Kaddish has attained an important status among contemporary Jews as the prayer for the deceased, the uniquely Jewish way of sending off a loved one. It is not only a religious ritual but a cultural symbol, a communal act of commemoration and honor. Can we share that special prayer with those outside our faith community? Does it lose its special quality if we fail to reserve it for those with whom we share our faith?
The primary such case would be that of a convert to Judaism. When his gentile birth-father dies, may a convert recite kaddish for him? This is hardly the only case. Many Jews only know how to mourn with the traditional Jewish rituals. When a close gentile friend passes away, what can such a Jew do to express his loss? Kaddish is the natural outlet.
R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yechaveh Da’as 6:60) quotes two sources that are relevant to this question. Maharik (Responsa, no. 44) rules that you may say kaddish for a non-relative because the prayer is meaningful regardless of whom recites it. However, regarding gentiles, the Sefer Chasidim (790) says two seemingly contradictory things. On the one hand, he writes that you may pray for a gentile who helped you, basing himself on the Yerushalmi (Megillah 3:7) that when you mention Charvona, you should bless his memory. However, Sefer Chasidim also states that a convert’s prayers for his parents will not help.
R. Yosef quotes R. Aharon Walkin (Zekan Aharon 2:87) who rules that, in theory, a Jew may recite kaddish for a gentile. However, in practice this might cause confusion and should be avoided.
R. Yosef suggests that this concern was only relevant in a place where only one person said kaddish at a time. Now, when in most synagogues multiple recite kaddish simultaneously, you may say kaddish for a gentile without worry. Earlier in his responsum, when addressing the issue of praying for a sick gentile, R. Yosef dismisses the concern that the particular sick individual may be classified as an idolator. Say your prayers, R. Yosef rules, and let God decide whether to listen.
The same sentiment seems evident in his discussion of kaddish. It does not matter whether the deceased was Jewish or gentile, righteous or wicked. Say kaddish and let God decide how to respond.
R. Ya’akov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah 1:60) offers what I believe is a profound suggestion resulting in a reasonable compromise. He points out that the biblical source for the kaddish refers directly to gentiles: “Thus I will magnify Myself and sanctify Myself, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations; and they shall know that I am the Lord” (Eze. 38:29). The theme of this source reminds us not only of kaddish but also of another prayer.
The core prayers speak as a community: help us, heal us, redeem us. While individually we may be unworthy, as a group we deserve divine assistance. However, at the end of the service we move beyond our prayer community and pray for the world at large to recognize and worship the one true God.
This prayer, Aleinu, is a universal turn in the prayer services. R. Ariel proposes that kaddish be recited for a gentile specifically after Aleinu, both so the person not appear as an orphan and for a universal reason. As we pray for all people in the world, we add a special prayer for the gentiles we wish to honor.