Few things are more tragic than being branded a mamzer—a child born of a biblically forbidden union, such as a product of incest or a woman’s adultery.
Not only is a mamzer barred from marrying other Jews, the status carries over to his or her children and grandchildren indefinitely. Because of the intense shame associated with the label, many mamzerim (plural of mamzer) are reluctant to seek help.
How does this play out in modern day Israel?
The government maintains a secret blacklist that includes mamzerim and suspected mamzerim. To understand the scope of this phenomenon, be aware that the number of people on the state blacklist doubled in this past year alone. In an aberration from Jewish tradition, the rabbinate considers children with questionable or unknown lineage to be “guilty until proven innocent” and who must prove their standing in order to be eligible for basic civil rights.
This is where the Center for Women’s Justice comes in. CWJ is the only legal body working to reverse and eliminate the stigma of mamzer placed on Israeli children by the rabbinate. While both men and women are branded as mamzerim, the threat is especially acute for women who are denied religious divorces, since any future children born to them will bear the label, absent a recognized get (Jewish bill of divorce).
Several months ago, Shira (not her real name) and her fiancé went to their local rabbinate to register for marriage. Noticing that there was no father listed on Shira’s identity card, the registrar refused to register them, in accordance with internal rabbinate policies. Instead, he referred her to the rabbinic court for “genealogy clarification” – a polite term for “mamzer investigation.” Following investigations of Shira and her mother, the court legally declared Shira a mamzer and was informed that that she and her descendants may never marry other Jews.
How did the rabbinic court reach such a decision? The court pulled out the 25-year-old file on Shira’s mother. One and a half years before Shira was born, the mother’s first husband fled the country, leaving his wife with four children and refusing to grant a get. The investigation revealed that Shira was born before the delivery of the get. Thus, without any attempt to look for ways of avoiding the label, the court declared unequivocally that Shira was a mamzer.
Shira and her fiancé were heartbroken beyond words. Eventually, Shira found her way to the Center for Women’s Justice with her fiancé and mother to launch the battle of her life.
After some digging, CWJ attorney Nitzan Caspi Shiloni discovered that Shira’s mother had not married in a halakhic ceremony (in accordance with Jewish law), but rather in a civil ceremony abroad. This meant that from a halakhic standpoint, she had never been married at all and had no need for a get in the first place. Most importantly, this meant that Shira did not bear the mamzer status according to halakha. Unlike the English word “bastard”, a mamzer is not the child of an unwed mother, but rather a married mother who commits adultery. If the mother was never married, according to Jewish law, her children are completely legitimate Jews.
For further investigation, CWJ then reached out to the rabbis of the Jewish community where the mother had originally married the first husband. They, too, confirmed that no halakhic marriage had ever taken place between the two. With a solid case to clear her status, CWJ turned to the rabbinic court with all this information and requested that they review Shira’s case once again.
Throughout the entire saga, the rabbinic court placed one obstacle after another. The oft-cited claim that rabbinic court judges do all they can do avoid conferring mamzer status is a myth. On the contrary—not only did the court immediately declare Shira a mamzer in the first place, the judges systematically disregarded any of the opportunities to reverse the decision. CWJ fought back hard, persistently and unrelentingly.
Now, after a long and tense wait, the court ruled that Shira is not a mamzer and is free to marry. When CWJ called to tell her the news, she cried. The hell that this secular young woman endured for months, believing she could never marry or have children, is finally over.
This achievement opens up new doors—not only for Shira, her fiancé, her mother and CWJ, but to all women and men in Israel. In fact, since publishing a blog post aimed at drawing attention to the mamzer problem, four new mamzer cases came to CWJ. Knowing that there is an address with proven, workable solutions to the issue of mamzerut, those living in shame and darkness are able to come forward into the light with dignity. This Chanukah, we are reminded of the power of passion and persistence to ignite new hope even in the face of seemingly insurmountable injustice, one flame at a time.
CWJ's legal achievements are accomplished with the help of our generous supporters: David Berg Foundation, Jewish Federation of St. Louis, Jewish Women’s Foundation of the Greater Palm Beaches, Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, Levi Lassen Foundation, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and the Kathryn Ames Foundation, as well as donors whose general support provides a secure foundation for advancing our critical legal work. Their commitment makes possible cutting-edge legal advocacy, which helps secure the rights, equality and freedoms of Israeli women confronting rabbinic court injustices.