May a Jew by choice sit shivah and say kaddish for their non-Jewish parent?
To answer this question we must address two issues: (1) What is halakhah’s view of the parent-child relationship in these cases? The gemara states, “A person who converts is like a newborn infant,” (Yevamot 22a). In other words, a convert is unrelated halakhically to his biological father and mother. Should we read this statement in absolute terms or is halakhah cognizant of the biological and emotional bonds between parent and child regardless of legal definitions? (2) Do our halakhic and religious obligations direct us to mourn the loss of life, not only of Jews but non-Jews as well?
The answer to the second question may be found in a famous midrash. The midrash tells us that when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the heavenly angels wanted to sing before God. God silenced them saying, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?!” (Megillah 10b). The midrash tells us that even when the wicked die, we must not be joyous; we mourn the loss of human life created in the image of God. As Shmuel Ha’katan, quoting the verse in Mishlei (24:17) teaches: “Do not rejoice over the downfall of your enemies” (Avot 4:19).
Are we then not supposed to praise God when we are saved from our enemies? Isn’t that exactly what Moshe and Miriam did at the climax of this week’s parashah, when they lead the men and women, respectively, in song and praise, declaring: “I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously…” (Shemot 15:1)? In fact, the Talmud relates that King Hezekiah did not become the messiah because he failed to sing praise to God over the downfall of Sennacherib (Sanhedrin 94a). There is a significant difference between these two sets of statements. God’s rebuke of the angels and Shmuel Ha’katan’s teaching are objective assessments; the songs at the Red Sea and God’s rebuke of King Hezekiah reflect subjective experiences.
From the subjective perspective of those who have suffered, salvation brings great relief, gratitude and joy. These legitimate emotions, thanks and joy must be expressed to God. To do otherwise would deny God’s role in our lives at moments when God’s presence is and should be most acutely felt. The midrash reminds us that from the perspective of the outsider, the vantage point of the angels, we must still mourn the terrible loss of human life. The death of the Egyptians was a salvation and, at the same time, a necessary evil. We must not allow the reality of one to negate the other.
In an ideal world, the death of the Egyptians would be unnecessary. When Rabbi Meir prayed for the death of his oppressors, Bruriah, his wife, chided him. We should not pray for the death of our enemies, she said, rather, we should pray that they abandon their evil ways. The verse in Tehillim states: “Sins should cease from the land” (Tehillim 104:35). Our focus should be on bringing an end to sins, not to sinners. When someone causes us pain, we are called upon to do a most difficult thing: to rise above our more vengeful and violent impulses, to see the other not as some thing that should be destroyed, but as a human being, with a precious soul, created in the image of God.
If this is the case, certainly, when we are not dealing with wicked people, Jews and Gentiles, we must treasure their lives and mourn their deaths. In fact, Tosefta teaches, “We eulogize and bury non-Jews who have died because of darkhei shalom (ways of peace), and we console non-Jewish mourners because of darkhei shalom (Tosefta Gittin 3:14). The term “darkhei shalom” is often understood to refer to an enlightened self-interest: we should be nice to the Gentiles so that they will be nice to us. However, a closer look at the use of this term in the Talmud reveals that its meaning is quite different. The Talmud uses this term, primarily in interactions between Jews, and its aim is not of pragmatic self-interest. Rather, darkhei shalom is an intrinsic good that the mitzvot are meant to promote: a healthy society free of conflict. More than that, darkhei shalom is a mandate that promotes a sense of membership in society, lowering divisions between groups in order to create a more interconnected community (see Mishnah Gittin 5:8; Gittin 59b). When we live among non-Jews, we must see non-Jews as a part of our shared community and act accordingly. In a similar way, Rambam writes that darkhei shalom refers not to self-interest but to the ways of God, the Divine attributes of mercy and caring for every human being (Laws of Kings 10:12).
There is one possible snag. The Talmud teaches a different approach when it comes to non-Jews who are idolaters, and directs us not to care for or protect their lives (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 2:1l; Avodah Zarah 26b). This restriction was observed more in the breach than in practice, and well-known sages, including Rambam and Ramban, served as doctors for Jews and non-Jews alike. Many Poskim resolve this based on a principle we have discussed previously; non-Jews are not deemed worshippers of avodah zarah, regardless of how their faith is defined. As noted, this allows for us to cease seeing non-Jews as the “other,” and, at the same time, does not compromise the taboo nature of other faiths.
If we must value every human life and if must care for non-Jews who live among us regardless of their faith, obviously, we must do so for non-Jewish biological parents. This point is made emphatically by Rav Ovadia Yosef who was asked about saying kaddish for a non-Jewish father (Yehaveh Da’at 6:60). Rav Ovadia begins his teshuvah by addressing the first question we raised: does halakhah take cognizance of the biological relationship while defining the convert as a “newly born person.” His answer was a definitive yes. Rav Ovadia demonstrates this pointing to the Talmudic statement that a person’s children continue to be considered his children for the purposes of pru u’rvu even after he converts (Yevamot 62a). While no longer legally defined as parent and child, the biological connection cannot be ignored.
In addition to the biological connection, the parent has also raised this child. Rav Ovadia states that the life and upbringing provided by one’s parents create a moral obligation to show that parent proper respect in life and in death, regardless of the parent’s faith or whether the child is halakhically related. “It is even possible that there is a mitzvah to do this (pray for the father’s behalf when he is ill), for behold, he (the father) brought him into this world, and raised him to the point of self-sufficiency.” As for kaddish, Rav Ovadia concludes that it is “fitting and proper that the son should say kaddish on his (non-Jewish) father’s behalf.” [It must be noted that the assumptions of gratitude and respect may not be true in cases of abusive parents, Jewish or Gentile, and halakhah is responsive to these situations as well.]
A similar approach should be adopted when it comes to sitting shivah. Rema notes that there was a practice in which non-immediate relatives observed a modified shivah (YD 374:6). Similarly, while there is no halakhic obligation to observe shivah in the cases we are discussing, one may certainly make the choice to observe shivah or some form of it that feels appropriate (i.e., number of days and practices). Beyond this, as noted by Rav Ovadia, there is a moral obligation to demonstrate gratitude. Not observing some form of mourning would be – in most cases – a tremendous act of disrespect. R. Yaakov Ariel rules similarly and adds that a child may tear kriyah as an expression of the grief that she is experiencing. The one observance that should not be performed is refraining from prayers and mitzvot during the period of aninut. Since this is not halakhically mandated mourning, it does not override one’s other halakhic obligations.
While halakhah tends to divide humanity into a dichotomy between Jews and non-Jews, it never loses sight of the inestimable value of every human life, our need to value and protect such life and the tremendous moral debt of gratitude that children owe their parents, a debt which transcends halakhic categories and divisions.