Behavior With No Reason Other Than “Everyone Else Is Doing It”
by Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen ©2022
“The crowd is untruth.” – Søren Kierkegaard
“You shall not follow a crowd to do wrong.” – Moses, Exodus 23:2
It’s Halloween again. The 31 October 2022 issue of “The New Yorker” magazine shows a pool of very “normal” people in Manhattan’s Grand Central Station – a rather elite environment – walking around “normally,” except for being dressed as witches, warlocks, zombies, and the occasional robot or alien. The humor in this cover art is the highly elite and erudite background of Grand Central Station, a miracle of human engineering and careful contemplation, filled with people acting en masse totally irrationally.
People are doing what everyone else is doing, and dressing as proponents of witchcraft, sorcery, star reading, and necromancy.
Why are even intelligent, rational people doing this?
Even many of our fellow-Jews are doing so, despite the Torah’s direct commandments against such things. Why?
Our human genetic hardwiring says these two things very loudly:
Run with the pack, and you’ll survive.
Don’t, and you won’t.
Approve the current “Alpha” and you’ll survive.
Don’t, and you won’t.
These survival-enabling values are embedded in us through the eons of life-form development having led to us existing in our present form.
Lemmings are cute little feral rodents with a hardwired reflex to run wherever the pack is running. While it serves them in some ways, it also leaves them vulnerable to mass-compliance-driven errors like running off a cliff literally “just because everyone else is doing it.” Since they are animals – “bio-machines” without human level understanding and thinking processes – they follow their hardwiring without any contemplative analysis.
We humans also have instinct-level hardwiring.
One of those engrained patterns is crowd-following, for the same reasons lemmings do so.
Even a superlative intellect like Harvard Law School Professor Alan F. Dershowitz admitted in his 1997 book, The Vanishing American Jew, “… I grew up around the (religion-based total separation of) milchigs (dairy) and fleischigs (meat) as Orthodox Jews observe them, and certainly (practiced them) without having the foggiest idea why.”
No level of intellect, capable of extremes of sophisticated analysis, is autoimmune to these autonomic patterns.
The “move when the pack moves” reflex leads us to start running away from danger before we have individually perceived it, merely because our group appears to be fleeing from it. We ask questions later: we run now – with the pack. Ones who survive run first and ask questions later: ones who ask questions before they start moving get eaten by the predator others have perceived and are already fleeing. This is framed in the old joke about the two men in the woods who encounter a carnivorous bear and start running: the one behind shouts to the other ahead, “Do you think you’re really faster than a bear?” The reply shouted back is, “I don’t have to be faster than the bear; just faster than you!”
However, The Scriptures teach us, “Humankind, without תְּבוּנָה t’vunáh (contemplative understanding) is like the beasts that perish.” Psalm 49:20
What distinguishes us from animals like lemmings is our ability to consider the wisdom, validity, or ethical nature of our choices.
Kierkegaard told us, “the crowd is untruth” because he observed “civilized” human beings driven or released into uncivilized behaviors among crowds – like shouting “Death to the Jews!” in nineteenth century Paris at the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. Not an act a civilized Parisian would undertake while standing alone and distinguishable as an individual: yet, enacted by thousands of Frenchman, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and others when embedded in crowds knowing the “alphas” among them thought thusly, and wanted others to do the same: whether the French aristocrat Esterhazy, or the German political madman, Hitler.
Every year, as Hallowe’en approaches, I look at the human lemmingry all around me in action: my Jewish people doing what everyone else is doing, with no idea why they are doing it; and most importantly to me, directly defying the Torah of Israel to do so, as casually as if they were turning on a lightbulb.
The faith laws of Israel (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) forbid us from any sorcery or necromancy, which are respectively attempts to manipulate reality using spiritistic tools, and attempted communication with the dead. The only valid spiritual tool to change reality is prayer: we ask The Most High, and He replies yes, no, or wait. We seek The Most High, his breadcrumb trail of validated “revelation” we call “The Scriptures,” or the tools of truth seeking involving seeking expert advice, the advice of elders or more experienced persons, and disciplined thought.
Every October 31st in western culture, the entire culture celebrates the dark side of spirituality. Sorcerers and witches, magic, necromancy: the works. Everything we’ve been told to eschew, not only by action, but association. What kind of person would dress up as Dahmer, Bundy, or Gacy? We don’t dress up as sociopaths or Nazis “for fun” or “cosplay.” Or – do we?
This pattern is as bizarre as we Jews ending the Yom Kippur fast with a lobster dinner.
If you’d do the latter, why do you bother doing the former?
Oxymoronicity abounds: sane, rational conduct disappears.
Run with the pack, and you’ll survive.
Approve the current “Alpha,” and you’ve survive.
Pause to consider, and you may become a meal for a predator, or be caught up in a tornado, flash-flood, forest-fire, or some other natural danger from which you’d have escaped if you had just started running when everyone else did, in the direction they ran, and the moment they started running.
For some, life has a momentum that simply excludes contemplation. My parents did it – I grew up doing it: so, my kids’ll do it. Many a terrorist inherited his or her belief in this way: and look where that can tragically lead. Emerson’s “examined life” is not only worth living – it can save countless lives as well.
Scripture enjoins us to use the human and humanizing quality of t’vunah rather than react by mere reflex:
Proverbs 15:28 The heart of the righteous ponders how (correctly) to answer/react.
James 1:19 This you know, my beloved brethren; that everyone must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger (or any emotion-driven or reflex-driven choice).”
I have heard many allegedly God-revering, Scripture-adhering folks justify their family’s Halloween participation with:
“I don’t want to deprive my kids.”
My “rabbi” reply? “Your kids have Purim! They can dress up to their heart’s content, for good reasons! And not in profane or dark-magic evocative garb! Your kids need you to be parents, not pals! To role-model Isaiah 8:20 to them in ‘real world’ situations.”
“My kids will be stigmatized” or “I’ll be ostracized at work, if they know we / I take the Bible so literally.”
My “rabbi” reply? “So, by this formula, if you are pressed to be less than honest at work because ‘everyone else is doing it for the team:’ will you avoid being ostracized by discarding Biblical values and your very honor?
As stated clearly in our Torah …
Deuteronomy 18:10 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord.
“You shall not follow a crowd to do wrong.” – Exodus 23:2
As for the excuse, “Oh, I don’t practice those things: I just dress up like other people who do, one day year, for fun …”
If you saw someone at a party dressed up as a Nazi Gestapo officer, would the following excuse placate your outrage? “Oh, I don’t really believe in Nazism! I just dress up like a Nazi one day a year … for fun. And because everyone else is dressing up. See – look at Mao Tse-Tung over there sipping his Pumpkin Martini. Lighten up!”
The police ethic, “Broken Windows,” seems to me to apply here. Get reaction to small breaches right, and the big crimes are less often likely to shipwreck anyone.
If you go irrational on things appearing trivial, you prime the pump for errors on the big stuff. “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” Luke 16:10
There are moments when “not going with the flow” is not only the best choice: morally, it is the only ethical choice.
And – humankind is depending on us to get these things right. (Exodus 19:6)
Rabbi Bruce L. Cohen
31 October 2022