Not quite two weeks ago, British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis made a semi-shocking announcement: women should be allowed to say the Mourner's Kaddish (קדיש יתום). While I will be going into further detail momentarily, the Mourner's Kaddish is an Aramaic prayer recited at all prayer services (usually at the end) for those mourning the loss of a loved one. Traditionally speaking, one is generally obligated to say the Mourner's Kaddish for one's parents, spouse, children, and siblings. Another tradition surrounding the Mourner's Kaddish is that it is only recited by men. In popular culture, this is illustrated by the film Yentl, in which Barbara Streisand plays the protagonist of Yentl. When the character's father unexpectedly dies and everyone is at the funeral, they are trying to figure out who should recite the Mourner's Kaddish because Streisand's character was the only surviving close relative of the father. In great defiance to the establishment and to the horror of those around her, she grabs the prayer book and starts reciting the Mourner's Kaddish. While this movie does portray the role of the woman in European, Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century, whether women can recite the Mourner's Kaddish is still problematic for many Orthodox communities. Even with such organizations such as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) that support women saying the Mourner's Kaddish, there are only a select number of Orthodox synagogues that allow for it.
The first question I would like to answer is whether a woman can be allowed to say the Mourner's Kaddish under the Jewish legal system (halacha). The first mentioning of the Kaddish in connection with mourning is an eighth-century text called the Masechet Sofrim (19:9). The oldest version of the Kaddish text is found in the siddur (prayer book) of R. Amram Gaon, circa 900 C.E. Interestingly enough, early medieval writers, including the illustrious Rambam (Maimonides), never mention the practice of reciting Kaddish. The fact that Rambam never mentioned it implies that the practice of reciting Kaddish is not a Biblically mandated (d'oraita) practice. The practice seems to have formally taken hold as a custom in thirteenth-century Germany. The fact that the practice of Kaddish takes on the status of minhag (custom) already gives us more leeway to permit a woman reciting the Kaddish.
The first responsum that deals with the topic of women reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, and the one that has most prominence, is that of R. Yair Chaim Bachrach in his work Chavot Ya'ir. In this work (#222), he brings up two primary reasons why a woman could be allowed to say the Mourner's Kaddish: 1) It would be a sanctification of G-d's name (Kiddush Hashem); 2) there is a bona fide quorum of ten present (minyan), so there is no fear of counting women in the minyan. R. Bachrach's ultimate reason for opposition is not halachic in nature, but was because that it would weaken Jewish customs as a whole, and that it would allow for people to subjectively create their own customs, which unto itself is a subjective reason that has different applicability for each community.
There are secondary reasons brought up for its prohibition. R. Shimon Frankfurter believed that "a woman's voice is lewdness." I already covered the topic of a woman's voice (קול אישה), and I can tell you that given the context of the Mourner's Kaddish, any concerns surrounding lewdness or licentiousness are totally unfounded because if one is sexually aroused or triggered by a woman's grieving, I can safely assert that the female mourner is not the one with the issue. R. Frankfurter also believe that it would violate the idea of kavod tzibur (congregational/public dignity), but even that concept is limited to reading from the Torah. Even with some of these concerns, we have to keep in mind that great rabbinic minds such as R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, R. Yosef Soltoveitchik, R. Yosef Dov Soltoveitchik all permitted such a practice.
I want to come back to this topic of halachic permissibility more in a bit, but I want to touch upon some other questions: Why does one say the Mourner's Kaddish? What is it the function of the Mourner's Kaddish? Part of the recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish is supposed to be for the departed. In normative, traditional Jewish eschatology, the departed soul spends 11 months purifying itself in the netherworld (גהנום) before formally entering the afterlife (העולם הבא), which is why the tradition is that a child (or other closest relative) is supposed say the Mourner's Kaddish for the full 11 months: to help ensure that the purification process goes smoothly. It doesn't take place for the full 12 months because under this eschatology, it would imply that the individual were a particularly wicked human being.
Jewish views on the afterlife, however, are not so universal, and not everyone might necessarily hold that belief of what the soul goes through within the first year of departing from this world. Regardless of your views of what happens in the afterlife, there is another party that decidedly benefits from reciting the Mourner's Kaddish, and that is the mourner. How does it help the mourner?
A bit about the Kaddish itself. Aside from the text being in Aramaic, which was at one point a lingua franca of the Jewish people, the text also does not make a single mentioning of death, bereavement, the departed, or the mourner. The text is about G-d's name and sanctifying G-d. This is important when mourning because it could all too easily result in anger, resentment, or frustration with G-d. Rather than losing faith in G-d, the Kaddish is there to reaffirm our faith in G-d and committing oneself to Torah and mitzvahs, thereby sanctifying His name. Sanctifying G-d's name, which is known as קדוש השם, is actually a mitzvah. Not only is it a mitzvah, but it is a mitzvah that is incumbent upon both men and women at all times, which also supersedes the idea of mitzvot aseh shehazman grama (women being exempt from time-bound mitzvot) because sanctifying G-d's name is not a time-bound mitzvah. Since the Mourner's Kaddish is a manifestation of sanctifying G-d's name, there is no valid reason that women should be prevented from performing this mitzvah. If anything, preventing a woman from saying Kaddish would be a violation of the commandment of לפני עבר, which is the Levitical commandment of not putting a stumbling block before the blind (Lev. 19:17), but also understood as a prohibition of against others from committing violations of the Torah. Essentially, not allowing women to say Kaddish is a violation of the Torah.
In addition to sanctifying G-d's name, the mourner is also honoring the memory of the departed individual. When looking at it from the eschatological point of גהנום, it is a declaration that you believe that the departed one's sins will be forgiven. It also shows that you respect the individual enough that you are willing to honor the individual's memory, even postmortem. For this reason, I would argue that while not obligatory, one would still be able to recite Kaddish for a grandparent, close friends, Holocaust victims, or even non-Jews. Being able to honor the departed is a way to help grieve. A way to help grieve in a traditionally Jewish context to help one realize what really matters is something both men and women should be allowed to do. Women should not be deprived of that ritual because of baseless slippery slope arguments. Instead of providing a disdain or disintegration of Jewish customs, allowing women to partake in the recitation of the Kaddish is a reaffirmation of the importance of Jewish traditions. The Kaddish exists to show respect for loved ones. Instead of preventing women from performing a mitzvah that honors the departed and helps with the grieving process, I hope for a day where Orthodox communities everywhere allow for women to partake in this important sanctification of G-d's name.