Yom Kippur Sermon 5759
I am sure you have said it a thousand times, Ignorance is Bliss, Ignorance is Bliss. A corollary of this statement is that Ignorance or the lack of knowledge is an excuse. On this Yom Kippur as we Klap Al Chet for our sins, I would like to ask the following question. According to Judaism, Is ignorance an excuse for our sins? Is ignorance really that Blissful?
Allow me to focus the question through presenting two scenarios…
You have been observant for some time. You still violate Shabbat from time to time but not out of disregard or lack of commitment. But because of lack of knowledge. You simply do not know all the rules of Shabbat. Are you responsible? Or Is ignorance an excuse?
You meet someone new, hit it off, and quickly begin a friendship. A couple of months into the friendship you make what you think is an innocent comment but it deeply offends and hurts your new friend. Without knowledge you have just reopened a very deep wound that you knew nothing about. Have you committed a sin? Or Is ignorance an excuse?
At first glance it seems that Judaism strongly supports the notion that Ignorance is Bliss or Ignorance is an excuse. In Halakhic terminology there is a distinction made between a sin committed במזיד – intentionally (with knowledge) versus ones committed בשוגג – unintentionally (without realizing they were sins). Sins committed בשוגג (unintentionally) are not punishable. In practical terms this means that if I go out and commit a capital crime, say murder, I am only legally punishable if two witnesses approach me before the murder and inform me that murder is a capital crime. Without the warning, I can always say, I didn’t know murder was illegal! In other words, Ignorance of Law in Judaism, is a valid defense to any criminal charge. Ignorance is an excuse.
This is in stark contrast to every western legal system which follows the Ancient Roman Legal principle which states Ignorantia juris non excusat which means “ignorance of the law does not excuse.” Ignorance is not an excuse in every western legal system. Yet in Halakha, ignorance is a legal excuse.
Halakha takes this one step further. Not only does halakha consider ignorance to be a legal excuse, it even, on occasion, encourages ignorance.
The example that is found in the Talmud of rabbis encouraging ignorance actually touches on the issue of Tefilah decorum which is a subject of debate here at Beth Sholom. Some of us find a spirited tefilah with clapping and dancing very spiritually uplifting. Others of us believe that clapping and dancing are inappropriate forms of expression during Teffilah; especially during the High Holidays. Putting aside the issue of decorum and spiritual preference, there is actually a halakhic issue at stake. The mishna in Beitzah says: ולא מטפחין... ולא מרקדין – On Shabbat and Yom Tov, we may not clap hands…and we may not dance.
The straightforward halakha seems to be that clapping and dancing are prohibited but that did not stop Jews living in Talmudic times. They still clapped and danced. And whats more? The rabbis didn’t even stop them. So the Talmud asks, why are none of the rabbis rebuking the sinners who clap and dance on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
The Talmud answers and here is the important line:
הנח להם לישראל, מוטב שיהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידין
Leave the Jews (leave them with their anti-halakhic practice)
For it is preferable that they be unintentional violators (out if ignorance) then intentional violators.
In other words, it is better for Jews to remain ignorant and therefore give them a legal excuse, ignorance of the law. This is Amazing! This halakha actually advocates ignorance. Ignorance is not only a legal excuse, it is encouraged. Ignorance is bliss.
Before I leave this example, I do not want anyone leaving this talk saying that Rabbi Antine said that it is prohibited to clap and dance on Shabbat and Yom Tov. After all, I hope that before the end of this evening, I will be moved to clap and maybe even dance! So how can we do it? Well most commentators explain that clapping and dancing are prohibited in the Talmud because the rabbis were worried that if we would clap and dance we would get so into it that we might repair musical instruments to accompany us. But since we are no longer experts at repairing instruments it is now according to most rabbis 100% permitted to clap and dance on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
I would like to throw out one more halakhic example of rabbis encouraging ignorance. This one comes from Algeria, a small port city called Oran, in the 14th century. Jews first arrived in Oran in 1392. They were fleeing persecutions in Spain and the Muslims of Algeria were actually quite welcoming. A young rabbi named Rabbi Amram ben Merrovas Ephrati of Valencia arrives in Oran and he is frustrated with some of the practices of his new community. He writes to his teacher Rabbi Yitzhak bar Sheshet (Ribash) (1326-1408) the following question: In Oran, Rabbi Amram tells his teacher, the Jews have a מנהג רע an awful custom. Each morning of shiva they leave the shiva house and go the cemetery and daven at the grave. Rabbi Amram is convinced that this bad custom came from the Muslims. Rabbi Amram has told them that it is prohibited, he tried to stop them, but they are not listening. So rabbi Amram is writing to his teacher back in Spain, The Rivash and asking what should he do. The Rivash responds as follows:
First of all, what they are doing is not against halakha. While it is true that mourners should not leave their house during the shiva. But since these mourners are leaving to honor the dead, it is permitted. What about the fact that the Muslims do it. This is also not a problem for if we follow that logic that we do not do what the Muslims do, we wouldn’t have eulogies because muslims also have eulogies! That was Point #1.
