CCAR RESPONSA

Contemporary American Reform Responsa

123. Incest and Parental Responsibilities

QUESTION: What is the duty of young parents toward their dying father who was guilty of incest with his granddaughter? This tragic incident occurred four years ago. Both the family and the youngster have been helped psychologically in the interval. Are the parents required to recite qaddish and in any other way honor him or his memory?

ANSWER: The question which you have asked is, of course, especially tragic as family ties and many early childhood memories have been permanently destroyed. The obligation of children toward an evil parent has been discussed since Talmudic times; a division of opinion is found in some discussions, which are incidental to other matters (Yeb. 22a f; B. K. 94b; San. 85a; Kid 32a). By medieval times there was a clear division of opinion between Maimonides and Alfasi on the one hand, and the exegetes of Northern France (Rashi and the Tosafists) on the other. Maimonides and Alfasi felt that the obligation of children to honor their parents was biological and had nothing to do with the moral status of the parents (Yad Hil. Mamrin 6.8 ff; Alfas to Yeb. 22b). Rashi and Rabenu Tam felt that honor depended on the moral status of the parent and a wicked parent need not be honored (Commentaries to Yeb. 22b; San. 85b; Mak. 12b). In each of these instances the medieval authorities dealt with parents who were considered absolutely wicked and not individuals who had sinned in a minor way (Maimonides Sefer Hahinukh 48; Moses of Coucey S'mag Lo Taaseh 219; Yad Hil. Malveh Veloveh 4.4). In the medieval period, such individuals, of course, included apostates (David Hakohen Responsa Radak Bayit 11.1 -2).

The Shulhan Arukh continued this division of opinion, so Caro insisted that honor due to a parent was biological, while Isserles felt that it is dependent upon the moral status of the parents (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 240.18, 241.4). In the final analysis tradition would require qaddish even for convicted criminals (see "Reciting Qaddish for a Convicted Criminal") as death brought atonement and qaddish added to such atonement (San. 44a, 56a, 104a).

As you have asked specifically about qaddish, we must ask what additional purpose it serves in our age. We normally recite qaddish in order to overcome our sorrow and to make us feel at peace again with God and the world around us (see W. Jacob, American Reform Responsa, #117). In this instance, upon the father's death it will not only be necessary to make peace with religious feelings about God, but also with the feelings toward the father and the memories of the past. The recital of the qaddish should help in this regard. Therefore, despite all personal bitterness and the division of opinion in our tradition on this matter, the recital of the qaddish upon the father's death would be appropriate and should be beneficial.

July 1984

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