Over My Dead Body…

The Jewish prayer book contains four different funeral prayers to call attention to the special praise due the dead person as an individual belonging to one or the other of four classes. These are:

• all women;
• ordinary men;
• distinguished rabbis; and
• men of eminence.

The special prayer that is read for a man is quite different from the one read for a woman. At the funeral of a rabbi, an introductory poem is read before the reading of the prayer for an ordinary man.

There is a special additional poem for a man of eminence to be said prior to the prayer for an ordinary man. The prayer said for a woman at her funeral begins:

A virtuous woman who can find-
Far above corals is her worth….
Give her of the fruit of her hands
And let her own works praise her
in the gates…(Proverbs 31)

These words are said for all women—and only for women. These words are not praiseworthy. They are demeaning.

Consider first an interpretation that many women and most men would see as an offering of praise: a virtuous woman (dutiful, good) is worth far more than any valuable material goods. We praise her because we recognize her accomplishments—”the fruit of her hands her own works ” What is demeaning is that a good woman is rated in terms of her productivity. Substitute “cow” for woman and any appropriate part of the cow’s anatomy for “hands” and you have a set of words that apply to any beast of burden you might wish to praise.

Compare the prayer said at a man’s funeral:

Better is a good name than
precious ointment
And the day of death than the
day of birth.
The end of the matter after all
has been heard:
Revere God and keep
His commandments.
For this is the whole duty of man.
May the pious be joyful in glory
And rejoice in their repose.

This prayer begins by recognizing that a man has a name (“Better is a good name than precious ointment”). It is his name; he is responsible for it. The “day of death is better than the day of birth” because he has had the opportunity to do good things and to acquire a good reputation. He does not have a good name because he has been productive—has borne “fruit”—but because he reveres God and keeps His commandments. At the very least, this means he has been just and fair in his dealings with others and that he has obeyed God’s law, which must include efforts to study and understand it up to the limits of his ability. It does not matter whether there are any “fruits of his hands.” These words said for a man are not applicable to a woman. No woman has a name—good, bad, or indifferent. A woman is something someone “finds.” If you are a lucky woman, your productivity will be discovered and appreciated.

Keeping God’s commandments is surely necessary for a woman, but tradition has always “excused” the woman from certain obligations, most of which fall into the general categories of prayer and study. At least part of the rationale for “excusing” the woman is that she has other duties that make demands on her time and energy — duties toward her husband. Even unmarried women are “excused” because they are presumed to be part of a household headed by a male to whom they owe allegiance. This explains, perhaps, why the phrase, “this is the whole duty of man” is reserved exclusively for men. Although a man has duties toward women in “his” household, these are never such as to “excuse” him from prayer and study. But a woman’s duty is divided between God and some mortal man.

The word nefesh (soul) or a synonym does not appear in the prayer for a woman. Instead we pray that “the memory of His daughter. ..come into His presence.” The concept of soul is generally accepted as indicative of personhood. It follows, then, that in this prayer, women are not considered persons. The omission of this one term provides the key to understanding this prayer. Women have identity (a name) only in terms of belonging to some man—their fathers or their husbands. They own nothing except by permission of their owners. They certainly do not own themselves.

What we say to praise a woman at her funeral implies a denial of her personal identity, of her integrity, of the respect and dignity we ascribe to persons. These are reserved for men only.

I count myself as a person. Do not recite the memorial prayer for a woman over me.

Sibyl Cohen has a doctorate in philosophy from Temple University in Philadelphia, where she lives. She teaches at University College, Rutgers-Camden.