Abraham & Independence
I notice that the first “command” given to the first Jew, Abraham, is to "Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1) Is this to suggest that leaving our hometown is integral to our maturation?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Where we live and how the people around us behave makes a big impact on how we think and behave. If people around us think powdered wigs and petticoats are stylish, we'll probably think so too. If our friends own slaves or believe in the divine right of kings, chances are we'll agree. And if people around us think religion is a joke and drugs are cool, chances are we'll agree with that too.
The first thing God tells Abraham is that he had to become independent. And to become independent, he has to move away from home. (Sound familiar?)
Dr. Stanley Milgrom once did an experiment at Yale University that became very famous. Milgrom brought two people into his laboratory; let's call them Harry and Jack. (Unbeknownst to Harry, Jack was really Milgrom's partner.) Milgrom told them they would participate in an experiment to explore how punishment affects learning.
Dr Milgrom: Harry, I'm going to take Jack into this little room over here and attach an electrode to his arm. He's going to have 15 minutes to memorize a list of words. Then you'll test him on them. Every time Jack makes a mistake, you're going to give him a shock. The shock will be a little stronger each time.
Jack: I have a bad heart. This isn't going to hurt me, is it?
Milgrom: It's all in the interest of science. Don't worry.
The experiment starts and Jack makes a mistake.
Milgrom: Okay, Harry, give Jack a shock.
Harry: You know, that did hurt him. Maybe we shouldn't do this.
Milgrom: Harry, the experiment requires that you go on. Please continue.
The experiment continues. Jack (Milgrom’s secret partner) starts screaming and pounding on the walls. The dial eventually indicates that Harry is giving Jack lethal shocks, Jack becomes totally silent. Harry is visibly upset, but goes on giving the shocks anyway, past the point where he believes he's killed Jack.
Milgrom's experiment showed it isn't necessary to be vicious, cruel, or sadistic to put people into gas chambers. You can be completely normal – but just not independent enough to consider whether what you're being asked to do is right or wrong.
"Independence of conscience" is an important part of how Abram's descendants (i.e. Jews) define themselves.