Can I say Kaddish for my not-Jewish relative?

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There’s a famous scene in the 1980 movie the Jazz Singer when the cantor Yussel Rabinovitch has left home for Los Angeles to become Jess Robin the rock star.

Along the way he divorces his wife and falls in love with his (not Jewish) agent Molly. His father comes to LA to try to talk him into coming home, but when he meets Molly, he tears his shirt and says “I have no son”.

The scene referenced an emergent trend in the late-20th Century Jewish world — interdating and intermarriage — and the impact it had on families. Many Jewish families were torn apart by the choice between following love or following Judaism. The great conflicts (but will they convert? What about the children? Do you really love me or just want me to be Jewish?) ripped into what in South Africa had been a largely sheltered Anglo-Litvak community. Choices were made at great price and brinkmanship and often led to lifelong family faribels.

In today’s world it is more common for Jews to meet and fall in love with someone who is not Jewish. They meet at university, at work, through friends or online and are drawn to each other despite coming from different religious upbringings. In some cases, the non-Jewish partner does magayer to Judaism and in some cases they do not. Our synagogue runs a very powerful ‘Jews by Choice’ programme which prepares candidates for becoming Jewish, but even if the non-Jewish partner in an intermarried couple choose not to become Jewish, their family is welcomed in our congregation. In either case, the result is a relatively new phenomenon of blended families where parents, siblings and children are often practising different religions in the same family.

While for many the dilemma and often the pain remain, most families are more ready today to accommodate and embrace interreligious relationships and keep the family together. Whether the partner converts or not, this raises all kinds of challenges around things like celebration of festivals and lifecycle events (Are we going to Christmas at your parents’ house? Will he come up to the bimah at our son’s bar mitzvah?) and one of the most challenging is around death.

I am struck by how often I find out that Jewish people have not followed a Jewish mourning process for their non-Jewish relative. They assume that saying Kaddish for someone who doesn’t have a ‘Jewish soul’ would be inappropriate, and that their shul or rabbi are not going to support them. The answer is actually the opposite.

Going back as far as the 12th Century, the Sefer Chassidim describes Jewish life in the Rhineland in Germany just after the Second Crusade and had huge influence on the Ashkenazi world in the centuries that followed. Due to the horrific pogroms and other tragedies that were inflicted on the Jews in the wake of the Crusades, the question arose as to whether a Jew could say Kaddish for a non-Jew who rescued or protected Jews in a time of persecution, to which the book’s author, Yehudah ha-Chassid, replied that one could. This was picked up in the generations to follow and expanded to include non-Jewish family members, with as recent authorities as Rabbi Solomon Freehof (Reform) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Orthodox) dealing with the topic in detail and ruling that one can say Kaddish for one’s parents if they are not Jewish.

It is important to reflect on what the Kaddish really is — a prayer that praises G-d, and is used in many different liturgical ways including after study and as a separation between different parts of the service. While its most famous association is with mourning, the words of the Kaddish do not mention death at all, and rather praise G!d as the source of life and maker of peace. If you are Jewish, what would be a better way to mark the loss of a family member, Jewish or not, than connecting with the Source of Life at a time of death and loss?

Saying Kaddish has a rhythm and a power that holds a mourner through their process of mourning. Saying it in a community with a minyan gives one the added support of gathering loving friends to acknowledge your loss and to help you make the difficult transition from death to living with that loss.

I would therefore encourage any Jew to say Kaddish for their non-Jewish relative.

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