There’s a lot been written lately about feminism and Judaism, or at least-about women’s roles in our faith. While I wouldn’t say personally that I feel invisible behind the mechitza, I do struggle with women who are blocked from getting the most out of their orthodoxy, especially where it feels like it comes down to custom or tradition rather than Jewish law.
Losing a parent is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I don’t grapple with it daily, but it has the power to move me to tears with literally no notice whatsoever, at any given moment. It’s scarred me and shaped me in ways I probably couldn’t describe, and some ways I can.
Judaism has guidelines for losing a parent. And to me, it’s one of the most beautiful areas of Jewish law. From the second a parent dies, their family has rules to follow. Don’t leave the body alone, call the chevra kadisha, say the shema prayer.. the list of laws and customs goes on, from those first impossible minutes until years later, when we light a memorial candle on the anniversary of their death. And the intensity of those rules lessens as time goes on.
The first week, your every waking minute is filled with people visiting you sit shiva, while for the month, the restrictions of new clothes and luxury are enough to keep you aware of your loss but also able to forget for small periods of time, get on with work and friendships and daily life. The entire year, you exclude yourself from social gatherings where you might not feel comfortable, but your life begins to move on, often without daily reminders of your status as an avel. To me, it felt like God was walking me through the process of grieving, not letting me sweep my feelings under the carpet, but also helping me put myself back together without drowning under the weight of it.
But there were moments. Moments where I still feel like my grief would have more bearing, more status somehow, if I were a man.
Standing by the graveside at my fathers funeral, they asked the men to step forward to take part in an incredible mark of respect, to help fill the grave with earth. My family, my friends, people who knew us all my life came close to take a spade and begin the labour. When I asked to join in, eager to honour my father this last time, I was asked to wait while a groundskeeper ran to fetch something. When he came back, he brought with him a small trowel and some ready turned earth in a bucket. They offered me a token, a ceremonial act, like the action of lifting a shovel was going to be too much for me. Like they couldn’t see that the act of not lifting it would be far heavier to carry. Needless to say, I took the spade. But I don’t know that other women would know to insist.
During the week of shiva, men need a minyan, ten men to join them in prayer, three times a day. It means that your home is filled with people, pretty much all of your waking hours. We take breaks, for meals or for rest times, but the company is necessary. It surrounds you with stories of your loved ones, with people who care about you. It’s healing. As the only person sitting shiva, I didn’t need a minyan, so we didn’t always have one. The mornings, I slept in until visitors arrived to see me, and in the evenings, I had to leave the room while the men prayed, standing in the kitchen or the hallway, wondering why I felt shut out, if the reason they were there was me. I chose to say the Kaddish prayer that week, and they chose men to say it with me, to make it more “appropriate”, some of whom I had never met before, turning around at the sound of a woman’s voice standing out from the crowd
I didn’t have to say Kaddish at all that year, and so I didn’t. I asked someone I love, someone who loves me to say it for me, and they did. They went to shul every day, three times a day, and did the action of a grieving child for me. They said my words, my prayer, because even if I had chosen to go, orthodox Jewish law dictates it would be better if a man was doing it too. Some would say that a man needs to be doing it too. That even if I take the nineteen years we had together and pour all of those feelings into every word I say, they don’t really count.
Each year now, on the anniversary of his death, the yartzeit, I head to shul and I say the Kaddish prayer, quietly, respectfully behind the mechitza. If the other men notice a man who has yartzeit, they might offer him a special mitzvah, leading the service or holding the Torah.
Me? Me, they don’t notice at all, and they wouldn’t have anything to offer me even if they did.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the logic and the reasoning behind the laws for women and men. The way it would be impossible to get to shul three times a day with small children in tow, the way we believe that a woman’s spirituality lends itself to needing less outward signs of our faith, the rules of modesty and how they manifest in clothes and song and power struggles. Some of these things I agree with, others less so. But I believe in the package of orthodoxy, and I feel like I matter and have a role to play. But when it comes to grief, I suddenly get a glimpse into how other women might feel, not just in mourning but in prayer, in community, in education. Like their voice is being silenced, like they have nowhere to stand, like they don’t count.
All I know, is that my father meant to the world to me, and I to him. But in a million small ways, Judaism tells me that I’m not quite enough to honour him all on my own. I need a mans help to do that to its full potential. A brother, a husband, an uncle, hey- any relative will do. So long as they’re male.
It’s one small area of Jewish law, and you don’t even consider it until it’s thrust upon you. I hardly think about it any more, just once a year, when I stand behind that curtain. Not invisible, but not quite visible enough either.