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Moral Independence

Moral Independence

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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Visitor Comments: 9

(9) sonia, May 20, 2017 1:57 AM

It is very difficult to go against the mainstream.

When the mainstream says something, it is really very difficult to stand apart. To say change sex operatrion is just mutilation because the body wil still be xy in every cell... or to say that instead of abortion we should focus in embryo donation... or to say that drugs stop you from being happy... is just scientific evidence, but people around you look at you as if you were some kind of fascist... just because you think different...

(8) Goldstein, April 10, 2013 12:48 AM

If it is to be, it's up to me! Remember your humanity, forget the rest!

Very worthy example of how easily humanity can take the wrong path. Everyone is born innocent and must take responsibility for their own actions.

(7) Howard Friedman, November 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Brilliant writing.

I found this writing very inspirational. Have the courage to pursue that which is morally virtuous, despite adversity. This is a message which needs to be widely disseminated. Thank you for your wonderful insight.

(6) Kevin, November 10, 2005 12:00 AM

i enjoyed this

I say in this life is not easy put knowing how to better your self mind body spirit gives it hope.For abraham to leave and go to a differt country he must of tried to help his own people first before he went.

(5) Joe, November 9, 2005 12:00 AM

This has always been at the heart of jewsih virtue for me.

I remember my Nana used to say "be a mensch." I remember asking her what a mensch was when I was very little.

She told me that a mensch was a man. Then she said that being a man is a different thing than being a male who got old.

"Men" she said, "do what is right - even if they have to suffer for it." A hero (of either gender) is one who makes a stand when things look impossible. No one is a hero for eating chips in front of the tele. The hero is a hero because they mastered themselves and their own fears and weaknessess and tried anyway.
In a very real sense, Lech Lecha is the original "we go to the moon and the other thing not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

I've often wondered at Lech Lecha and the courage it would have taken Avraham Avinu to have at that point. Like all people I would like to believe that if tested, I could pull a little of the fundemental courage of my ancestor Avraham out of myself.

The point is and always was one of conviction. I believe that we Jews have a strong measure of virtue by dint of this example. We have always, through our entire history been the group that stands by the ways of Hashem, no matter what is thrown at us and no matter what the cost.

There is much written in Jewish literature about America being a place to loose one's faith. The temptations are strong. But then again, try being the only Jewish child in class in a town where the graffitti is "Jesus Saves." It is possible to come out the other side of that and *know* that you are a Jew in the positive sense. You have made your stand. You did not go with the others, and you are the child of your father Avraham.

But what do you do with your grit?

You "do the right thing."

It is because of that early experience that so many of us in America have always stood for the rights of others. That of course is the other half of Avraham. He would argue with the creator of the universe to save others.

This is all a long way of saying that to be a Jew is to have the courage to be a Jew in the face of anything or anyone.

Be well,

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