Interfaith Mourning Issues: A Reconstructionist Approach

By Rabbi Richard Hirsh


The following material is excerpted from the pamphlet “The Journey of Mourning: A Reconstructionist Guide” written by Rabbi Richard Hirsh and published by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), 1299 Church Road, Wyncote, PA. 19095; . (c) 2001, Rabbi Richard Hirsh.

Interfaith Issues
In view of the changing demography of the Jewish community, with increasing numbers of intermarried and conversionary families welcomed into our congregations, a series of questions arises regarding mourning practices. In view of the complex and highly personal nature of these issues as they occur in individual families, it is helpful to consult with a rabbi when making decisions about observances of mourning. While the evolution of community customs and norms in this area are still very much in process, the following guidelines reflect an emerging sense of how to respond sensitively to interfaith issues of Jewish rituals for mourning.

* Mourning for Non-Jews: The question of whether Jews are obligated to observe mourning practices for non-Jews has received consideration in traditional Jewish sources primarily regarding the obligations that converts to Judaism have to mourn the death of their (non-Jewish) parents (and by extension, other first-degree relatives). The majority of opinions indicate that while a convert to Judaism has no obligation to observe traditional Jewish mourning practices, including Kaddish, for her/his parents, the convert may certainly do so if s/he wishes. A minority perspective suggests that such observance might be mandatory rather than optional.

It can be deduced from this reasoning that a Jewish spouse might not be obligated to observe traditional mourning practices for a non-Jewish partner but would certainly not be prohibited from doing so.

The assumptions behind this reasoning are not necessarily shared by contemporary Jews. Whereas traditional Jewish law focused on the religious identity of the deceased, Reconstructionist Jews would more likely focus on the emotional and spiritual needs of the surviving family members. The resources of Jewish tradition should help Jews throughout the period of loss and mourning. When the non-Jewish spouse/partner in an interfaith marriage dies, it is entirely appropriate for the surviving Jewish spouse/partner to observe the rituals of mourning. For these reasons, Reconstructionist Judaism encourages converts to observe Jewish mourning practices for their non-Jewish relatives.

* Non-Jews Mourning: When a non-Jewish spouse/partner experiences the death of a Jewish spouse, the circumstances can be more complex. The non-Jewish spouse/partner may want a high degree of involvement with Jewish ritual, or, conversely, may not want to be under the presumption of participating in specifically Jewish observances.

The degree to which a non-Jew chooses to participate in Jewish rituals of mourning will vary. If the non-Jewish spouse/partner is an active and/or affirming member of another religious community, s/he presumably participates in the rituals and traditions of that faith community as they pertain to and help support mourners, and will look primarily to that community at a time of loss.

When the non-Jewish spouse/partner is not active in or affirming of another religious tradition, the synagogue may in fact be his/her sole religious community, notwithstanding that s/he has never converted to Judaism. A community should show support for this member as it would for any other member. There may be adaptations and/or modifications of Jewish mourning practices. For example, at a shiva, or traditional seven days of mourning after burial during which a family in mourning receives condolence calls, observance there may or may not be a recitation of the Jewish evening prayers; if there is, the surviving spouse may or may not recite Kaddish, a prayer extolling God that is traditionally recited by mourners, but the Jewish members of the congregation present should do so as a way of the community mourning the loss.

Non-Jews are not under a presumption of obligation with regard to mitzvoth, or commanded good deeds.. They need not take on specifically Jewish observances, such as keriah, the tearing of one’s garment or wearing a black ribbon pinned to one’s lapel to symbolize grief, and Kaddish. However, consider the example of a family with a Jewish father, non-Jewish mother and Jewish children. If the husband dies and the children (and other Jewish family members) are observing rituals of mourning while the wife is not, she would perhaps rightly feel excluded at a significant emotional moment in the life of the family. From that perspective, wearing a torn garment or a keriah ribbon and joining the recitation of the Kaddish might be appropriate.

In general, non-Jews in Reconstructionist communities would be encouraged to share in the rituals of mourning that are in the realm of custom (as examples: placing earth in a grave, washing hands on returning from the cemetery, sitting on low stools during shiva) while considering the appropriateness of sharing rituals that specifically presume Jewish identity (as examples: reciting Kaddish, or the benediction for the keriah).


About Rabbi Richard Hirsh

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.