There is a legal principle in western law expressed in the Latin phrase “Ignorantia juris non excusat” which literally means “ignorance of the law does not excuse” and which is commonly expressed as “ignorance of the law is no excuse” or “ignorance of the law is no defense.”
This very principle is included in this week’s parasha, Sh’lakh-L’kha (and elsewhere in Torah.) Beginning in 15:22, we learn how expiation is to be made for unwitting transgressions of G”d’s commandments through Moshe. I’ve written before in my musings (on this parasha and others) how this betrays an underlying assumption that there will be unwitting transgressions of the commandments. (As a side note, this makes it somewhat easier to understand how the concept of original sin became so prevalent in Xtianity.)
In the parasha, G”d presumes there will be unwitting failures to observe commandments both by the community as a whole, and by individuals, and delineates differing methods of expiation for each.
There is a subtle difference between the two, as translated by the scholarly committee of the new JPS translation. In the case of the community, a bull is sacrificed by the priest, and, as it says in the text, “v’nislakh lahem” they shall be forgiven. A priest also makes expiation for an individual through animal sacrifice (a she-goat.)Although the verb is the same for individuals, “v’nislakh lo” the JPS translates “that he may be forgiven.”
I won’t pretend to be scholar enough to challenge this translation, but I will point out that the subtle change in the English can be seen to imply that forgiveness for individual transgressions may not be as automatic as for community transgressions. Personally, I think this represents a bias on the part of the translators who wish to stress the communal as opposed to individual aspects of Judaism, thus making what appears, to them, a clear delineation from their understanding of Xtian practice. In my reading of the text it is not at all clear that there is any less of an expectation of forgiveness for an individual who follows the prescribed ritual.
As one who struggles with the exclusivity often found in Judaism, and our modern failure to embrace the concept of the ger toshav, the resident stranger, I cannot pass up the opportunity to point out how, in this parasha we read several times the reminder that there shall be one ritual practiced by both Israelites and resident strangers alike. Though it’s not the main theme I intend to explore in this musing, and I wrote about this just two years ago in my musing “One G”d for All” http://www.durlester.com/musings/shelakh5769.htm I feel compelled to write about it again.
Stepping back a bit in the parasha, to verses 15:14ff, we read that when a resident stranger desires to make an offering to G”d, they follow the exact same ritual as an Israelite. There are these key words in the middle and end of 15:15:
There shall be one law for you and the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before the L”rd.”
Read that last part again. “You and the stranger shall be alike before the L”rd.”
I have seen far too many intermarried families struggle with modern Judaism’s (possibly erroneous) take on this. I fully understand all of the arguments made by clergy and others for limiting the participation of non-Jewish family members in certain specific ritual acts. (See http://www.durlester.com/musings/shelakh5769.htm.)
To some degree, I find some of these arguments compelling. However, most of these arguments presuppose that one can truly understand what is in the heart and mind of the “resident stranger.” I know far too many “resident strangers” who are more Jewishly knowledgeable and more ritually active than the Jewish members of their families. There’s nothing in the Torah that compels a resident stranger to convert to Judaism. They are merely expected to follow the same commandments as the rest of the community. To those who would say “well, then they might as well convert” I might say that we must not be quick to judge what is in the hearts and minds of others. I have heard some very compelling arguments from modern “resident strangers” as to why they have chosen not to convert to Judaism.
Of course the waters are greatly muddied by the existence of liberal Judaism. How do we define the “resident stranger” in a community that itself has chosen to reinterpret, re-construct, passively or actively ignore, and otherwise conflict with the traditional understandings of the commandments?
I know that my opinions on this matter are conflicted, and that, in even being open to the possibility of full participation of the ger toshav in all aspects of Jewish ritual I place myself in a small minority of Jews. However, I also believe that the survival of Judaism may be very dependent on how we choose to approach the ever-increasing numbers of “resident strangers” in our community. To simply exclude them from certain rituals because they have chosen not to become converts may have a certain appeal to those who do not wish to see Judaism become a free-for-all. If nothing else, I believe each individual case of a “resident stranger” who wishes to more fully participate in Jewish ritual needs to be examined individually, and not by synagogue board policy or clergy decree. (I fully defend the right of all clergy to choose how they will handle such situations, however I do not endorse their various professional organizations or guilds imposing restrictions on their choices.) I personally know many non-Jewish “resident strangers” with whom I would be fully comfortable giving a full aliyah (even to include leyning.) I can’t say this is so for every “resident stranger” i know but that is related to the difficulty in defining the “resident stranger” in the context of modern liberal Jewish practice. The question I pose to clergy, and to all of us is “what we be our standard for how we draw a fence around the Torah?” or the even more provocative “do we even need a fence around the Torah anymore?”
Wow. This is not at all where I intended to go with this musing. It was not my intention at all to write about the “resident stranger.” If you look at the musing’s title, you’ll see my focus was to be on “ignorance of the law not being an excuse.”
