Friday, March 27, 2009

Guilt Incurred Unwittingly

In this week’s Torah portion, in Chapter 4 of Leviticus, we find the means to atone for guilt that is incurred unwittingly. For example, verse 2, “when a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of God’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them.”

It occurred to me that it is much easier to see how another person unwittingly incurs guilt but much more difficult to catch oneself. I am sure that my political and spiritual affinities carry with them assumptions about the character and motives of people who I see as a threat and that these assumptions are a barrier to performing some much needed tikkun olam. How do I get past these assumptions, not simply to atone for guilt incurred unwittingly, but to transcend it?

Verse 13 strikes me as especially timely because it is concerned with when “the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by God’s commandments ought not to be done.”

There was an article in last Sunday’s NY Times that described the divide between two philosophies of military ethics. On the one hand, there is the code of military ethics and on the other hand, the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who took his stand following a classical Hebrew text that says: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” Rabbi Rontzki wrote that what others call “humanistic values” are simply subjective feelings that should be subordinate to following the law of the Torah. And he has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred. It is easy for me to imagine how such a person might unwittingly incur guilt.

To be perfectly frank and rather harshly judgmental, such a person is the Jewish version of a holocaust denier. But rather than denying that the Holocaust occurred, such a person is denying that the actions that result from his own words are another sort of holocaust. I understand that this is not an evil person and that the guilt he incurs, he incurs it unwittingly. What I don’t understand is how he comes to see or feel the guilt; the gap between unwitting action and self-awareness seems too vast for me.

The specific commandments that one might unwittingly violate depend entirely on which commandments we value higher than others. We choose between the sanctity of land and the sanctity of life. Between the sanctity of Jewish life and the sanctity of all life. We chose unconsciously to hold one ideal and become blind to another. And, I repeat, it is much, much easier to see how another person unwittingly incurs guilt than to catch oneself.