Noah Excuses

We learn from Roman law that brocard ignorantia legis non excusat, ignorance of the law, is no excuse. The public nature of the law requires that it applies to anyone in its jurisdiction. This seems to run counter to our notions of what is just and fair. How can we be culpable for doing something wrong if we were never informed it was wrong in the first place?

A similar question arises out of this week’s Torah portion, Noah. This week we will read that everyone who did not make it to Noah’s ark was judged negatively on laws they did not know existed.

I can think of at least two answers. The first answer is to shift the role of the law from providing everyone with justice to seeing it as simply an instrument of maintaining civil order. The collective body does not care if you knew you were breaking the law, they just need to make sure it does not happen. But in the Bible’s case this is not a satisfying theodicy. The second comes from Dr. Michael Wyschogrod. He said that after the eating of the fruit of knowledge good and evil in last weeks portion, the descendants of Adam and Eve are culpable for basic laws. Since they could not abide by the one stated law, they became responsible for the yet to be stated laws. They took authority away from God, they are held accountable for knowing what is good and evil.

The Bible and the society around us seem to share the notion of ignorance of the law not being a legitimate defense. What I find to be redeeming is that Judaism takes the next step and demands its citizens to learn the law. Learning Torah is not just an act of piety, it is a means of preempting the next flood. The challenge for us today is that there is too much to learn. Even if I want to stop the torrential rain of destruction it is hard to wade through the torrent of data that exist online.

Today’s forbidden fruit is the fundamentalism that preempts having to deal with the nuance and complexity of life.  It is tempting to be satisfied by the sound bites that make up our world. We need to diversify our sources for information.  If we have learned anything from the Torah it is that we have to take responsibility for our actions and the knowledge to make sure that they are making informed choices. There are no excuses, the rest is commentary, go and surf.

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