Dear Tanta Golda,
Our rabbi gave a talk recently about “Who is a Jew?” and the word Mamzer came up. He apologized and said that this would have to be the topic of another lecture. The best I could gather was that is meant ‘bastard’, as in illegitimate. Is this really a thing in Judaism? Could you explain?
My Dearest Perturbed,
While secular society in the United States has matured, and illegitimate children are no longer ostracized as they once were, your question deals with halachah - Jewish ritual law.
According to halachah, a mamzer or “illegitimate” child is one born from an incestuous relationship or adultery and such offspring are forbidden to marry almost all other Jews, “except for other mamzerim and for proselytes.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 72b) Isn’t that nice, converts are allowed to marry the forbidden. Now to clarify: a mamzer is not a bastard born out of wedlock. A person is halachcally illegitimate only if conceived in an act of incest or adultery.
Reform Judaism doesn’t spend too much time worrying about this, “since it is morally repugnant to place such a crushing stigma upon a child whose only ‘crime’ was to be to his or her parents.” (Jewish Living, Washofsky)
However, we do not live in a world of Reform Jews and Reform halachah alone so there are some factors you should be aware of. First, (Jewish) traditional law does not recognize civil divorce, so a Jewish woman who doesn’t go through a bet din and get a religious divorce before remarrying, is still considered legally married to her previous husband. Therefore, any children of her second marriage would be considered mamzerim. If these children later decide to marry a traditionally observant Jew, they will find they cannot. This becomes an even greater issue if they move to Israel, where the law of divorce is overseen by the Orthodox rabbinate for all Jews, regardless of their level of observance.
Now my darling, don’t fret too much, they won’t see your marriage as legitimate in any case, unless overseen by an Orthodox rabbi. So, since your Reform marriage was never a legitimate one in the first place, there’s no need to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) and any children born of a second marriage are not therefore the product of adultery. Isn’t that a relief!
Tanta Golda’s point is, the status of mamzer is an issue for the Orthodox, an issue if you wish to marry someone who is, or if you wish to live in Israel. Hopefully the day will soon come when Reform marriages, conversions, and divorce are recognized in Eretz Yisrael.
Love as always,