Conscience and Compass: A Jewish Philosophy of Personal Responsibility

“Man is condemned to be free,” stated French philosopher Sartre. Judaism is in accord. For if we weren’t free agents, then we would have neither a moral footing to abhor serial murderers and rapists, nor the validity to praise the righteous and the just. Sadly, many people perpetrate what psychologist Fromm called “Escape From Freedom.” And philosopher Rousseau added: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”

Indeed, many of us cede our God-given autonomy and freedom, and subjugate ourselves to external norms and societal expectations. We willingly take on the idolatrous shackles of blind cultural conformity. That’s why the Torah cautions us (Exodus 23:2) “Not to follow the majority to perpetrate evil.” According to Rabbi Umberto Cassuto, this verse calls upon us to “swim against the current,” when those around us adhere to actions which violate our conscience. This is what Moses did, when he looked back and forth and then took action, after he saw that no one was taking action to salvage a Hebrew slave from ferocious abuse by an Egyptian officer. Moses, still the “Prince of Egypt” at this point, did “not follow the majority to perpetrate evil.” Abraham and Sarah, the quintessential couple of faith, also did “not follow the majority to perpetrate evil,” when they exhibited supreme moral and spiritual courage, by taking on the hegemonic idolatrous civilization of the ancient Near East, in a solitary and revolutionary fashion.

On the international level, during the Evian Conference of 1938, it was the Dominican Republic of all countries, which “followed not the majority to perpetrate evil,” when it agreed to take in thousands of Jews out of Nazi Germany, whilst the world’s leading powers, including France, Britain and the USA, were reluctant to do so. The Jewish-American psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated in various experiments conducted after the Holocaust, how most of us, including here in America, tend to “follow the majority to perpetrate evil,” due to peer pressure or institutional authority.

Throughout Jewish history, innumerable civilizations attempted to coerce Jews “to follow the majority to perpetrate evil,” and commit spiritual and moral actions which are incommensurate with Jewish values. Jews were coercively challenged “to follow the majority to perpetrate evil,” – from the days of the Syrian-Greek Empire some 21 centuries ago – all the way to murderous Soviet Stalinism merely some seven decades ago. And yet, numerous Jews remained faithful to the Torah’s timeless dictum not to blindly follow the cultural or political majority, when it stands in sharp contrast to our fundamental human and Jewish values.

In Nietzsche’s sagacious words, Judaism expects each and every one of us to be a “sovereign individual,” who independently thinks for oneself. I leave you today with the timeless words of Rabbi Israel Salanter, words which loom large in the context of steadfastly refusing to blindly “follow the majority to perpetrate evil”. Says the great and exemplary Rabbi Salanter: “Those who have truth on their side constitute the majority, even if they stand solitary and alone.” For when you stand up for truth and decency, even if no mortal of conscience is there by your side, you are still not alone. For the divine presence dwells there with you and within you, in “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Sessler

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