The Mourning Minyan

When our mother died in July 1976, my sister and I became mourners for the first time. There was no discussion between us over whether we would recite Kaddish, for we never questioned our obligation to do so. Our mother did not teach us that daughters had different obligations to their parents than sons, and she provided us with a role model by going to the synagogue daily to recite Kaddish for her father when we were very small.

We were totally unprepared for the religious experiences awaiting us in the next eleven months.

While our strong attachment to traditional Judaism had led us to believe that the experience would provide comfort, we could never have imagined the spiritual strength we would derive from reciting Kaddish with members of the Jewish community. On many occasions, total strangers welcomed us into their midst with warm hospitality, and made great efforts to console us.

But we would never have believed either the torment we would feel as a result of the hostility we faced when, on other occasions, we would be treated as “intruders” by male Jews who did not wish to pray with women.

The Kaddish is a prayer sanctified by its association with death, although there is nothing about death in it. It is an affirmation of life and faith. The Kaddish contains phrases about life when the thoughts of mourners are filled with death; it emphasizes peace when the emotions of the bereaved are in a state of upheaval; and it stresses commitment to God when faith is uncertain.

The Kaddish reinforces the spiritual bond between generations. Jewish Law requires children to recite it at services three times daily for 11 months after the death of a parent. In accepting this obligation, children honor their parents by publicly accepting their moral teachings, and by exhibiting to the community their continued love and respect for them.

Although its recitation is a personal tribute to a particular parent, because of its holiness as a prayer the Kaddish must be recited in public —defined as at least a quorum of ten adults (minyan). This prohibition against saying Kaddish in private prevents mourners from withdrawing from the community during these intense emotional times, and encourages them to seek comfort among other Jews. They experience together, a feeling of community—a sense of uniting in prayer and sharing in sorrow.

Thus, reciting Kaddish not only unites parents and children, it brings together the community of Jews.

While all children must observe the other obligations of mourning, in traditional Judaism the obligation to recite the Kaddish falls upon the son only, never the daughter. Female children are exempt from this obligation because of “family responsibilities,” regardless of individual circumstances or desires.

Traditional Judaism does not recognize the definition of minyan as a quorum of ten adults, qua adults. A minyan must consist of ten adults who are bound by the obligation to recite certain time-bound prayers, including the Kaddish. Since women are exempt from this obligation by Jewish law, and their voluntary assumption of it is not recognized as fullfilling any obligation, they do not fit into the definition of adults who can be counted in the quorum. Only males have this obligation; thus, only males count.

Thus, according to Jewish law, daughters need not publicly express respect and affection for a deceased parent. And too, Judaism need not provide them with a buttress against loneliness and withdrawal during mourning by insisting that they join with other Jews for daily services.

Our first encounter with the problems we would face as Jewish women attempting to fulfill voluntarily the obligation of saying Kaddish came on the very day that our mother was buried. My sister’s rabbi of 16 years came to her home that evening to express his condolences and to conduct services. When it was time to begin, he refused to do so. Numbed by all of the painful experiences of the day, we did not understand his action until he pointed out that only eight men were present. My sister immediately began to call neighbors and friends, but no one was at home. In desperation, she begged him to conduct services with the people present, but he refused again and left the house.

We decided to hold services that evening —even without the rabbi. Our family joined together in prayer, and when it came time for us to recite our first Kaddish outside of the cemetery, our father, in a strong voice, led us carefully through it. Thus, on the very evening of our mother’s burial, our family broke with tradition in order to unite in tears and reaffirm our commitment to God.

The next morning, we began the routine which we were to continue for the next 11 months, getting up at daybreak to attend services. The small group of men in the chapel welcomed us and helped us prepare for the morning service. When it came time for the Kaddish, we stood alongside others whose faces were lined with sorrow. We all recited the Kaddish together, and my sister and I experienced, for the first time, that feeling of community— that sense of sharing. It did not seem to matter whether we were male or female: we were all Jews praying to our God.

My sister and I travelled extensively throughout the country during the year for professional reasons, and we became acquainted with several Jewish communities. Our experiences of meeting, praying and being a part of these different groups for even a short period of time was very rewarding, and, for the most part, the hours spent in synagogue were filled with comfort, understanding and mutual support. Our identity as Jews was our passport to these communities. But on too many occasions, our identity as women excluded us. This exclusion depended on two factors: 1) how closely its members adhered to the Orthodox treatment of women, and 2) whether there was a minyan without us.

