Amidst the tragic events unfolding in Israel, an important moment transpired in the Orthodox Jewish community: Rachel Fraenkel recited the mourner’s Kaddish at the funeral of her murdered son, Naftali, and the numerous male attendees—including the Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau—responded “amen.”
Yair Ettinger, writing for Haaretz, described Fraenkel’s public recitation of the Kaddish prayer as “a seminal moment from a religious perspective”:
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.
In non-Orthodox Jewish congregations where women are counted as part of a minyan (quorum), this is not a new development, but in Orthodox communities, women traditionally do not recite Kaddish. Halachically, it is an obligation that falls to male family members. But in recent years, increasing numbers of Orthodox women have been adopting this mitzvah, either in female-only prayer groups, partnership minyanim, or more progressive Orthodox synagogues.
In January this year, Shelley Richman Cohen wrote movingly for Tablet Magazine about the comfort she derived from saying Kaddish for her son Nathaniel, who died at the age of 21 from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy:
Had Nathaniel had the zechut, the privilege of living a full healthy life, chances are he would have had children to say Kaddish for him. Since that was not to be his fate, who would be more appropriate to say Kaddish for him than his mother? I carried him in my womb, I birthed him, and I orchestrated the life he led. For his 21 years our lives—his and mine—were inextricably bound together. It was out of a profound sense of loss that I took on the commitment to say Kaddish.
At that moment, I don’t think I fully grasped what saying Kaddish would really mean. Yes, I knew it was said at three different prayer times every single day. Yes, I knew I would have to say it for close to a year. But no, I don’t really think I thought about how difficult it would be for a person like me who is, despite the best of intentions, perpetually tardy. All I knew was that I was grieving for almost every aspect of my son’s short life and I wanted desperately to be able to connect to him. Kaddish was a means for me to continue doing for Nathaniel.
The online response to Fraenkel’s public Kaddish has thus far been overwhelmingly sympathetic and positive. Fraenkel is a respected halachic authority who teaches Jewish law at two renowned women’s institutions in Jerusalem; Ettinger notes that she contributed last year to a “religious responsum examining the issue, with a bias toward the public recitation of Kaddish by women.” It is a great misfortune that she must now heed her own advice in such tragic, unnatural circumstances.
Image: Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photo Shutterstock