What prompted the original title is something that happened to me just yesterday and raises this question: “What do you do when the person ignorant of the law is an officer of the law?”
I recently moved back to New York City. As a law-abiding citizen, I dutifully followed the requirement to get a driver’s license and register my vehicle within 30 days of moving to the state. I had thoroughly researched the requirements, prepared the necessary paperwork in advance, and was delighted when it only took 90 minutes to complete getting both a driver’s license and filing a registration/title application.
I should have known something was amiss when, in preparing to go to the DMV office, I read a note on the DMV website that walks people moving into New York State through the process of registering a vehicle. In included this text:
If you are a non-resident who becomes a resident of NYS, your out-of-state inspection is valid until it expires, or for one year after the vehicle is registered in NYS, whichever comes first. After the inspection expires, you must have the vehicle inspected in NYS. If you receive an inspection extension sticker at the DMV office, destroy the sticker.
The underlining, bold, and italics are mine. At the DMV office near the end of my transaction, the clerk gave me the extension sticker referred to above and I politely told her that I had researched the matter and my out-of-state inspection remains valid. She insisted this was not the case, and gave me the extension sticker, and told me to put it on my car.
Well, I didn’t put it on my car because it would expire in 10 days and I wouldn’t be getting my vehicle inspected until my MA inspection ran out in January 2012. I didn’t destroy it either-I still have it.
Well, yesterday afternoon I found a ticket on my car, citing me for failing to have a NYS inspection sticker. I should charitably suspect that perhaps the officer failed to note the valid MA inspection sticker, located on the passenger side of the windshield, though I’m not sure if it would have mattered if he did. MA does not use registrations stickers (you just carry the registration papers in the car,) only inspection stickers, and they go on the passenger side. My suspicion is that the officer was not familiar with the policy as stated on the DMV website (on two different pages, I might add) and also unaware that MA puts inspection stickers on the other side of the windshield – or perhaps he did see it but thought it was an MA registration sticker, being unaware that MA doesn’t use them. I’m trying to be fair-I cannot know what was in the heart and mind of the issuing officer.
I’ll fight the ticket, of course (though I am not convinced of an easy win even though NYS DMV policy is clearly on my side according to their own website.) Going through this maddening scenario did make me think of the parasha, and all this “ignorance of the law” stuff. I, a dutiful citizen, who made it a point to familiarize himself with the DMV’s (commandments) followed those commandments (though perhaps I need to make expiation for not destroying the extension sticker?) yet was nevertheless asked to make expiation for a sin I did not commit. Worse yet, I had changed my temporary status as a “ger toshav” a resident stranger in New York State by, in effect, becoming like a convert in Judaism – getting a NYS license, et al. Yet still I was being punished. At the same time, although I cannot be certain of this, I suspect that the issuing officer was not fully conversant with all the relevant commandments, and issued me a citation, requiring my expiation for a sin I did not commit.
The parasha is harsh on those who knowingly transgress the commandments. Such people bear their guilt and are cut off from the community. (15:30-31.) In the following section (15:32-36) we read of the poor fellow caught wood gathering on Shabbat. Because there was as yet no direction on what to do with such a transgressor, the community had to wait for G”d to voice an opinion. G”d’s choice: stone him to death.” Whoa. Hold on.
I guess the implication is that this man transgressed willingly and knowingly, but how can we be certain of that? The Torah doesn’t provide any background at all, and I can imagine all sorts of extenuating circumstances. Perhaps the man was feeble-minded? Perhaps he didn’t realize it was Shabbat. Perhaps he had a medical or psychiatric condition. The question also arises, what were the people who discovered this man in the woods up to themselves? Maybe, to cover their own sin or guilt, they conspired to make this other man a scapegoat?
This is a very troubling story. It’s not one I have used in the workshops I’ve done over the years on my favorite topic “Troubling Texts in the Tanakh” but I’m certainly going to add it to my repertoire now!
I hope I am luckier than the alleged Shabbat wood-gatherer in fighting my ticket, but reading this troubling story in the parasha doesn’t give me a lot of confidence at the moment. If this sort of potential injustice exists in the Torah, what hope might I have in the labyrinth of the New York City Traffic and Parking Court system? Wish me luck! I’ll try not to let this spoil my Shabbat. Who knows? Maybe I can be like Joshua and Caleb and ignore those around me who tell me it would be easier to just pay the fine for the crime I didn’t commit than to go through the process of challenging it.
Adrian (aka Migdalor Guy)
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Shelakh L'kha 5769 - One Law
Sh'lakh-L'kha 5767-Cover Up II - G"d's Scarlet Letter?
Sh'lakh L'kha 5766 - Another Missed Opportunity?
Shelakh Lekha 5764-They Might Really Be Giants
Shelakh-Lekha 5762-Minority Report
Shelakh-Lekha 5761-Cover Up?
Shelakh Lekha 5760 and 5765-Anamnesis
Shelakh-Lekha 5759-Do You Spy What I Spy?