…If it’s easy, simple, elementary, pragmatically justified – there is no need for faith… How does the sanctity of a Jew express itself? Through the interpretation of mitzvos… – Rabbi Soloveitchik
Rabbi Soloveitchik taught us that “easy” mitzvos don’t sanctify a person. They have no redemptive influence. It is the difficult ones, the ones that challenge us, which go against reason and even logic, that make the individual stand against his age, “contrary to my practical reason… a mitzvah which society does not accept, cannot understand”; these are the mitzvos which are redemptive, redeeming and sanctifying.
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In recent days, we have looked on in horror as seemingly devout but dangerously deranged and wrong-headed Jews have committed apparent arson and murder, one by allegedly firebombing a Palestinian home and bringing about the death of an innocent child and another by stabbing a teenage girl participating in a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. Pious, caring and devout Jews witnessed these events and felt the same revulsion and horror as the secular world.
These acts were criminal and wrong.
However, in particular with the attack during the Gay Pride parade, the Orthodox community absolutely condemns the violent, criminal act; it does not and cannot condone the behavior that the parade celebrates. This judgment, and it is a judgment, is not due to personal animus or some misplaced condemnation. It is predicated on the Torah.
Such a Torah-centric judgment no doubt causes real hand-wringing and consternation in a world in which “doing my own thing” has become tantamount to a sacred creed; a world in which the Supreme Court, secular arbiter, has concluded that gays have the same rights and privileges in marriage as heterosexual couples. Let us not forget that in its decision, the Supreme Court is functioning as a secular, political body. As Jews, we understand the Torah to be Divine and not subject to such politically correct interpretations.
As Rabbi Noson Weisz has written (Aish.com; Vayechi, Jewish “Rights”), meaning and “success” in the secular world is determined by the satisfaction of the individual. That is not the way that observant Jews find meaning, success or satisfaction in their lives.
While “doing one’s own thing” is useful shorthand for rationalizing strange, insulting art, shabby, revealing clothing and “free” love, it cannot erase the emptiness felt by parents whose children are so far away, or depressed children who long for structure in their lives; it cannot explain away shallow relationships and marriages that are unable to withstand the challenges of life.
These painful outcomes are, in fact, the direct consequence of “doing one’s own thing.” How can a society thrive when it is not only within my rights but it is praised when I separate who I am as an individual from my roles as a son, a husband, a father? How can a community survive when its members insist upon individuality rather than communal identification and responsibility? Can I sunder my intimacy with the Jewish people – all in the name of my own selfish individuality? Did Choni Ha-Ma’agal make any sense when he stood and proclaimed, “Where I stand is the center of the world, and the world was created only for me”?! What then happens to such key Jewish postulates as arevut and achrayut? What happens to the minyan and to the Jewish home and family?
Jewish identity exists in the continuity of community, in the chain of tradition. No link in that chain can exist without the links that preceded it or those that come after it.
Each of us cannot simply define Jewish identity. It is not arbitrary or capricious. It is, Torah-centered and often counter to the whims of secular society and its fads. No place is this disconnect more pronounced than in an understanding of mamzerim.
The Torah’s prohibition against the mamzer clearly states, “A mamzer must not enter God’s marriage group. Even after the tenth generation, he may not enter God’s marriage group.” He cannot become a part of the Jewish community. Period.
Such a statement rankles the secular understanding. What justification is there in “punishing” an innocent child “even to the tenth generation”!
A mamzer is a child born of a marriage forbidden in Judaism. As a consequence, the Torah teaches us that the mamzer can never marry another Jewish person. Never. Ever. He “…may not enter God’s marriage group.” To secular ears, such a judgment is unfathomable. How could an individual’s choice result in such harshness?
What does it mean to be a mamzer? The Jerusalem Talmud teaches, “What is the meaning of mamzer? Mum zar – a strange blemish.” According to the Ramban, “The term signifies a man who is muzar – estranged from his brothers and his friends, for it is not known whence he comes.”
It is important to note that being a mamzer has a profound and eternal consequence on an individual’s marriage status yet it does not portend anything that diminishes that person or his value to the community. The Talmud reinforces the idea that there is no personal dishonor attached to the status of mamzer; ruling that a mamzer who is learned takes precedence in matters of honor over a high priest who is ignorant (Horiot, 13a).
Mamzer then represents by his existence a sin against those laws by which God wishes marriage in His community to be elevated out of the sphere of a physical association with another physical being. Samson Raphael Hirsch, who often focuses on the etymological roots of words in explaining Torah’s intent, explains that the word 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 the result of a “doing your own thing” life-style, a product of two human beings who sought momentary physical pleasure, without regard for the future’s moral and spiritual judgment.
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To stand opposed to the prevailing mores of society is no easy thing. Those mitzvos that ask us to do precisely that are the ones that define us and redeem us. It takes little to say Kiddush. An important mitzvah but not a difficult one. But when the force of society is not only to condemn the violence of the attacker at the Gay Pride parade but to embrace the cause of the parade, it behooves the Jew to look to what God says, not what society says.
It feels ill-suited to our times to “condemn” an innocent to a certain moral status for all time. Is it “fair” that the child and his descendants should suffer rather than the people who engaged in the immoral act?
“Fairness” in this context is a societal construct. What God and Torah teach is what is right. And, in fact, we understand how our decisions can create ongoing physical consequences to an unborn child. Does not a decision to use opiates in pregnancy condemn the unborn child to physical limitations?
Is that “fair”?
Judaism, which embraces the morality and sacredness of life and not just its physicality, teaches that our actions have moral and spiritual consequences, not only physical ones. Families, relationships and community matter. It is not just the individual. It is not just “doing my own thing.”
A well-known author and family-life counselor explained the make-up of a family life as follows, “Our families are built much as a good orchestra is built, not with every member playing the same instrument or the same notes, but with every member knowing his own instrument and blending it with the others, finally achieving a harmony.” When one surrenders their own will and desire within the family unit, there is the perfect orchestration and harmony of shalom bayit.