Although I would have preferred not to attend services at Orthodox synagogues, this could not be avoided. They were often the only ones offering daily services, in some communities. I’ll never forget my first experience at a daily service in an Orthodox synagogue. I knew that I would be separated from the men, but I was not prepared for the accommodations which were reserved for me as a woman. When I walked into the chapel, I was led to two rows of pews in the back of the room behind a six-foot closely-woven screen. I was able to see nothing in the room— not the ark, not the rabbi, nothing at all.

At first I just felt isolated, but as I sat there longer, I began to have the feeling of being imprisoned. It was very difficult for me to believe that my religion expected me to pray from within a cage, and I knew that my mother would never have sanctioned the self-imprisonment of her daughter for any reason. As these feelings intensified, I left this section and stood in the back of the chapel by the door. I stayed there for the remainder of the service.

On another occasion, my husband and I went to a small synagogue where men were praying around long tables on the second floor of the building. A man came over to welcome my husband and to lead me downstairs to the bottom of the stairs. He put a chair there for me, and motioned for me to stay. I chose to ignore him, and went back upstairs in time to worship with the others.

Such experiences were not limited to Orthodox synagogues, however. I found that some of the men who attend daily services in Conservative synagogues also regard women as intruders. I remember clearly one particular incident at a Conservative synagogue. My husband and sons entered the chapel first. As my teen-age daughter and I were going in, a man pushed us back rather forcefully. With a smile on his face, he stated that he was sure that we understood how our presence would be “disruptive” to the men trying the pray.

Absolutely furious over both the physical and verbal insult, I told this man that I certainly did not understand, and that I had come to pray and say Kaddish for my mother. I then took my daughter by the hand and shakily walked inside the chapel. Although the service did proceed, the first Kaddish went unsaid. I looked around and noticed that there were only nine men present, and my heart sank. Even my aggressiveness in demanding the right to pray could not gain me the right to recite Kaddish, because I did not count in the minyan. I left the synagogue that evening with tears of frustration.

Getting 10 men to fulfill their obligation to make a minyan was a dilemma facing many of the synagogues which we attended. The huge and elaborate structures were as empty as the one-room places of worship. And when nine men and I were present, the same scene unfolded: telephone calls were made, pleas were sent out, services were missed, and Kaddishes were not recited.

In the synagogue in which I prayed most often, this became a time to be dreaded by all. The men who prayed daily with me always breathed a sigh of relief when the tenth man appeared. Although these men have been committed to the Jewish laws concerning the minyan for all of their lives, my continued presence had given them ample opportunity to become conscious of the fact that their excluding me from the quorum caused me a great deal of pain. They recognized the signs of distress as soon as the rituals of “male head counting,” “male hunting,” etc., began. They knew that I felt insulted when they counted the men whom they “lassoed” in as they were passing by. They knew that I was indignant that they counted the men on the last row reading the newspaper or sleeping—and would not count me, when I was prepared to worship along with them.

The eleven months of mourning for our mother have passed, but the changes within us brought about by our experiences while reciting Kaddish are permanent.

My sister and I have experienced the beautiful moments of peace and community that Judaism has to offer those who follow its practices on a daily basis. But we have experienced also the feelings of anguish and anger that accompany the insults and exclusionary practices of discrimination. These experiences have made us more committed as Jews and more militant as women in demanding our right to be included on an equal basis.

We would like to encourage more women to recite Kaddish for their parents. It is important both for the mourners themselves and for all Jewish women. When discrimination is not encountered, they will indeed derive comfort and support from the community during a time of intense grief and loneliness.

But it is equally important that Jewish women become aware that this discrimination exists. Like most Jewish men, we are not involved in the daily minyan, and are unaware of the discrimination against women exhibited there by members of the Jewish community in the name of Jewish law. We can easily avoid this discrimination, but it will do little to raise our status and the status of our daughters to do so. For generations, sons believed that reciting Kaddish demonstrated the deep and abiding honor in which they held the memory of their parents. We hope that women will believe that their reciting Kaddish for their parents demonstrates the same respect and affection. We hope that no one and nothing will inhibit women from believing in the meaning and purpose of the Kaddish, and that no one and nothing will deny them the right to recite it alongside all members of the Jewish community.

Greta Weiner is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Virginia. She is currently living in Los Angeles and working on her dissertation on religious values and attitudes toward sex roles