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Moral Independence

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Being a Jew demands developing the intellectual and moral courage to live by what is true, even if the whole world stands opposed.


Do you think basically good, mentally healthy people could murder innocent human beings?

The film "Obedience" documents a chilling experiment done at Yale University some years ago by Dr. Stanley Milgram. It paints a sobering picture about human nature.

Volunteers are told they're participating in an experiment on how punishment affects one's ability to learn. They are introduced to a man who will attempt to memorize a list of words. In an adjacent room where he can be heard but not seen, this man is strapped to a chair, his arm hooked up to electrical wires. Every time he makes a mistake in memorization, the volunteer is asked to push a button that will give increasingly strong electric shocks. Just before they begin, the man warns the volunteer of his heart condition.

(Unbeknownst to the volunteers, this man is in fact Milgram's collaborator in the experiment. No actual shock will be given.)

The experiment begins. A few mistakes in memorization -- and the volunteer administers some shocks. The volunteer nervously laughs as he hears grunts of pain. The experiment's administrator, a man in a white lab-coat, encourages him to continue with intensifying shocks.

If everyone is affected by social conditioning, how can anyone be morally responsible for his or her actions?

As the dosage increases, screams come from the adjacent room, accompanied by desperate pleas to stop the experiment. He cries this is hazardous to his heart.

Yet this volunteer -- and the majority of other volunteers -- continue to give electric shocks to the point where they believe they've severely harmed the man. In many cases the volunteers continue to give deadly shocks even after the screams fall silent. When the laboratory administrator instructs the volunteers to continue giving shocks, they submit to the authority figure rather than defy him.

The experiment demonstrates that you don't have to be sadistic or deranged to put people into gas chambers. You can be completely normal and just not be independent enough to question the morality of what you are doing.


Without the strength to question authority and to resist the prevalent norms, perpetrating evil is just a function of time and place. How would you feel about the Nazi party i f you were born into a typical German family in the early twenties?

No one is born and raised in a vacuum.

Why should a 17-year-old German youth be held morally responsible for choosing to join the Hitler Youth party? After all, he has been socially conditioned right from the start to dislike Jews. He has never been exposed to any other belief system. All his friends are joining the Hitler Youth!

Yet the world does hold Nazis morally accountable. But why? If everyone is affected by social conditioning, how can anyone be morally responsible for his or her actions?


Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, confronted these issues head-on.

In a world filled with idolatry, a young Abraham reasoned there must be a single Creator of the universe, rejecting his pagan upbringing. He discovered monotheism for himself and embarked on his mission to educate mankind, risking his life in the process.

After many years of faithful commitment, God finally speaks to Abraham for the very first time:

And God said to Abram, Lech-Lecha ... Go for yourself -- away from your land, from your birthplace, and from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make you famous... (Genesis, 12:1,2)

God's initial command to Abraham is riddled with difficulties. Obviously one cannot leave his land without leaving his father's house and birthplace. Let the text simply say, "Leave your land and go to the land which I will show you."

Furthermore, one first leaves his father house, then his birthplace and then his country. Why list these in reverse order?

Break out of the confines of your society and re-examine the foundations of your convictions.

The Torah's primary message here is not Abraham's physical departure from his country. Otherwise it would have sufficed to say, "Leave your country." Abraham's challenge was to make a spiritual departure, to leave behind the influences, practices, and emotional support of his family and society in order to become truly independent.

These three boundaries (country, birthplace, and father's house) represent

three different spheres of influence upon each individual, in ascending order of intensity.

Abraham is first commanded to leave his country -- to break away from the idolatrous influence of his land. Then his birthplace -- to abandon the customs and mores that are instinctive. Finally, he is challenged to shake loose from the most intense bond of all -- his father's house -- his primal source of identity and self-esteem.

Surmounting this challenge is Abraham's first step in the development of spiritual independence. This is the meaning of the Hebrew term lech lecha -- to go to yourself. God is telling Abraham to strip away the outside influences in order to emerge as a true individual.


Rabbi Yehuda says: The entire world stood on one side, and Abraham stood on the other side. (Midrash Rabba, Genesis 42:8)

This fierce independence labels Abraham the first Hebrew, a term derived from the word "side." Abraham stood alone on the other side.

The key to independence? Break out of the confines of your society and re-examine the foundations of your convictions. This is the primary challenge for anyone on the road to becoming a true thinking individual. Because without verifying the validity of ingrained values, one can never know if his positions are correct.

The German youth and the terrorist are both responsible for their actions, despite their social conditioning. Instead of recognizing the necessity to question their society, they chose to remain passive.

God's first command to Abraham, and to every human being, is to become independent. We need to develop the intellectual and moral courage to live by what is true, even if the whole world stands opposed. Without it, we are nothing more than a submissive product of society.

With it comes the liberation of self.  


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