History is witness to the often devastating effects of mob mentality. Nowhere was this more evident than in the last century’s Nazis, who demonstrated in real life the horrific consequences of blind obedience.
Groupthink. Herd mentality. Brainwashing. Cults. Bandwagon effect. Witch hunt. Lynch mob. There are many terms that express one of the things abhorred today: Conformity. Calling someone a conformist is considered an insult. In our free-spirited society, where individuality and independence reigns, who wants to be seen as a “copycat” and follower of others? As someone who cannot think or act on their own?
From the Salem witch hunts to George Orwell’s chilling account of a “Newspeak” world, where everyone is expected and forced to think and speak the same words, we are all repulsed by the forces that demand annihilation of the individual voice.
And, yet the group and community play a vital role in society. Without it we have no cooperation, growth, and all the benefits of cross-pollination. So how do we balance the two – the individual and the collective, without compromising one or the other? How do we protect against the abuses of groupthink while maintaining the value of the community?
Thinkers, psychologists and politicians have been struggling with this issue through the centuries.
Fascinatingly, a 3300 year old document offers us a formula that balances individuality and community.
Let us take a fascinating trip down the corridors of history tracing back to the earliest roots of social communion (the “mother” of modern social media), to the inception of the concept of “community.”
As Moses was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, we read a story called “Vayakhel”. Vayakhel means to gather, rooted in the word kahal, community or group. Moses gathered the people, and thereby instituted the custom of gathering together on a regular basis to study and pray and commune.
What is the power of this gathering? In one words: Synergy. How did Moses assure that he group would not decline into mob mentality? By assuring that the communion was divine – driven not by self-interest, but by fulfilling a higher calling. And by insisting that the group is only an extension of individuals.
Before Moses gathered the people together, they were a bunch of individuals – all children of Abraham, Isaac, And Jacob, who were fierce individuals whose lives were all about non-conformity and building a whole new way of looking at the world.
One truth is that materiality dictates conformity, and spirituality dictates individuality. Materiality is synonymous with survival – doing what you have to do to survive. Survival creates a need to work together. Spirit is not defined by material needs, so spirit allows itself to soar. Transcendence – that souring of the soul – is very individualistic. We all do it differently.
Long before there was a gathering at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were a group of individuals. The Midrash says that though millions of people stood at Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments were spoken in the second person singular. You would think that since G-d was addressing a group, these commandments would have been spoken in the plural.
Here’s the rub: The Midrash says that everyone standing there heard the Ten Commandments as if it was being spoken only to him or her.
It’s like going to a concert. Have you ever been at a concert and you felt the music move you? (Thousands of Grateful Dead-heads can back us up here.) The experience is yours, even though you might be surrounded by an arena of 20,000 people. The music and words of the band resonate inside you. The whole arena is crowded by other individuals who are having their own unique experiences of hearing the music. You’re standing together in the same place, but your experience is distinctly your own.
Like experiencing music, everyone at Mt. Sinai heard what they as individuals needed to hear. Once you have this kind of individuality, you can bring people together to be more than the sum of their parts. (To go back to the concert metaphor, it’s the synergy or feeling of togetherness that the group experiences.)
If there was no individuality in the first place, when you bring together a group they will become conformists. But if each individual consciously chooses to join with his fellows, then you have a synergy that is greater than the sum of its parts.
So in this light, does religion demand a herd mentality? Does religion want to draw you toward the herd to refute or combat a perceived enemy, or does it fundamentally want you to be an individual who takes part in a synergistic experience?
Truth be told, that history is witness to terrible abuses in the name of religion and faith. We have seen how religious” authorities have used mob mentality to wreak havoc and destruction. Let’s be real clear about this: Any religion that demands a mob mentality from its members is not true religion or true faith; it’s an establishment that is serving the interests of a small group in power.
True religion – as defined by Torah – has first and foremost absolute respect for the dignity of every human being created in the Divine Image. The true experience of religion is making choices based on the wishes of your soul in fulfilling its calling, not based on self-interest and the influence of the material world.
It is difficult to escape the influence of the material world and the drive for survival. Yet, Torah provides us with methods and tools to access your free soul within.
We offer you an exercise to guide you toward experiencing spirituality as an individual, rather than as a member of a herd: The purpose of this is to ultimately create communities that are synergistic.
Go into a quiet room. Close your eyes. Focus on your inside. Do you hear anything? The answer should be no. But then think about the silent gentle sound of your own self untouched, unstimulated by your outer senses. This is your soul — the still small voice within you. As you spend a few minutes doing this on a daily basis you will begin to access your soul and learn to soar on the wings of your soul by listening to its soundless melody. Once you open your eyes and return to “regular” life, take a few random moments throughout the day to recall the experience of your soul. This will help bring awareness of your inner purity into your conventional activities. Do this regularly, and you will experience true and sustainable change.
This will help you discover how to live from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.