The mamzer and the consequences of radical individualism

The will of Sinai. To our modern ears, this – like most punishment and consequences – sounds unduly harsh.  After all, what did this “innocent” mamzer ever do?

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Right way, wrong way, Torah way
Right way, wrong way, Torah way
צילום: INN:RS

I planned each charted course

Each careful step along the byway

And more, much more than this

I did it my way 

“My Way” (sung by Frank Sinatra)

How we admire the character of Frank Sinatra as he croons about doing it “my way”!  We admire his strength, his individuality, his ability to stand counter to prevailing sentiment.  He did his own thing and he did it his way.  Sinatra’s lyrics and his character captured the moment when the message underlying the unsettled and disruptive 1960’s – from the antiwar movement, to free love, to hippies and yuppies – became conventional.  What was troubling when done by a bunch of long-haired dropouts in San Francisco had now become the norm. Frank Sinatra… Frank Sinatra … was making the same claim and we loved it.  

America, certainly the American West, was founded on the myth of the rugged individual, the one who, often by necessity and consistent with a firmer moral standard, had to take matters into his own hands to set things to right.  By the later part of the twentieth century the myth of individuality had become unmoored from any foundational guidelines. “Doing my own thing” no longer spoke to any larger moral context.

The only framework and context was the individual.   A great deal of popular music became unmoored from tonal principles or positive message. Art no longer hewed close to Cervantes’ definition, to “delight and to instruct”. Fashion became more revealing. Movies became ever more boundary-breaking, particularly when it came to sexual situations and depictions.  Cable television was defined by greater shows of moral laxity in programming.  

Sex became more and more divorced from romance.  “Hooking up” substituted for relationships. “Friends with benefits” was weak on the “friends” part.

“Doing my own thing” became a shorthand excuse for all manner of less-than-noble behavior.  It also became an all-purpose explanation for parents as they watched their children engage in behavior they knew was wrong but felt powerless to address.

Daughter living with a boyfriend?  “Hey, she’s doing her own thing.”

Son disengaged with learning or shul?  “Doing his own thing.”

The greatest problem with this mantra?  We are not merely individuals.  We are also, and perhaps more importantly, communal creatures.

Because of the militant individualism inherent in the determination to “do my own thing”, people made decisions in a moral vacuum.  Choosing a career, leaving home, ending a marriage… just about any and every behavior was no longer weighed in the context of accepted norms of morality or of ethics or even of human decency.  

“Doing my own thing” allowed one – as it had for centuries – to fray the very fabric of our communal mores.

Of course, “doing my own thing” is really an illusory claim.  

After all, can one really function independently of the community?  Can one really abdicate his role as son? As husband? As father? Can one isolate his existence from his necessary membership in a group, or nation, or people?  

Can one really cut himself off from his intimate and fundamental relationship with the Jewish people? There is no “I” absent the “we”.  That said, there are very real consequences to the community when we elevate individual desires above the group and there are consequent consequences to the individual when the bonds of community are weakened.

We cannot ever really break free from our common bonds but there are consequences to the group and to the individual for pushing too hard in our attempts.  Ironically, our constant attempts to “do our own thing” herds us into a different, less uplifting group-think. When we are divorced from the holy community of the “we”, we are vulnerable to becoming lost in commercialized messages.  Isn’t it curious how so many of those who “rebel” end up wearing the same kinds of jeans, carrying the same bags, driving the same cars? Or use the same language to describe their “individuality”?

And we do this gladly, all in the name of doing our “own thing”!

We cannot truly remove ourselves from our communal context.  We can, unfortunately, substitute one communal context for another.  One manipulates us and profits from us. The other holds us in higher esteem.  As Rabbi Soloveitchik teaches, “What do we surrender to the Almighty? We surrender two things: first, we surrender the everyday logic, or what I call mercantile logic, the logic of the businessman or the utilitarian person, and we embrace another logic - the logic of Sinai. Second, we surrender the everyday will which is very utilitarian and superficial, and we embrace another will - the will of Sinai.”

Choosing not to surrender to the will of Sinai carries very real implications and consequences – to the individual and to the community.

Torah’s prohibition against the mamzer becoming a part of the Jewish community – stated in today’s parasha, Lo yavo mamzer b’kehal Hashem, gam dor asiri lo yavo b’kehal Hashem – is translated by Aryeh Kaplan in the following words: “A mamzer must not enter God’s marriage group. “Even after the tenth generation, he may not enter God’s marriage group.”  

The consequences in this instance are clear – the mamzer is a marriage outcast “to the tenth generation”!

This terrible consequence of course turns on what the mamzer is.  The Random House Unabridged Dictionary shows two definitions. The first says that mamzer is a slang term, a bastard, a bad person; the second, more exact, is a child born of a marriage forbidden in Judaism.  In other words, a child born as the result of an adulterous or incestuous union. Such a child, a mamzer, can never marry another Jewish person.  Never. “…He may not enter God’s marriage group.” 

To our modern ears, this – like most punishment and consequences – sounds unduly harsh.  After all, what did this “innocent” mamzer ever do?  Isn’t he being punished for another’s sin?  How is that fair?  But when it comes to matters of holiness and Torah, mere “fairness” is not the metric by which we measure.  The Torah’s lesson is clear. There is a consequence – and a hefty one – for “doing one’s own thing”.  

