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Grieving for a non-Jewish spouse or parent

An interesting but poignant incident took place last week on one of my favorite websites where the participants were discussing the new Orthodox Siddur (prayer book) that the Chief Rabbi of Britain recently wrote. The participants made comparisons to the Artscroll prayer book and the discussions suddenly took an unexpected turn—one that was surprising and tragic.

One of the forum’s participants named Mordechai wrote the following message about a conversation he had with a well-known Chabad rabbi in Florida.

My soul-mate and dear wife of more than thirty years passed away last Thursday after a brutal eight year fight with cancer. This has been devastating.

I approached a Chabad Rabbi just a few hours ago with the following question: “What Jewish prayers do you recommend for my wife; she was not Jewish.” To which he replied: “There are no Jewish prayers for her. Don’t do it again!”

These words sliced through me like a finely honed Samurai Sword. Momentarily a vision of a dead rabbi appeared before me. But with restraint, I said: “Rabbi thank you for your thoughts and have a good Pesach and left.”

So it goes. Well is it so then that our grand religion has no prayers for the non-Jewish deceased spouse?

As I read this heart rendering message, I thought about Martin Buber’s incredible little book entitled, “Meetings,” a book where Buber tells tales about serendipitous conversations with ordinary people that proved to be spiritual messages from God. According to Buber’s concept of the “I and Thou,” God is always triangulated in every human relationship. How we relate to the Other person we unexpectedly meet ultimately says something about our relationship with God. Although the topic of the original thread was an important and fascinating, I felt a voice inside me commanding me to offer words of consolation that might possibly soothe a grieving soul who was crying out for help. Technology has a great potential for holiness, provided it is used in a constructive and compassionate way. Mordechai’s experience is visceral reminder that one cannot ignore the pain of the Other, and conduct business as usual. After he thanked me for my words of condolence, I wrote back:

Thank you Mordechai for your kind words; your original posting about your wife’s death is a reminder that there are issues that are so much more important than the usual politics of cyberspace conversation. Yet, for all of its shortcomings, I believe cyberspace can create a community of friends who look out for one another and offer support, howbeit small it might be, to those of us who go through hard times.

When I read your story, in a moment of clarity, I realized that nothing else really mattered. Although many of us have never met one another, we feel a kinship with you, as I am sure many others here at website would all agree.

I hope others here will give you the love and support that you need at this time. Angels don’t have to be spiritual beings, as Wooly once said (I think), we are here for you–you are not alone. Please hold on those thoughts and heartfelt prayers, because many of us have crossed this bridge before, much like you are crossing it this moment in time.

As to the specific prayers that could be said, well, my favorite prayer for such an occasion is the El Maley Rachamim prayer, which reads:

God full of mercy who dwells on high
Grant perfect rest on the wings of Your Divine Presence
In the lofty heights of the holy and pure
who shine as the brightness of the heavens
to the soul of (mention the name of your beloved wife) __________
who has gone to her eternal rest
as all her family and friends
pray for the spiritual elevation of her soul.

May her resting place shall be in the Garden of Eden.

May the Master of mercy will care for her under the protection of His wings for all eternity. And bind her soul in the bond of everlasting life.

The Lord is her inheritance; may she know only eternal peace, in a realm where we are never any less than what we are at our best, blessed with the fullness of being, surrounded by God’s love now and forever and let us say Amen.

At every Yahrzeit minyan we conduct, I always conclude with the El Maley Prayer; I will say it even if we do not have a minyan, since this is a prayer that does not require a minyan. More importantly, unlike the Kaddish that is a generic prayer, the El Maley Rachameem Prayer is person specific, which in my view, makes it vastly superior to the Kaddish Prayer for that particular reason.

In my subsequent communications with Mordechai, I added:

I would also add that a Kaddish can certainly be said for a righteous gentile or a gentile parent (cf. Responsa of Yahavah Da’at 6:60; Leket Hakdama HaHadash c. 46-87, p. 316)), or one of the truly good and pious people of the world. Incidentally, the Halacha is very clear that a Jewish person may say Kaddish for a righteous and decent non-Jewish person; many Jews have done so especially for those fine and decent people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Sanctifying God’s Name is not limited to only Jews; the morally decent people of all faiths have a share in the world to come and are worthy of being remembered through the recitation of the Kaddish Prayer. More specifically, since this non-Jewish spouse supported her husband’s willingness to observe the Jewish faith, this too makes her worthy of being remembered through the Kaddish Prayer. Over the years I have personally seen many non-Jewish parents display remarkable sensitivity and commitment in raising their children with a strong Jewish education, while supporting the father’s desire to convert his children to Judaism.

Shortly after writing my initial response, I spoke to a leading Chabad rabbi I have known since my teen years in New York; he too was shocked by the rabbi’s utter lack of humanity. What the Florida Chabad rabbi said was heartless and goes against the ethics and ethos of our faith. I will keep you and your wife in my prayers; holidays are always difficult whenever someone has lost a loved one. I hope that you will stay with some friends over the Pesach holiday, so you will not have to be alone. A good friend is worth more than all the gold in the world.

May God fill you with solace and comfort during these difficult days ahead. May God grant you comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.