The term mamzer has no precise English equivalent. Hertz in his translation of the Chumash renders it “bastard”, but clarifies in his commentary that this “does not mean a child born out of wedlock, but the child of an adulterous or an incestuous marriage”.
The moral difficulty raised by this law is obvious. Why is the child punished with severely restricted marriage opportunities because of the sins of the parents? Doesn’t this sidrah itself say further on that “Parents shall not be put to death for children, neither shall children be put to death for parents; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin”(24:16)?
In a remarkable midrashic passage (Leviticus Rabbah 32:8 and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 4:1), Daniel the Tailor clearly articulates this difficulty. He identifies “all the oppressed under the sun” in Ecclesiastes 4:1 with mamzerim, and goes so far as to take the “oppressors” mentioned in that verse with “the Great Sanhedrin of Israel, which comes upon them with the power of the Torah and drives them away”. Moreover, the Midrash reports that God Himself undertakes ultimately to allow mamzerim to marry freely within the Jewish community.
So striking is this passage that some have questioned its authenticity. However, Leviticus Rabbah is an original midrashic work with an author or editor, rather than a collection of earlier midrashim, and it is therefore quite unlikely that extraneous material could have entered the text. There seems little reason not to take the midrashic passage of Daniel the Tailor as the authentic response of an authoritative rabbinic sage to the mamzer law. Daniel shows us that fidelity to the Torah and the refusal to suppress moral conviction can go hand in hand.