The hidden pain of mamzerim in Britain

The plight of those who bear the stigma of illegitimacy in the eyes of Jewish law is rarely heard


Their pain is largely hidden from the Jewish community, their voices seldom heard. 

But the “veil of silence” over mamzerim in Britain was lifted for one Limmud session by a researcher who is exploring the impact of the status on the lives of those affected by it. 

Emma Rozenberg, who has practised as a family and government lawyer and is now half-way through a doctorate at King’s College, said that mamzerut was “rarely discussed” in the UK “other than a side issue to the agunah problem” but deserved attention “in its own right”. 

A mamzer is the child of an adulterous or incestuous union, adultery in Jewish being defined as a relationship between a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man other than her husband. 

A mamzer may marry only a fellow-mamzer or a convert, but the stigma is hereditary: the child of a mamzer is a mamzer. 

While non-Orthodox movements have effectively abolished the category, it remains applicable within the Orthodox community. 

The impact could be “profound”, Ms Rozenberg said. “People I spoke to talked a lot about living with a sense of shame, feeling that they were living with a secret.” 

Some were “leading a traditional Jewish life within an Orthodox community… and grappling with what it means to be a mamzer in that context”. 

Others had “found their place quite comfortably… along the Jewish spectrum where mamzerut is no longer recognised”. 

But some young people felt “so angered and hurt by the way their family had been treated that they wanted to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish and leave the Jewish community altogether”. 

Some parents were “very angry in seeing their children in so much pain and feeling that their children had been rejected by a religion that they desperately wanted to feel part of”. 

Some remaining in the Orthodox world lived with a “fear of exposure,” she said. “One woman described to me her fear of her children being thrown out of their Jewish school if their mamzer status ever become known.” 

One problem “unique” to mamzerim was the difficulty in speaking openly. “Even if you as an individual are comfortable to talk about your mamzer status, you want to  aise it as an issue, you want to discuss it, what you are in fact doing its not only identifying yourself as a mamzer… you are potentially identifying your parents, or one of your parents, as a mamzer, your siblings who may want to identify within traditional Judaism… 

“You are potentially exposing your entire family line and there are very few people who are prepared to do that.” 

As a result, it was “very difficult for mamzerim to meet another” and advocate as a group. 

“This veil of silence over the issue of mamzerut is perhaps something my research can start to address by giving voice to some of these individuals,” she said. 

Almost all her interviewees reported that “the rabbis they had spoken to were very sensitive and sympathetic from a personal perspective and understood the pain they were going through. But several of the rabbis essentially felt their hands were tied and there was nothing they could do.” 

As part of her research, she was interviewing rabbis about about what they saw as the purpose of the laws of mamzerut. But she added, “None of the individuals I have spoken to feel that this legislation is any way fair or can give me any kind of explanation as to precisely what role it is playing within halachah.” 

For more details about the research, 


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