RRR 132-138

Kaddish for Apostates and Gentiles

A woman had resigned from the synagogue and had become a Unitarian. When she died, her sister (who had remained a member of the synagogue) asked whether she should say Kaddish for her. (From Rabbi David Polish, Chicago, Illinois)

The Christian wife of a Jew had died. Should he say Kaddish for her? (From Rabbi Nathan Kaber, Altoona, Pennsylvania)

A widow had a husband who was half-Jewish. He had not been affiliated with any Jewish congregation. Yet he bequeathed his home to the temple. The widow now wants to have her husband’s name included in the congregations Kaddish list. Should this be done? (From Rabbi Norman Diamond, Springfield,Ohio)

Each of these questions has its special complications. With regard to the Unitarian the problem is: What is the Jewish status of this woman? Does the fact that she had joined a Unitarian church make her an apostate? After all, she added no deity to her Jewish belief in the One God. Furthermore, may the fact that she had asked to be buried in a Jewish cemetery indicate repentance of whatever trace of apostasy may have been involved? (For a specific discussion of the status of Jewish-born Unitarians, see supra, responsum 10.)

With regard to the man who was half-Jewish, if it was his mother who was Jewish, then he is fully a Jew, since in mixed marriages the child has the status of the mother. If the mother was Gentile, he is a Gentile.

Behind all these complications there is a clear and basic question: May we say Kaddish for, first, an apostate, or, secondly, for a born Gentile who never was connected with Judaism?

Concerning the apostate, he is involved in special laws with regard to his burial. The laws are derived from the Talmud (in b. Sanhedrin 46c) that relatives should not mourn for those who had been sentenced by the court. This was fixed and developed as a law in the tractate Semachot 2, that we should not concern ourselves with one who “goes aside from the path of the community” (eyn misaskin imohem). This is embodied as law in the Shulchan Aruch, Yore Deah 345 : 5. Of course the question still is: What does it mean when we say 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, or giving eulogies, and so forth; 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, Yore Deah 341). However, should we say Kaddish for them?

This question, whether we should say Kaddish for them, has its precedent during the time when Marranos were escaping from Spain and there was often a different 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 was 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 fundamental problem, beginning first with the question of whether to say Kaddish for an apostate, and then of whether one may say Kaddish for a Gentile.

The question as to apostates, which arose first in the sixteenth century with regard to the Marranos, is itself based upon an older Talmudic precedent.

Rabbi Meir, in the many legends told about him and the famous apostate Elisha ben Abuyah (Asher) in b. Chagiga 15 b , made great effort to redeem the soul of this apostate from Ge-hinnom 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, “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 inquiry before Rabbi David Cohen, of the Island of Corfu, in the sixteenth century. In his Responsa (section 30) the situation dealt with was as follows:

A Marrano, escaping from Portugal, never succeeded in reaching a Jewish community. His son, however, was successful and returned to Judaism. Now the father was murdered and died while still a Christian. Should the Jewish son say Kaddish for him? David Cohen says: “In my humble opinion, at a quick glance, it would seem that this matter does not require a scholar to decide it [phrase from b. Baba Metzia 101a, often used when the answer to a question is obvious]. Certainly this mourner, whose father was slain as an apostate, must say Kaddish among the other mourners on the basis of the Talmudic principle (b. Sanhedrin 44a) that even though one has sinned (i.e., the father) he is still a Jew. Note that Achan (Joshua 7) transgressed against the entire Torah, yet even so they called him an Israelite. . . . Clearly, then, a son should do all he can to earn merit for his father, even if his father had been a ‘provocative’ apostate. For behold, Ahaz (the father of Hezekiah) was a provocative idolater and did all the evil things which God hates. Nevertheless, his son Hezekiah dragged his bones [to the grave, as a mark of pennance] in order that he should attain atonement (Pesachim 56a). For this the rabbis praised him. If this would not have done Ahaz any good, Hezekiah would not have done it and the rabbis would not have praised him.”

Moses Isserles, in his commentary, “Darke Moshe” to the Tur (Yore Deah 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 commen-tary to the Shulchan Aruch (same reference). The commentators to the Shulchan Aruch, Taz and Schach, at this point underline Isserles’s limitation that the Kaddish be said only if the father is slain. However, Solomon Eger, son of Akiba Eger, in “Gilion Maharsha,” says that if the deceased apostate has no other mourners, then the one mourner should say Kaddish for him even if he was not slain but died on his bed.

Abraham Teomim (Galician rabbi, end of the nineteenth century) in his responsa “Chesed L’Avrohom,” Tinyana, Yore Deah 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].”

All this applies to an apostate father. But what if the father was bom a Gentile and remained a Gentile? May his Jewish son (who had converted to Judaism) say Kaddish for him? It is possible to take the point of view that the Jewish son should not say Kaddish for the Gentile father. The general description in the Talmud of the relationship of a convert to his Gentile relatives is that they are no longer his relatives at all. “A convert is like a new-born child” (Yevamoth 22a), which means that entering Judaism is like a new birth and all his past life does not (legally) exist. He has no relatives any more. Of course, this general principle added to the respect in which the proselyte was held because it declared that he is not the same person who once was a pagan. Yet the principle could not be applied in the practicalities of daily life. For example, since he is new-born, then his pagan relatives are no longer his relatives. He therefore could legally now marry his sister! Yet the Talmud (ibid.) says that if this were permitted, it would be said that paganism (which he had abandoned) was more sacred or moral than the Judaism he has entered.

The same situation occurs with regard to a proselyte saying Kaddish for his Gentile father. Since by the general Tahnudic principle he is new-born, his Gentile parents are not related to him any more, and therefore he need not say Kaddish for them. Indeed, this is the conclusion to which Maimonides comes (Yad, “Hilchos Avel” II: 3) and from Maimonides it is carried over to the Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 374:5).

This background of the law is dealt with by Aaron Walkin, Rabbi of Pinsk-Karlin, in a responsum written in 1933. He believes that in spite of Maimonides’s negative opinion mentioned above, a proselyte may say Kaddish for his Gentile father. He calls attention to the fact that Maimonides himself (in “Hilchos Mamrin” V : 11) says that a proselyte must honor his Gentile father, and gives the same reason which the Talmud (in Yevamoth, ibid.) gave as to marrying his close Gentile kin, namely, that it should not be said that a proselyte has left a more sacred religion than he has entered. Therefore Rabbi Walkin concludes that since Kaddish is an expression of a son’s honoring his deceased father, this proselyte should say Kaddish.

Walkin begins by an argument a fortiori: If a son may say Kaddish for his Jewish-born apostate father who had willfully deserted Judaism, then certainly a proselyte son may say Kaddish for a Gentile father who is naturally following the religion in which he was brought up.

In the Responsa of Abraham Zvi Klein, rabbi in Hungary during the past century (“Beerot 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 had 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 Gentiles and bury their dead. When Maimonides records this law in chapter 10 of his “Hilchos Melachim,” he adds: “For the Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works.” So there is no prohibition against recording her name and her good deed in the Hevra Kaddisha, and we should recite an El Mole Rachamim for her on Yiskor days.

Thus, while there is not very much discussion on this matter in the legal literature, yet whoever discussed the answer is 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 Teomim said) “to utter this praise of God” in honor of a deceased Christian or apostate.

(Based upon the responsum originally written for the Central Conference of American Rabbis Yearbook, Vol. LXVII, 1957.)