"The Haredim want separate buses, which in my eyes oppresses women. Let them do what they want, but don't impose it on us," says Bar. "Don't force me to enter the funeral parlor through a separate entrance. It's a Khomeini-like sensation."

"I see a issue of moral concern in this fight," says Bar. "I, as a religious person, am interested in the status of women. I don't want my daughters to grow up as second-class people." According to him, the problem is that most people obey the Hevra Kadisha, either because they are ignorant, secular or religious people who are apologetic toward the ultra-Orthodox.

Lubitz also has hope for the High Court petition. She mentions the revolution of the female rabbinical court pleaders and their fight with the courts. "Orthodox women have the advantage of being on the margin. Compared to the rabbinical court judges, what do I have to lose? What status do I have?"

Lubitz and Bar cite other things that upset them. For example, the separation the Hevra Kadisha impose between different deceased people, depending on their religious identification. Bar says they asked him if his father was religious. With Lubitz they even went as far as to ask if her father was a Zionist. "We don't bury a Zionist next to Haredi," she was shocked to hear.

Sometimes we give in

Tuvia Formenzik, director of the Petah Tikva Hevra Kadisha, says that women are asked not to eulogize the deceased during the funeral service. "They have enough time beside the grave, during the funeral procession," he says. But according to him, "if a woman gets up of her own accord and wants to give a eulogy, the instructions of the Hevra Kadisha are not to get into a conflict. Occasionally there are women who do indeed give eulogies and we `give in' and allow it."

According to him, if the High Court rules that his organization's policies are prohibited, it won't make a difference, "because our rabbi ruled that we should act in this manner."

Regarding the separation of men and women, he said, "The separation in the funeral hall comes about naturally. Men enter from the right and women from the left." He doesn't recall if there are signs above the separate entrances that say "Men" and "Women." The men, he says, are asked to leave first. "What happens is that during the burial procession, when the crowd is religious, the separation is maintained, and when the crowd is secular, the separation is not maintained."