My good friend Rabbi Jack Abramowitz has a particularly powerful way to frame this issue of fairness, “…the nature of that [asking how it could be fair to punish the mamzer] is similar to asking why the offspring of two very close relatives should be ‘punished’ with genetic defects.  The reality is that some relationships create serious defects, some genetic and others spiritual. Just as people might screen themselves to avoid perpetuating Tay-Sachs and other genetic defects, they must strive to avoid polluting the gene pool with the taint of incestuous and adulterous unions.” 

In short, who I am is not simply a statement of individual standing.  “I” am also the result of who my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were.  “I” am also the result of all that they did. I am tall, or short, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, left-handed or right-handed because of the genetic nature passed down to me.  Likewise, my moral standing can also be passed down through the generations.

When an individual “doing his own thing” decides to have an adulterous or incestuous relationship, the Torah consequence is mamzerut.

To the dictionary’s definition of mamzer, the Jerusalem Talmud adds an interesting aspect, “What is the meaning of mamzer? Mum zar—a strange blemish.”  A blemish that Ramban tells us, “…signifies a man who is muzar – estranged from his brothers and his friends, for it is not known whence he comes.”

We should note that a mamzer does not vanish from the group.  He is not affected by any other civic disadvantages other than marriage.  (In our definition of who is a mamzer, we should also be clear who is not a mamzer.  A child born to an unmarried woman is not a mamzer. He is simply a child born out of wedlock.  But if the woman was married at the time of conception, or was “divorced” but had not received a Get, then she has engaged in adulterous behavior and her child is a mamzer.)   Think of all the women in our modern society who, as a result of “doing one’s own thing”, divorced and did not receive a Get!  She is, for all intents and purposes, still married. And any subsequent relationship she has is adulterous, and all her subsequent children are mamzerim!   

It is true, the mamzer is completely and fully a Jew; he is obligated in all mitzvoth.  But the spiritual consequences of his birth are profound. He can marry a convert or other mamzerim, but he may not join the general marriage pool.   He is counted among the community, but he must always be an outsider.  And it is then, when one is held apart from the group, that he feels the sting and terror of loneliness. 

The Mamzer, by his very existence, represents a sin against those laws by which God wishes marriage in His community to be elevated; that is, beyond the sphere of mere physical connection to another.  Samson Raphael Hirsch, explains that the word mamzer would be the term for everything physical, “…altogether having no free will, and mamzer would be one who owes his existence solely to the physical order of things but not to the moral, to which his existence is totally contradictory.” He is a mum zar, a stranger who has no home on the spiritual soil of the Torah.  He is the result of two human beings who sought momentary physical pleasure, without regard for any coming moral or spiritual judgment.

When I was a principal there was a third-grade boy who, having just learned to write, sent a note filled with vulgarities to another little boy who refused to play with him at recess time. Taken aback, I asked him where he had learned such words.  His reply was immediate and candid, “From my father, who else?” 

A crucial aspect of parenting is recognizing that whatever you say or do will have irrevocable effects on children; the most extreme example of this basic truth is the creation of a mamzer. 

Anything and everything that happens within a family structure reflects on every member of the family, forever.  Families are very much like philharmonic orchestras. Each family member plays a different instrument, often playing different notes or observing rests.  Each member must play his or her instrument and part while always having an ear to the familial harmony. It is that harmony which overrides. And it is only when each member surrenders his own will and desire within the family unit is the harmony pleasing and beautiful; only then is it reflective of genuine shalom bayit.  Only then can the family create a symphony that plays through the generations.

So, we warn of the terrible potential price for “doing your own thing.”   A brief, physical union which can bring immediate pleasure can also result in profound, long-term consequences.   Too often, the danger of those consequences land on deaf ears – certainly in those with a more liberal bent but also in members of the more traditional community, who seek to rationalize all manner of behavior that only a very short time ago would have been unanimously understood to be halachically and morally repugnant and forbidden.  It seems we have become more concerned about hurting people’s feelings or ruffling feathers and diminishing the message of, “If it feels good, do it!” than we are standing up for morality and spirituality.

Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks with moral clarity to this seeming uncertain generation.  “Rabbis are confronted with horrible problems – social, political, cultural and economic; problems of the family, of the community, and of society in general.  Consider the problem of mamzerim. The plight of the mamzer is very tragic, yet remains a religious reality.  No one can change this reality. Halacha has its own reality.  Neither I, nor the Chief Rabbi of Israel, nor the great rabbis outside of Israel.  Halacha has its own orbit, its own pattern of responding to a challenge, its own criteria and principles.   As hard as one may try to help to alleviate the great crisis emanating from these problems and situations, to rule leniently, there comes a point when one needs to recognize that there are limits. When you reach that limit, all you can say is, ‘I surrender to the will of the Almighty.’”

For Rav Soloveitchik only the logic and will of Sinai matter.  Each of us has a choice. Do our own thing or embrace the reality of Sinai.  Each has consequences. One is righteousness. The other…  

Rabbi Safran’s “Something Old, Something New – Pearls from the Torah” available on Amazon Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah: Rabbi Eliyahu Safran: 9781602803152: Books