Second piece of advice that the Rivash teaches the young rabbi is,
וכבר בקשתי ממך כמה פעמים לבל תדקדק לשנות מנהגיהם בדברים כאלה, אם תרצה לעמוד עמהם בשלום
“I have already pleaded with you many times to not try to change their customs … if you want to live with them in peace.” The Rivash is teaching his student that a new rabbi should not come into town and try to change everything!
Finally, says the Rivash to his immature student,
ואפי' בדבר שהוא אסור גמור, כל שאין מקבלין, אמרו ז"ל (שבת קמח:): מוטב יהו שוגגין ואל יהו מזידין.
Even if they were violating an explicit prohibition, Our rabbis have taught us that it is preferable that they sin unintentionally (out of ignorance) than intentionally (out of knowledge) and therefore you better keep quiet if they are not going to listen. Once again, our sources are encouraging ignorance. Ignorance seems to be an excuse.
All of the sources seem to favor ignorance until we turn to the Yom Kippur Liturgy. The third על חטא (confession) reads: על חטא שחטאנו לפניך בבלי דעת. We confess the sins that we have committed against you without knowledge. Out of ignorance. Ignorance is no longer bliss. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. How can this על חטא be reconciled with all of Jewish law which seems to encourage ignorance and deem ignorance an excuse?
In order to answer this question, I would like to turn to one more responsum, this one closer to our time. In 1963, a rabbi named Mordechai Telem asked the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein the following question that pertains to an experience that we all had 10 days ago. On Rosh Hashana before the shofar is sounded, the Rabbi usually announces that it is prohibited to make an interruption from the time that the berakha on the shofar is made before mussaf all the way until the end of mussaf when the final shofar blast is sounded. This means no talking during the entire musaf. Now apparently, Rabbi Telem’s shul had the same problem that we have. Despite the Rabbis announcement there is still some talking during davening! So Rabbi Telem wanted to know if maybe it would be better not to make the announcement. For if he continues to make the announcement and his community doesn’t listen, they will be considered intentional sinners but if he doesn’t make the announcement they will remain ignorant of the law and they will be considered unintentional sinners.
Rav Moshe’s response was as follows: Rabbi Telem should certainly continue making the announcement before tekiat shofar. Rav Moshe says that the rabbis only encourage ignorance when they know that nobody will listen. If however, there is even a possibility that the people will listen, that people will learn and change, then we must inform people of the law and take them out of their blissful ignorance.
This to me sums up Judaism’s view on ignorance. Ignorance might be a legal excuse but it is not a spiritual excuse. Nobody is expected to know everything. We do not know everything about halakha, we do not know everything about others and we don’t even know everything about ourselves. And when we lack knowledge we make mistakes; in ritual observance in our friendships (we hurt people). The question that everyone must ask him or herself is: Am I someone who is thirsty to learn more and change based on that knowledge? Am I someone who is content with where I am at, or am I always striving for more?
Allow me to conclude with a short story:
A Chasid comes to his rebbe and says Rebbe: I am not doing too well. My business just went bankrupt and I have no money to support my family.
The Rebbe says: “so why don’t you try another business”?
The chasid says you don’t understand, not only did this business fail but every business that I ever tried, failed. I am just not a good businessman.
The rebbe thinks for a moment, looks at his Chasid and says: “You always were a great student of Talmud. You are very knowledgeable. You work very well with people. I have an idea. Why don't you become a rabbi?"
The chasid sheepishly turns to his teacher and says: "Rebbe, you know the truth of the matter is that I always dreamed of becoming a rabbi. But I am scared to be a rabbi. Rabbis must make a Halakhic decisions for people. Rabbis must give people advice about the most important issues in their lives. A rabbi’s judgment might affect the destiny of a person's soul. I can't be a rabbi. I do not know all of Torah. I do not know everything about people and human psychology. I'm afraid I do not have enough knowledge to be a rabbi.
The rebbe looks at his chasid and says to him: Who do you think should be a rabbi. The person who thinks he has enough knowledge to be a rabbi! The day you think you know enough to be a rabbi is the day you are no longer fit to be a rabbi.
Just like the chasid of that story, we are not obligated to be know everything. But we must be prepared to work on ourselves. We must be prepared to accept the possibility that there is more to learn and that that knowledge might change our lives. We can never be satisfied with our lack of knowledge. We must learn more about our tradition about others and about ourselves.
May we all be blessed with a Yom Kippur of Teshuva Gemura, of complete repentence. A yom kippur where we go deep inside ourselves and discover areas where we lack knowledge that will transform us. And finally a Yom Kippur that leads us to the wonderful realization, that knowledge and awareness, in all its forms is blissful!