American Reform Responsa
124. Kaddish for a Unitarian Sister
(Vol. LXVII, 1957, pp. 82-85)
QUESTION: “Should a sister who is a devout Jewess say Kaddish for a sister who had become a Unitarian?” I also received a question asking me the following: “A widow had a husband who was half Jewish, and he was not affiliated with any Jewish congregation, but bequeathed his home to the Temple. The woman wants to have her husband included in the congregational Kaddishlist.”
ANSWER: Both questions have certain complications, but there is a basic problem common to them both. Let us dispose of the complications first. With regard to the Unitarian, the complication concerns the Jewish status of the woman who died. Does the fact that she joined a Unitarian church make her an apostate, since, after all, she added no deity to her belief in the one God? And: May not the fact that she asked to be buried in a Jewish cemetery indicate repentance of whatever apostasy may have been involved?
With regard to the man who was half-Jewish–if his mother was Jewish, then he is fully a Jew, since in mixed marriages we follow the status of the mother; if his mother was Gentile, he was a Gentile. Thus, his status is not quite clear from the question.
But behind both these complications there is a clear and basic question, i.e.: May we say Kaddish– first for an apostate, or, secondly, for a born Gentile who never was connected with Judaism? As to the apostate, he is involved in special laws with regard to his burial. The laws are derived from the saying in the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 46a) that relatives should not mourn for those that had been sentenced by the court. This was fixed and developed as a law in the tractate Semachot II that we should not concern ourselves with one who “goes aside from the path of the community” (“Ein mit-asekim imahem”). This is embodied as law in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De-a 345.5. Of course, the question still is: What does it mean when we say that we should not be concerned with them? Generally, the commentators take it to mean that we do not give them the full ritual, such as standing in the line of mourners, giving eulogies, etc.; but even the strict Moses Sofer of Pressburg says that, nevertheless, we must provide a burial place for them in our cemeteries (see his responsum Yoreh De-a 341). However, should we say Kaddishfor them? This brings us closer to our question.
This question–whether we should say Kaddish for them–has its precedent during the time when Marranos escaped from Spain and there was often a difference in religious status between the generations in one family. We might combine this question with the clearer question, namely: Should we say Kaddish for a non-Jew who is not an apostate, since he had never been a Jew? This, too, can be, and is, a practical question. It can come up in the case of a man converted to Judaism whose father remains a non-Jew. May the Jewish son say Kaddish for that Gentile father? Let us, therefore, deal with the question basically, beginning first with the question of whether to say Kaddish for an apostate, and then whether one may say Kaddishfor a Gentile.
The question as to apostates, which arises first in the 16th century with regard to Marranos, is itself based upon an older Talmudic precedent.
Many legends were told about Rabbi Meir and the famous apostate Elisha ben Abuyah (Acher). In B. Chagiga 15b it is told that Rabbi Meir made great efforts to redeem the soul of this apostate from Gehinnom and to bring him into Paradise. Since the purpose of the Kaddish is the redemption of the father, and since the dictum is quoted in discussions of the kaddish that “The son brings merit to the father,” therefore, the precedent of Rabbi Meir is used in the discussion of whether a Jewish son may do merit, i.e., redeem his apostate father by saying Kaddish for him. This question came as a practical enquiry before Rabbi David Cohen of the Island of Corfu in the 16th century (see his Responsa, section 30). He concludes that the son should say Kaddish for his father, even though some might argue that the Kaddish will not avail this apostate. Nevertheless, it is the duty of the son to honor his father and to benefit him as much as he can by saying Kaddish.
So Moses Isserles, in his commentary, Darchei Mosheh to the Tur (Yoreh De-a #376) says that a son should say Kaddish for an apostate father, but not if that father died a natural death; only if the father was slain should the child say Kaddish for him, since the slaying was a means to atonement, for the father certainly would have repented before he was slain. Isserles repeats this opinion in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (same reference). The commentators Taz and Shach, to the Shulchan Aruch at this point, underline Isserles’ limitation that the Kaddish be said only if the father is slain. However, Solomon Eiger, son of Akiva Eiger (Gilion Maharsha) says that if the deceased apostate has no other mourners, then the one mourner should say Kaddishfor him even if he was not slain but died on his bed.
Abraham Toomim, a Galician rabbi (end of the 19th century), in his Responsa Chesed Le-Avraham, Tinyana, Yoreh De-a #84, says that if the father is slain, the son is in duty bound to say Kaddish, but if the father dies on his bed, the son is not in duty bound, but he is not prohibited from saying it. And he adds, “There certainly can be no prohibition to utter this praise to the Almighty, i.e., the Kaddish.”
A more recent responsum (written in 1933) by Aaron Walkin, Rabbi of Pinsk-Karlin, bridges the gap between the matter of apostates discussed above and the second question which was asked about Christians (see his Zekan Aharon II, #87). He is asked specifically whether one may say Kaddish for a Christian. The question comes to him in the following way: A man is converted to Judaism. His father is not converted to Judaism. Then the father dies. The son, being a Jew, wants to say Kaddish for his Gentile father. May he do so? Aaron Walkin, upon the basis of most of the material which I have cited above, decides that he certainly may. He argues a fortiori, if a son may say Kaddish for an apostate who wilfully deserted Judaism, certainly a son may say Kaddish for a man who is naturally following the religion in which he was brought up. Then he adds that if it would not seem too surprising to say so, he would even express the opinion that not only may this son say Kaddish, but actually he must say Kaddish; he is in duty bound to do so.
In the responsa of Abraham Zvi Klein, rabbi in Hungary during the past century (Be-erot Avraham, #11) the author is asked whether we may accept a gift for the synagogue from a Gentile woman. He answers that we may do so. Then he is asked whether we may pray for her, which she requested. To this his answer is that of course we may; and he gives the following reasons: In the Temple in Jerusalem they sacrificed seventy oxen in behalf of the seventy nations. Further, it is accepted by all Israel that the righteous of all nations have a portion in the world to come. In B. Gittin 60a we learn that for the sake of peace we should visit the sick of the Gentiles and bury their dead. When Maimonides records this law in chapter 10 of his Hilchot Melachim, he adds: “For the Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works.” So there is no prohibition of the Chevra Kadisha to record her name and her good deed, and we should recite for her an “El Male Rachamim” on Yizkor Days.
Thus, while there is not much discussion on this matter, yet whoever discussed it answers in the affirmative. There may be some opinions in the negative, but I have not seen them. It seems clear that according to the law, you are completely justified (as Rabbi Toomim said) “to utter this praise of God” in honor of a deceased Christian or “apostate.”
Solomon B. Freehof
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.