When a rabbinical student says Kaddish for his non-Jewish parents…

Having grown up in the Catholic faith, death, dying, and mourning were always such surreal experiences. Although one begs to ask, what isn’t surreal about the entire process for anyone? It always felt so awkward and inappropriate to leave someone, let alone a loved one, out in the open for the entire public to stare, gawk, poke, prod, and cry over. Despite mourners wanting and needing to see the deceased, the body’s need to be respected, even at the risk of family and friends not being able to see the beloved “one last time,” should trump any other concern. I always felt that we are at our most vulnerable when we are dead, and the state of our bodies should be protected from the public.

When I became Jewish, one of the many appealing aspects of my new-found faith was the respectful way in which Judaism honors its dead. I learned about the various stages of death, dying, and mourning. I learned that every occurrence, from the moment of actual physical death, through the preparation of the body, to the funeral, and the revealing of the tombstone were matched with an appropriate pomp, circumstance, and corresponding emotion by the mourners. There are various stages of mourning for the first 7 days, 30 days, 11 months, and a yearly reminder. Nothing is left to chance. As a Jew, the days of not knowing how to handle death or worrying about an open casket funeral were over; however the same could not be said for my non-Jewish parents.

This week marks one month since my father passed away. Being by my father’s death bed, writing his obituary, emotionally supporting my mother and sister, and eulogizing my best friend in a dignified and respectful way so that the public would not only know who my father was but how important he was to me were among the most difficult tasks I have ever done. Luckily, I had my Jewish traditions surrounding death and mourning to ground me in comfort and familiarity. However, this was not my funeral, my partner’s funeral, or heaven forbid my child’s funeral, but this was my non-Jewish father’s funeral. How would I balance my strong passion for Jewish custom with the needs of my non-Jewish family and completely atheistic father’s wishes?

Interfaith dialogue and interfaith services have expanded to connect many different faiths and families in creating a common bond where there was previous dissension, confusion and incompatibility between two distinct ways of life. I am always so pleasantly astonished to see this play out in the way interfaith families celebrate holidays and life cycle events, specifically around weddings. As a future rabbi, I applaud the impressive strides that Reconstructionism and liberal Judaism as a whole have made in accepting and even embracing the often difficult reality that Jews have married and will continue to marry outside of our faith and new members have joined our ranks by converting to Judaism. This reality leads to a diverse, eclectic but at times confusing family dynamic which demonstrated itself during the mourning process following my father’s death.

While I was free to mourn Jewishly in a private setting, there was little room for public Jewish observance. There was no Chevra Kaddisha (burial society) to wash my father’s body, no one sat shiva (the 7 day mourning period when family and friends visit the immediate family), and no one helped organize a minyan (a group of 10 adult Jews) for prayer services that enabled me to say Kaddish, the prayer that the immediate family says when mourning the loss of a loved one. The only time I infused my Jewishness was during the eulogy, when I mentioned my father’s acceptance and even begrudging respect and pride that his very unique son was becoming a rabbi. If it wasn’t so obvious, it became rather apparent that the funeral is for the dead and the mourning process is for those left behind.

Now that I have returned to rabbinical school, for yet another year of learning and spiritual growth, I realize that I have also returned to my Jewish family, the friends and adopted family that supplement the God-given blessing of my birth family. Now that I am surrounded by my Jewish community, I can say Kaddish every day, guilt free and with ease, which leads me to ask the question: What is the purpose of Kaddish, and how do I take lessons from my personal story as teaching moments for future congregants experiencing loss in a difficult interfaith setting?

When mourners recite Kaddish, they are praising the glory of God. It’s easy to curse God when a loved one has died, especially so young in my father’s case, yet there is nothing more pious and holy than to praise and even thank God after the death of a loved one; in a way it’s paying homage to one’s parents who taught their children to praise and love God even after said parent has died. Although neither of my parents are Jewish, I do see the value in praising God despite the loss of my father; my father didn’t teach me much about religion, God, and certainly nothing about Judaism, but he did teach me important values pertaining to work ethic, family loyalty, how to love, and how to be a best friend. For this, it is not only my obligation to praise God in reciting the mourners Kaddish, but it is my pleasure to connect the love of my father with the love of God. For me, reciting Kaddish is the truest, purest form of mourning my father’s loss and honoring his memory while respecting my own unique Jewishness.

While this experience is an 11 month process, if not lifelong, I am curious to know more about the obstacles and limitation of interfaith dialogue and observance. What problematic or confusing issues have risen for members of our State of Formation community around interfaith topics, whether personal, public, academic, or on the leadership level? Please share your thoughts!

The photo has been added by permission from this website.

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