A mamzeir, contrary to popular misconception, is not a child born out of wedlock but a child who is the product of an invalid union, (such as a child born to a married woman from another man). Halachically, being born as a mamzeir is an indelible blemish; a mamzeir can never marry into the Jewish people and his descendants retain this status forever.
It is hard to reconcile our Western sensibilities with the idea that a person can be put in a spiritually intractable situation through no fault of his own. How can a spiritual value system judge someone by something out of his control?
In Judaism there are always two voices. One voice is the ‘feminine’ circle voice–—the voice which transcends externals, and knows that all that is important is one’s inner essence. This truth doesn’t care who your parents are, nor what possessions you own. It is not interested in your status or standing in the community—not if you were a born a Jew or converted, not if you are male or female, nor what flaws were passed down from your parents.
It cares only about what you make of yourself in the situation you were given. This is a voice which seems much more aligned with our perception of spiritual value.
Not There Yet
But we aren’t in that ‘feminine’ circle world yet. In the meantime, we are in a male ‘arrow’ world where hierarchy and status are the conveyor belt of progress. In a world in which there is up, there is also down; everything is not equal. We are goaded from behind by those below us and are motivated to progress by those above us. Good implies bad, purity implies impurity. We need these demarcations in order to hold up the whole structure; these value judgments have serious halachic and hashkafic ramifications.
While the ‘circle’ world is a world of ultimate truth–a world where a person’s status is based on his inner essence–the world in which we live is an ‘arrow’ world– a world of progressing and building in which a system of judging and grading is necessary.
‘A’ Causes ‘B’
In this arrow world we have to grapple with a physical reality where actions have consequences regardless of internal truths. For example, we believe in the concept of teshuva–the possibility of wiping the slate clean–but we also know that on another level, our conduct has ramifications that no amount of regret can take away. A person can apologize from here until next year, but the glass figurine remains shattered on the floor, the dead person doesn’t spring to life, and not wearing a coat can bring on the flu. It isn’t fair that a mother can severely harm her unborn child by taking drugs, or that parents can scar their children for life by neglecting or abandoning them, but wishful thinking notwithstanding, a person’s behavior results in consequences–even when those consequences contradict what we see as justice.
In the interface between the physical and spiritual world, spiritual wrongs also create irrevocable ramifications. Indeed, knowing that one’s offspring will suffer the consequences of one’s actions for all time slashes through all the warm, fuzzy proclamations of our liberal, relativist world view:
“do what feels right to you”,
or “its ok as long as no one else gets hurt”
or “two consenting adults”
and in a sky-high neon letters proclaims: Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
Having offspring bear the burden of their parents’ sin is not only a deterrent, it is a value statement which is impossible to ignore.
My Holy Soul
Still, somewhere deep within us, this world’s emphasis on status, hierarchy and judgement feels like it tramples on a basic truth, a betrayal of our most authentic self. We understand the reality of unequivocal consequences but we yearn for acknowledgement that the real me is not based on things that are external to me but on who I am: my hopes, my dreams, my aspirations and what I choose to make of myself. From under the surface, comes a subterranean whisper in our consciousness: isn’t the real me in my heart?
And the answer is yes, but not yet, and not in this world.
The Midrash in Vayikra (Midrash Rabba 32:8) sees a reference to the painful plight of the mamzer in a verse in Kohelet which describes the tears of the oppressed, who is subjugated by those more powerful than he. Interestingly, the midrash, in this case, sees the Sanhedrin as the ‘oppressors’ and the power they yield as the power of the Torah which says so unequivocally ‘lo yavo mamzer bkhal Hashem’.(Deuteronomy 23:3).
The Midrash says, “What is this person’s sin and why should his father’s actions concern him? [he didn’t do anything wrong and yet he suffers so greatly]. And yet the mamzer has no one to comfort him” [Even the great Sanhedrin cannot comfort him and waive the consequences because they have to uphold the law]. G-d proclaims: “I will comfort him. It is only in this world that there are gradations. In the world of truth, [the world that we are heading towards] it will be different. [I am with him in his suffering here and I will be with him then as well].”
Thanks, But How Does this Help?
Sometimes having pain validated –especially by G-d–is enough to change the whole picture.
In some ways this world is an upside down world. Its true. Valuating and judging are crucial in order to separate right from wrong and to keep our goals crystal clear. There can be no waffling here. The message has to come through loud and clear: betraying the loyalty which is the cornerstone of the Jewish nation leads to devastation.
But on another level, the [feminine] ‘circle’ voice of truth—whispers what we really already know to be true. Status does not necessarily indicate intrinsic worth. In a world of truth, we are judged not by the caste into which we are born, but by how we deal the cards that were given us. The Mishna (Huriyus 3:8) hints to this by telling us that a mamzeir who becomes a Torah sage is higher in the hierarchy than a Kohen—even while he maintains the status of a mamzeir and still can’t marry into the Jewish nation. There is always an outer voice and an inner voice, an external, public status and an internal, real-self essence.
In his letter to Ovadiah the convert, Maimonides writes: “do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created.” Maimonides concludes this thought with a verse in Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the L-rd’s and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Isaiah, 44:5). Some people can trace their prestigious lineage back to our forefathers. Other people trace their lineage back to G-d Himself.