Sunday, December 15, 2013

Something to believe in / Parshat Shemot

Before we wax poetic and pious in our vilification of the genocidal Pharaoh of Egypt who orders the deaths of the all the Hebrew baby boys, we might do well to recall that the Bible tells us that God causes, commands, and threatens genocide on numerous occasions. God brings a flood that destroys virtually all life on earth—human and animal:

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Genesis 6:13)

God commands the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites:

You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity… (Deuteronomy 7:16; see also Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

God threatens to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Samaria in the prophet Hosea’s disturbingly graphic description:

Samaria will bear her guilt,
For she has rebelled against her God
They shall fall by the sword
Their infants shall be dashed to death
Their pregnant women ripped open.
(Hosea 14:1)

It is but a small comfort to note that biblical historians assure us that the genocides of Scripture are not historical. That lets both God and the Israelites off the hook, I suppose. But why are these stories here in the Bible? Are they a warning to us? Most likely not, since God initiates genocide on numerous occasions. More likely tales of genocide, imagined and threatened, reflect fear, animus, and fantasies locked deep in the human psyche.

Alas the lock on that chamber of our psyche is easily picked. The past century alone has been rife with real genocides, rivers of blood, oceans of bones. In addition to the Holocaust: the Armenians, Gypsies, Serbs, Cambodians, Rwandans, Kurds, Darfur, and the Hutus.

What is it in us that makes it possible for a person to participate in carrying out genocide? And what can we do? In the aftermath of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel, psychologists asked questions about the depth of human depravity and the human capacity for evil. Eichmann claimed he was only following orders. Could it be that an authority figure could coerce someone into committing heinous crimes? Is it that easy?

In the early 1960s, Yale professor of psychology Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted his famous experiments to explore whether people can be induced or coerced into conforming to the orders of an authority figure to harm or kill another human being (please read about them here). If subjects balked at administering electrical shocks to another human being in the name of “teaching” him, the tester would employ a graduated series of scripted verbal prods, in this order:
·      “Please continue.”
·      “The experiment requires that you continue.”
·      “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
·      “You have no other choice, you must go on.”

There were numerous iterations of the experiment, some in which the “teacher” saw the person receiving the shock, and even held his hand down on the instrument that delivered the shock. However, the statistic people recall and still talk about is the “baseline” 65% of men (because only men were used in the experiment) who obediently administered the highest dose of electricity: 450 volts.

Prof. Alexander Haslam, currently of the University in Queensland, Australia, and Prof. Stephen Reicher of St. Andrews University in Scotland reject the long-standing interpretation of the experiment. They note in a paper entitled “Contesting the ‘Nature’ of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show” that Milgram’s conclusion,

“ignores copious evidence of resistance even in studies held up as demonstrating that conformity is inevitable…[and] ignores the evidence that those who do heed authority in doing evil do so knowingly not blindly, actively not passively, creatively not automatically. They do so out of belief not by nature, out of choice not by necessity. In short, they should be seen—and judged—as engaged followers not as blind conformists.”

In the final analysis, Haslam and Reicher tell us, tyranny “flourishes because [perpetrators] actively identify with those who promote vicious acts as virtuous. It is this conviction that steels participants to do their dirty work and that makes them work energetically and creatively to ensure its success.”

Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS, understood this. In his 1943 Posen speech he appeals to the Nazi soldiers’ need to believe in Nazi ideology in order to carry out atrocities:

"Most of you men know what it is like to see 100 corpses side by side, or 500 or 1,000. To have stood fast through this - and except for cases of human weakness - to have stayed decent, that has made us hard. This is an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory in our history… We had the moral right, we had the duty towards our people, to destroy this people that wanted to destroy us.”[1]

The Nazis who committed unspeakable brutality were not responding to authority and threats: they believed in what they were doing. Prof. Ben Kiernan of Yale, in Blood and Soil, examines mass violence throughout human history and identifies four ideologies that motivate genocide. While there are differing opinions on the ideologies he identifies and his application of them in all cases, it is important to note that the core impetus and justification is one or more ideology.

Recently, I was describing Milgram’s experiments to my friend Harry at the gym. He didn’t recognize the name Stanley Milgram initially, but before I could say very much, he became excited and cut in to tell me that in the late 60s when he was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University (approximately 20 years old), the psychology department paid him $20 to participate in an experiment. Harry remembers it vividly. He described the set-up; clearly it was a replication of the Milgram experiment, which was run at a number of universities. Harry said that when the tester told him he was to administer an electric shock he responded in disbelief, “Are you kidding?” The man assured him it was okay to do this, and allowed him to feel the first two of ten supposed levels of electrical shock. Harry insisted on experiencing the higher levels himself before he would agree to subject anyone else to it. The tester said he couldn’t. Harry got up to walk around the partition to check it out himself, but the tester stopped him. Harry refused to participate on any other terms. The tester announced, “The experiment is over.” Harry was certainly not cowed by authority but more importantly, at a time when, as he pointed out to me, New Jersey still executed criminals by electric chair, he could not possibly do this to another human being, seen or unseen, known or invisible.

Haslam and Reicher’s interpretation of Milgram’s experiments reveals an aspect of the human psyche it is crucial to understand. People will go to virtually any length for what they believe in. Our conviction and commitment, our willingness to go to any length is both our best and our worst trait. It is this facet of the human psyche that makes great evil, such as genocide, possible. But it is also this trait that energized and sustained Nelson Mandela z”l for 27 years in three different prisons, propelled him to the presidency of South Africa, and gave him the enlightened vision and raw courage to institute a new constitution and create the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We all need something to believe in—something bigger than ourselves—and if we don’t find something compelling and worthy, we will find something selfish and banal. Religion at its best (and in its only legitimate formulation) guides us to believe in righteous and worthy principles and endeavors beyond the narrow confines of ourselves, and emboldens us to stretch ourselves in ways we didn’t know we could: to pursue justice, to act with compassion, to respond forcefully when others are abused, and to promote human rights. This is not to say that only religious people can believe in something worthy. Atheists can and do, and more power to those who promote justice, compassion, equity, and human rights. Religion does not have a monopoly on values and wisdom. However, religion offers a wealth of powerful, spiritual, inspiring myths and practices, and a community with which to live them.

In one of Nelson Mandela’s most famous speeches, delivered at the beginning of the Rivonia trial in 1964 at which he was convicted of sabotage and sentence to prison for life, he said:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people…. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

We all need something greater than ourselves to believe in, something that makes our world better. This is especially true for our children. We need to raise more children to become Harrys; then we will have more Mandelas.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] To read the entire speech, go to and type “Posen speech” in the search box on the top right of the window. The first response will be a pdf file. It is available on other websites, as well.

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