Religious Life

A Woman Reciting Kaddish?! Praying For Peace

“A Woman Reciting Kaddish?! Praying For Peace”
20 Tishrei 5777 • Chol Hamoed Sukkot • October 22, 2016
Rabbi Alexander Davis

Shabbat Shalom,

I want to take you back for a moment to the funeral of Shimon Peres. I spoke a bit about him at Yizkor on Yom Kippur. But there was something noteworthy at his funeral that may have gone under your radar screen. It wasn’t the number of dignitaries or guests or eulogies for the former President and Prime Minister although those are significant. No, what made the headline and caused a bit of controversy was that his daughter, Professor Tzvia Walden, recited kaddish.

To us, there is nothing groundbreaking there. But two things made it newsworthy in Israel- one, that a woman said kaddish and two, the language she used. For both, she was attacked in the Chareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) Press.

Let me explain.

To us the idea that a woman would say kaddish is a given. We don’t think twice about it. In Modern Orthodox circles as well, women often say kaddish. But in more traditional Orthodox circles, they generally do not. In Israel, it is not common since funerals are performed by the state rabbinate which operates under more Orthodox control.

What often happens is that instead of a daughter saying kaddish for her father, a son-in-law says it for his father-in-law. I know, that may strike you as strange or even offensive. But those are the rules for that community. This is how Aish HaTorah, which is an Orthodox outreach organization, explains it:

“… while a Jewishly-observant woman can be an accomplished doctor, businessperson, etc., it is important that her primary focus be on the home, leaving the domain of the synagogue to the man. A woman should not recite the Kaddish as part of the services, but she should delegate it to another relative or hire someone for reciting the Kaddish.” (I am not sure what Aish means when it says, “she can say it privately.”)

Now it is true that traditionally women have been exempt from saying kaddish. But authorities no less than Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Feinstein permitted it in the presence of a minyan in a synagogue. In fact, as far back as the seventeenth century, it is recorded that some women recited kaddish.

But let’s turn now to how Walden, a professor of psychology at Ben Gurion University recited kaddish. We’ll leave differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi versions of kaddish for another time. Prof Walden inserted a phrase in the end of Kaddish: “oshe shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom aleinu v’al kol b’nei adaim, yimru amen.”

Prof. Walden who serves on the Reform movement’s leadership council in Israel used the language of the Reform movement’s siddur that makes the prayer for peace a universal prayer. “May God who brings peace in the heavens, bring peace to the Jewish people and to all people.”

The phrase of the insertion is less poetic than what we sometimes use, “al kol yoshvei tevel, May God grant peace to all inhabitants of the earth.” But the sentiment is the same.
We find similar language in our siddur. In the end of the Amidah, we say, “sim shalom baolam tova uvrakha, Grant peace to the world” (p. 120). The word “baolam” is not found in standard orthodox siddurim. Its insertion is based on the siddur of the 9th Century Babylonian Sage, Saadia Gaon discovered in the Cairo Geniza. We include it because while we pray for ourselves, our families, our community, our prayers extend beyond our people to the whole world. That was certainly an appropriate message for Peres whose dreamed of peace not just for Israel but for all humanity. It is also a message central to the holiday of Sukkot.

Sukkot is the most universal holiday. In Temple times, 70 bulls were offered over the course of the holiday. They correspond to the 70 nations of the world meaning that the Israelites prayed for enough rain for all humanity. That message was reinforced in the haftara for the first day of sukkot in which we read about a messianic era for all people regardless of their faith. When that time arrives, says the prophet, it will be Sukkot and all people will find shelter under God’s wings.

I see a hint of the universal in Kohelet that we read this morning. We read in Ecclesiastes (3:11): “gam et haolam natan b’libam.” This phrase is hard to translate. Some suggest that the world “haolam” should actually be read “haamal” (with letters revered) meaning, “God planted toil in our hearts.” This would make it consistent with verses 9 and 13. But taking it at face value, what does it mean that God “planted haolam in our hearts?”

Ibn Ezra teaches that haolam here means eternity as it does in verse 14. What Kohelet means, Ibn Ezra explains is that is, most humans act foolishly thinking they will live forever. I prefer to think of it as a reminder that while our lives are fleeting, we sense that are part of something eternal.

Alternatively, noticing that haolam is missing a vav, Rashi reads it as he’elem, hidden. This implies that although God put wisdom in our hearts, God left much hidden so that we do not have the wisdom to foresee the future.

Others say haolam means world as we probably assumed. This implies that for humans have a desire to possess and understand the world.

Like my teaching in the Drash service on Rosh Hashana, I’d like to suggest “gam et haolam natan b’libam” means that humans are a microcosm of the world. “I’ve got the whole world in my heart. I’ve got the whole wide world, in my heart.” We are to share the love and pain, joy and sorrow and need of others. Think of concentric circles that begin with the whole world and narrow to focus on our community and then our family. Just as the Bible begins with the universal Adam and moves to Abraham the Jew, we are humans first and Jews second.

In that sense, while I agree with the sentiment of the kaddish addition “v’al kol yoshvei tevel,” I’d argue that we don’t need to change the wording. We just need to expand our understanding. “Oshe shalom bimromav hu yaashe shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael” is not necessarily, “May the One who makes peace among us grant peace to all Israel.” Rather, “May the one who makes peace among all humanity (aleinu), also grant peace to the Jewish people v’al kol yisrael.”

Like the sukkah whose doors and roof are open to all, our hearts are to be open to all. “Gam et haolam natan hashem b’libeinu.” For God has planted the world in our hearts. So whether we are praying for the soul of departed loved ones or praying for peace, we are called upon to pray with all our heart, all that is in our heart.

On Monday, we will pray to honor the memory of a loved one with Yizkor. This holiday and every day we pray that our family, our people indeed our world should be blessed with peace.