Ask the Rabbi: How Does an Observant Jew Mourn a Non-Jewish Parent?

The Question:

Should a convert to Judaism mourn for his non-Jewish parent? — D.Z.

The Answer:

 One of the ways in which Judaism is uniquely different from any other religion, be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or even Hinduism, is that it is also the national culture of the Jewish nation. It is firmly tied to the ethnic descendants of the twelve sons of Israel, today principally represented by descendants of the tribes of Yehuda and Levi. Our liturgical, spiritual, and intellectual life is lived in the Hebrew language they spoke, regardless of the country in which we live.

Ever since the giving of the Torah over 3,300 years ago, Jewish descent has been determined by the ethnicity of one’s mother; if one’s mother is Jewish, one is Jewish. The reason for this is quite simple and straightforward: It is possible to know with absolute certainly whose womb the baby emerged from, while the identity of the father may not be so certain. Indeed, halachically the father’s identity is in the realm of chazaqa, a “presumption” that the woman’s husband is probably the father.

This halachic fact and the social realities of the modern period have resulted in quite a number of people who are halachically Jewish but have a non-Jewish father. This is in addition to the “naturalized” citizens of the nation of Israel, the gérei tzedeq or converts.

Conversion to Judaism is possible, much as naturalization in a new country for an immigrant is possible. Perhaps the most famous converts are some of those mentioned in the Tanach, as the Hebrew Bible is called: Bathya, the daughter of the Pharaoh who rescued Moshe from the River Nile; Yithro, Moshe’s father-in-law; and of course the Moabite princess Ruth, ancestress of the royal line which would later descend from King David. Again, uniquely unlike other religions, we do not proselytize and we do not encourage conversion, but the Torah permits conversion and so therefore must we.

Inevitably, these above two eventualities lead to a situation in which a non-Jewish parent dies, and the convert of course is confronted by the same emotional roller-coaster as would be occasioned by the loss of a Jewish parent. So what is he able to do?

The convert is allowed to engage in all of the customs of mourning which are common to the non-Jewish population of the country in which he resides, so long as those practices are not explicitly contrary to halacha, or Jewish law. Some examples of mourning customs which have been observed in other cultures which would be forbidden are self-mutilation, for example, or anything which would involve the recognition of a foreign religion or religious service.

The reason adduced by the posqim for permission to observe these practices is based on the principle of mar’ith ‘ayin, that one should not create a false impression. In this case, that would be that one descended from a higher level of holiness to a lower level because one has refused to mourn for the deceased parent in what the non-Jewish community of which he had been a member considers an appropriate fashion. Hence, such mourning behavior is considered ethical and should not be discouraged.

He (or she) is not obligated to follow all of the halachoth which would be in effect were he mourning for a Jew, however. Nonetheless, there is precedent for permission to do so. The Talmud records that when Tavi, the faithful servant of Rabban Gamliel, who was nasi or president of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisra’el shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple, died, Gamliel followed the mourning customs and accepted condolences on him despite his earlier ruling that one does not do so for a non-Jewish servant. When asked by his students why he seemed to contradict himself, he replied: “Tavi my servant was not like all other servants, he was kashér (‘fit, worthy’)” (Mishna Berachoth II, 7).

Based on this precedent, the eminent Rabbi Moshe Feinstein rules that one is not obligated to sit shiv‘a (the seven-day mourning period obligatory for Jewish relatives), but he may, on the presumption that his parent was fit and worthy. It is a personal decision (cf. Igroth Moshe, Yore Dé‘a II, 130).

As concerns the other customary memorial practices, specifically the recitation of qaddish — the affirmation of G-d’s sanctity and greatness which mourners recite for Jewish relatives during the first eleven months after their passing, and annually thereafter on the anniversary of death (called Yortzeit in Yiddish) — the great Sefardic poséq Rabbi ‘Ovadya Yoséf rules that it is permissible and proper to do so (cf. Yechavve Da‘ath VI, 60).

So the answer is that the non-Jewish parent of an observant Jew can be mourned in whatever fashion seems acceptable and brings solace to the bereaved.