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 Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    Lena Dunham Responds to Charges of Antisemitism: It was Just a Jew Joke

    “Girls” creator Lena Dunham responded on Tuesday to charges of antisemitism over an article she had penned for the New Yorker, saying it was all in good humor. Speaking to Variety, Dunham reflected on her “tight-knit Jewish family, where Jew jokes were part of the essential fiber of our communication.” The article Dunham referred to was called “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz,” with options such as “He doesn’t Tip” and “He’s Crazy for Cream Cheese.” Among Dunham’s critics, Anti-Defamation [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Former NBA Star Tweets Article About Jewish Conspiracy to Control Global Media

    Retired NBA player Keyon Dooling tweeted a link on Wednesday to a wildly antisemitic article that accuses Jews of seizing control of the world’s media and using it to promote their own interests. The article, published by an obscure blog in April 2013, highlights six companies it claims are owned by Jews — such as Time Warner, Inc. and the Walt Disney Company – that allegedly “control 96 percent of the world’s media.”  The post includes allegations of “Jewish control” and says [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    Rosh Hashanah Won’t Keep the Giants’ Geoff Schwartz From Season Opener

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz responded to an outcry from Jewish fans on Tuesday, saying he will go ahead and play in the season opener despite the fact that it falls on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. “Keep getting tweets about that being the first night of Rosh Hashanah… Don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you. It’s a tough break,” the Jewish athlete wrote, referring to the Giants’ on-the-road game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Sept. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    Jewish Coach David Blatt Has NBA’s Cavaliers Surging at Playoff Time

    JNS.org – When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes. Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in [...]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    Croatian Soccer Star’s Hebrew Tattoo Causes a Stir Online

    A Hebrew tattoo sported by Croatian soccer star Mario Mandzukic became an internet sensation in Israel after it was exposed on Tuesday during a Champions League match between Ateltico Madrid and Real Madrid A first glance, the tattoo, on the athlete’s back, might leave one with the impression that it was an unfortunate artistic mistake, since the Hebrew letters do not make sense as they are written. However, a closer look at the tattoo shows that it was actually written [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Theater Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    Why an Algemeiner Editor Wrote a Play About a Mass Shooter

    For the past two years, I have served as Opinion Editor at The Algemeiner. I’m perhaps most proud of the paper’s commitment to publishing diverse and opposing viewpoints on the controversial issues of the day. We pride ourselves on voicing different opinions because we know that most issues are not black and white, and because our community is better served by a public debate. In my life outside of the paper, I am a professional actor and playwright. And similarly, [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    In ‘America in Retreat,’ a Real-Life Risk Board

    JNS.org – “Risk: The Game of Strategic Conquest,” the classic Parker Brothers board game, requires imperial ambitions. Players imagine empires and are pitted against each other, vying for world domination. Amid this fictional world war, beginners learn fast that no matter the superiority of their army, every advance is a gamble determined by a roll of the dice. After a defeat, a player must retreat. Weighted reinforcement cards provide the only opportunity to reverse a player’s fortunes and resume the [...]

    Read more →
  • Beliefs and concepts Sports Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    Does Working Out With Other Jews Keep You Jewish?

    JNS.org – For Daphna Krupp, her daily workout (excluding Shabbat) at the Jewish Community Center (JCC or “J”) of Greater Baltimore has become somewhat of a ritual. She not only attends fitness classes but also engages with the instructors and plugs the J’s social programs on her personal Facebook page. “It’s the gym and the environment,” says Krupp. “It’s a great social network.” Krupp, who lives in Pikesville, Md., is one of an estimated 1 million American Jewish members of more [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.