Judaism: Misunderstanding the Mamzer
Rabbi Dr Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
Much misunderstanding surrounds the law in this week’s sidra that says lo yavo mamzer bik’hal HaShem – “A mamzer shall not enter the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:3).
The English translations call a mamzer a bastard, which wrongly gives the impression that the mamzer is a child born out of wedlock. In Jewish law the term applies to the child of parents who could never marry each other, either because of adultery (where the union is between a married woman and a man other than her husband) or incest.
The child born to parents who were not but could legally have been married to each other is not a mamzer.
A second misapprehension applies to the words “shall not enter the congregation of the Lord”. The phrase does not imply that the child is not Jewish, or that if a male he could not be counted towards a minyan, or that he was debarred from holding communal office.
A mamzer’s only (though serious) impediment is that he or she may not marry a non-mamzer.
Obviously the child is suffering for the sins of the parents, and the halakhah uses every possible leniency in applying the law, but prevention is better than cure, and couples who think of breaking the law should clearly think again.
A section of this week’s reading (Deut. 24) describes the procedure of divorce.
Of course there was a time when people used to say that divorce hardly ever happened among Jews, though the evidence may have to do with social attitudes. When being divorced was associated with stigma, it may be that many marriages – Jewish and general – limped along in order to avoid the stigma.
The liberalisation of the divorce law has made a considerable difference.
People also say that once upon a time there was hardly any divorce amongst orthodox Jews. The evidence is anecdotal, but it could well be that in homes where Jewish law and observance were central to the couple’s way of living they had a greater sense of partnership.
Statistically, there is certainly divorce amongst the orthodox these days, but there probably are no figures correlating divorce to degree of religious observance (Personally I made an attempt at compiling such material in my days with the Sydney Beth Din, but the task was too complicated and I had to abandon it).
If it seems that the numbers of orthodox couples who divorce have risen, it might be that the fluidity of non-orthodox relationships has by-passed most of the orthodox community and it only looks as though the orthodox have more divorces because they generally take for granted that a relationship needs formalisation and if it, God forbid, breaks down, the closure also needs an act of formalisation.
More important, however, than any of the statistics is the significant phenomenon of orthodox synagogues, rabbis and institutions working harder than ever before to prepare couples for marriage and to help them work through any difficulties that might arise.