The Crime of Ignorance
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Admiral John Poindexter, the former US National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan, formulated the concept of an “Information Awareness Program” to better gather intelligence from the public at large. For a short time, he ran this new division within the Department of Defense. There was however a media backlash to the idea of public surveillance and congress stopped funding it about a year later.
Poindexter’s ill-fated idea gave rise to at least two notable items. The first is a slew of Hollywood movies and TV shows featuring some take-off of his concept either with a secret do-good mass-intelligence gathering group, or the more interesting ones is with such a system gone bad (either corruption, off-track idealism and/or technology take-over), which brings all the fears of “Big Brother” to life.
The second and more relevant point for us is the motto he promoted. According to a friend of mine from the defense/intelligence community, Poindexter had the phrase “Knowledge is Power” on his desk and this became the de facto slogan for his division, though in the fancier Latin: “Scentia Est Potentia” (see ominous logo).
“Scentia Potentia Est” (“For also knowledge itself is power”) was originally mentioned by Francis Bacon in Meditationes Sacrae (1597). Bacon apparently took it from our own Mishlei (Proverbs) 24:5:
“A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength.”
If knowledge is indeed power then the converse, ignorance should equal weakness or feebleness.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno takes the issue of ignorance further.
Starting in the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), the Torah goes into much depth and detail as to the different sacrifices that are brought to the Temple.
One interesting sacrifice that is demanded is for a sin that one “might” have done. If someone is not sure if he committed a sin, the Torah still demands that the maybe perpetrator bring a sacrifice as an act of contrition and repentance.
Sforno explains that the problem is not just the uncertainty of having performed a sin, but rather the potential sinner having put himself in the position in the first place. Sforno accuses the sinner (the Torah considers him so, whether he did the feared act or not) of ignorance.
By not knowing the laws of the Torah, a person is more likely to fall into error. According to Sforno, in Judaism, “I didn’t know” is not an excuse. Ignorance is not only helplessness or infirmity. Ignorance is a crime.
May we constantly cure our many points of ignorance, especially in the realm of Jewish law, and may our storehouses of knowledge always be used to keep us out of trouble.
To all Jewish womenfolk, who are so diligently preparing for the Passover holiday, with vast erudition as to the many and often intricate laws of having a Kosher Pesach.