2-7-13 by Shlomo Brody- Under pressure from the Israeli Supreme Court, the Chief Rabbinate recently issued a halachic ruling permitting women to deliver eulogies. This declaration was the culmination of a legal battle led heroically by the ITIM organization following highly publicized incidents in which women mourners were forcibly prevented by the municipal burial society (hevra kadisha) from eulogizing their loved ones. These incidents highlight the widely divergent views within Jewish sources regarding the participation of women in funeral services.
In antiquity, many cultures featured lamentations at funerals, a phenomenon also found in Jewish sources. Jeremiah, for example, proclaims, “Summon the dirge-singers... send for the skilled women... Let them quickly start wailing for us, that our eyes may run with tears...” (Jeremiah 9:16-17). Based on this verse, the Sages asserted that dirge-singers were featured at the funerals of the greatest scholars.
Elsewhere they detailed the various lyrics recited by the women of Babylonia, which included rich, poetic imagery. One sage went so far as to assert that a husband, within his marital contract, becomes obligated to provide a dirge-singer at his wife’s funeral. This requirement was codified by Maimonides as well as Rabbi Yosef Karo, even as he noted that this was only true in societies that had this custom. The basic principle guiding this law is that the marital contract obligates one to provide appropriate ceremonies in accordance with contemporary practice.Supporters of female eulogizers reasonably contend that dirge-singers serve as a precedent for women participating in burial ceremonies. This is particularly true if the deceased would have desired their female loved ones to eulogize them, since Jewish law attributes great weight to the last requests of the dying. In fact, dirge-singing would seemingly be more problematic because it raises issues regarding prohibited female singing, known as “kol isha.” One decisor used the example of dirge-singers to argue that kol isha only applies to love songs meant to arouse the listener and not to more prosaic singing. Many, however, contended that while such songs would normally be prohibited, the somber context of the funeral inhibits any form of unseemliness. Whatever the explanation, eulogies do not raise those questions, which would seem to strengthening their halachic propriety.
Opposition to female eulogizers stems, in part, from general considerations of modest behavior. Bnei Brak’s Rabbi Shmuel Wosner, along with many ultra-Orthodox decisors, prohibits women from lecturing to an audience that contains men. Yet in many religious Zionist or modern Orthodox communities, this is deemed perfectly acceptable, and women serve as Knesset members, professors and in other jobs with public speaking. Indeed, even Rabbi Moshe Feinstein permitted women to lecture in an audience of men, albeit only on an ad hoc basis and not within a synagogue.
Opponents to eulogies by women are also drawn from another controversial law regarding women and funeral etiquette. The talmudic Sages debated whether women should stand at the head of a funeral procession, as required by one sage, or whether they should follow the bier, as suggested by other scholars. The latter opinion, apparently, was motivated by concerns of modest behavior. Yet according to both opinions, women would attend the actual burial even as care was taken to prevent inappropriate intermingling.
In the 16th century, however, Rabbi Yosef Karo ruled that women should only follow the bier during a procession, and that furthermore they should not enter into the cemetery proper. This latter position originated in the kabbalistic text of the Zohar. In parallel to a notion found in the Talmud itself, the Zohar contends that women present a mystical danger, which originated with Eve’s role in the exile from the Garden of Eden, that endangers men within cemeteries. In some communities, the combined factors of mysticism and modesty led some women to abstain from attending funeral processions entirely.
This position did not go unchallenged, however. A number of scholars noted that whatever the mystical concerns, the Talmud clearly permitted women to participate in the funeral procession. This also appears to have been the practice in many medieval communities, even as caution was taken to avoid any inappropriate intermingling. In cases of conflicts between the Zohar and the Talmud, the latter is deemed authoritative. Therefore there should be no legal impediment to prevent women from attending a burial, especially when their absence would cause emotional pain. In any case, this discussion would only apply to graveside participation, but not in a funeral home.
Recognizing no definitive prohibition, in law or custom, against women delivering eulogies, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger ruled that women may deliver eulogies. This was definitively the correct ruling for communities where men and women have regular social and professional interaction. Unfortunately, Rabbi Metzger allowed for the municipal burial societies to determine local practice, thereby preventing an appropriate resolution in all cities. One hopes that the next chief rabbi will ensure that the sensitivity of Jewish law will be reflected at all funerals and other life-cycle events.
The author teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody
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