Saying kaddish for a parent is itself a tradition with no real obligation or, more accurately, that builds off real obligations but is not itself defined as such by the Talmud. The Talmud does note that the actions of a child can redound to a deceased parent's merit (R. Akiva teaches an orphan to lead services-- not kaddish, which did not exist at the time-- because he saw the father languishing in the afterlife without merits of his own), and also that children should spend the year after a parent's passing acting in ways that honor the parent's memory (such as by refraining from conspicuous joy, but also by performing good deeds).
When the custom of kaddish arose (late-- Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish traces it to past the 11th or 12th century), people assumed that was the best or only way to memorialize the parent, but that is not so clear. For an interesting example, Ridvaz's ethical will asked his sons to study Torah in his memory, and to only say kaddish on those days when they had already learned a certain amount of Torah.
That being said, kaddish is assumed to be a merit for the deceased, as are other good deeds one does. Some, who cannot say kaddish themselves, do give a donation to a person/organization, and this is assumed to have value. But that money could likely also go to other charities, with similar effects for the deceased. I would urge people to spend the year after a parent's passing trying to commemorate the parent in as many positive ways as possible, including, certainly, saying kaddish or subsidizing the saying of kaddish. But other good deeds, especially charity, as well.
The tradition of saying kadish for one's parent for eleven (not twelve) months (in contrast to only thirty days for a sibling, child, or spouse) comes from the commandment "Honor your father and mother." Thus even though one may have been personally closer to one's spouse, child, or sibling, one is obligated to say kadish for them for only thirty days after their burial -- although one may say kadish for a longer period, if one wishes -- while the command to honor parents requires kadish for eleven months. Ideally, one is supposed to fulfill the commandment oneself, but there is precedent in Jewish law for fulfilling this commandment through the use of your agent if you cannot do it yourself. So, for example, the commandment to honor parents also entails, according to the Talmud, the requirement to care for them in their old age, but if the adult child cannot do so (either because of work duties or because the parent and child continually get on one's nerves), then the child may pay for a caregiver (or, in our day, an assisted living facility) to carry out this obligation. Still, even if one hires someone to say kadish for one's parent each day because one cannot make it to the synagogue to do so oneself, one should try to say kadish for one's deceased parent in a minyan as often as possible during the eleven months following his or her burial, at least, say, on the Sabbath. Furthermore, on the days when one cannot recite the kadish oneself in the synagogue, it is appropriate to recite a psalm or other reading at home in memory of one's parent in addition to having someone else saying kadish in the synagogue. (You need a minyan to say kadish.)
Saying Kaddish for 12 months is a Jewish custom and does not have the status of Jewish law except in the way a custom, practiced for generations, becomes law. The tradition is to gather at least 9 other Jewish adults and recite the Aramaic prayer of God’s Holiness in memory of a loved one who has died. Many congregations and Minyanim (lay led prayer communities) accept donations in exchange for saying Kaddish on a daily or yearly basis for someone who has no one to say Kaddish for them or for someone who wishes to transfer the obligation to a community that meets daily in prayer. Since many Reform congregations only meet on the Sabbath and Holidays, there may not be an opportunity to gather a Minyan (10 Jews) to say the prayer daily.
While it may seem unusual to transfer the recitation of a name to a group of people who don’t know the person whose name they list, taking something personal and passing it to strangers, it may serve several valuable purposes. For one, the person who is intended to say Kaddish, and passes on the practice to a congregation, has the freedom of knowing the connection with their loved one is there whenever they tune in, as they return to work and ordinary life. Another reason to transfer Kaddish is that if it is known by a dying person, it may help her to know that her name will be heard daily for the next year. This transitional space, between life - and the death of memory that comes with time - is lengthened a year and possibly through eternity if the congregation continues to read the name on the Yartzeit (anniversary of the death) each year following. It is the practice of some Jewish communities to pass their list to another congregation if they are dissolving for lack of membership or financial hardship.
Finally, while “obligation” may not resonate with Reform Jews, one may choose to offer financial support to any Jewish community by giving them the honor of doing a mitzvah of remembering. In this way, a donation comes with a return action, recitation of the name, and both parties can feel a sense of “doing” for the other rather than receiving a handout. This mitzvah of remembering can be a continued gift in the memory of someone for whom supporting Jewish community was important. Reform Judaism teaches that "eternal life" is what remains of us in the memory of future generations. If a group of Jews recite an unfamiliar name, there is still an understanding that this person carred about community and that in and of itself can be an eternal connection.
Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. Jewish Values Online
N O T I C E
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN ANSWERS PROVIDED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE INDIVIDUAL JVO PANEL MEMBERS, AND DO NOT
NECESSARILY REFLECT OR REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF THE ORTHODOX, CONSERVATIVE OR REFORM MOVEMENTS, RESPECTIVELY.