A Lousy Excuse

June 20, 2013 8:54 am 0 comments

Participants of the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI) program study in a cave near the Madras Ruins just south of Jerusalem. Photo: Lisë Stern.

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” we are told. Try explaining to the traffic cop that you simply never knew crossing a red light was an offence. It won’t get you very far.

This week, we read the strange but famous Biblical narrative of the heathen prophet Balaam and his talking donkey. At one point an angel blocks the donkey’s path and the animal stops in its tracks. Balaam is frustrated and strikes the donkey. And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey and it spoke to Balaam saying, “Why did you hit me?” …And then Hashem opened the eyes of Balaam and he realized there was an angel in the way. So Balaam apologized to the donkey and said, “I have sinned because I did not know.”

So if he genuinely didn’t know, why was it a sin?

The answer is that for a prophet who is able to communicate with the Divine, not to be aware of an angelic presence right in front of his nose, is indeed sinful. A man of his spiritual stature should have known better.

There is no question that in many communities where organised Judaism is weak and not easily available, ignorance of what being Jewish entails may still be a valid excuse. For millions of Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union under an atheistic regime, ignorance of Jewish law and lore is, undoubtedly, justifiable.

But for those of us who live in Jewish communities that are alive and vibrant, for those who are aware enough to be reading these lines, surely ignorance as a rationalisation no longer holds water.

In our own community of Johannesburg, thank G-d there are educational opportunities too numerous to mention. Not only Day Schools for children but adult education programmes too. I am personally pleased and proud that Sinai Indaba attracted many thousands to come, listen and learn.

The Internet, with all its serious flaws and dangers, is providing unparalleled opportunities for Jews, even in the remotest outposts, to connect with their heritage. So today, while Jewish ignorance still remains Public Enemy Number One, there are thankfully ample avenues for Jews who were never exposed to Judaism, its teachings and its relevance, to become more aware and better educated.

I remember an advertising campaign that ran in the United States years ago for what was then known as the United Negro College Fund. The Fund was established to provide a university education to promising black students from underprivileged backgrounds. To this day, I can still visualize that photograph of a young man studying and underneath the slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

How many Jewish attorneys, advocates and judges have never perused a single page of Judaism’s grandest legal repository, the Talmud? How many Jewish doctors and thinkers have never read any of the works of Maimonides, Judaism’s great physician/philosopher? How many spiritually enlightened Jews who meditate daily have never been exposed to the teachings of authentic Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism?

Why do rabbis become Rabbis? To teach. The word Rabbi means my teacher. Sure there are many facets to a spiritual leader’s position but the main incentive for me, as for so many of my colleagues, is the privilege of educating Jews about Judaism – especially those who, through no fault of their own, were not raised with that awareness.

In no way do I minimize the importance of the pastoral role a Rabbi plays in his community. Helping people in times of distress, as on joyous occasions, can be deeply gratifying. Counselling troubled souls or ordinary people with moral dilemmas is equally significant. But the most stimulating part of the job for me has always been teaching Jews how to be Jewish. Sharing Torah and introducing it to the previously uninitiated. The privilege of opening a Jewish mind to the beauty of Jewish wisdom and to the eternal relevance of the Jewish way of life is what led me to the rabbinate.

During my tenure thus far I have officiated at many hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and, sadly, at as many funerals and unveilings. While I always treat each case with the sensitivity and respect it deserves and do my best to make these milestones meaningful rites of passage, my real ‘job satisfaction’ comes when a young person comes to see me for advice on how to explore his or her Jewish identity. Rabbis get a real ‘high’ when young couples take the initiative and ask for guidance on how to establish a really successful Jewish home and family. That’s a Rabbi’s nachas.

So wherever you are reading these lines, follow the wise counsel of Ethics of the Fathers and ‘Acquire for yourself a rabbi,’ i.e. a teacher.

In our age of the information explosion, ignorance has become a lousy excuse.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.