After reading this article on Aish.com, I thought it important to reprint a more accurate version here:
ABRAHAM WAS WRONG
by Rabbi Nechemia Foofersmith
A CHILLING EXPERIMENT
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.
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 follow irrational or corrupt leaders. You can be completely normal and just not be independent enough to question the morality of what you are doing. Why, you can even be a haredi, just like me!
CONDITIONING AND MORAL RESPONSIBILITY
No one is born and raised in a vacuum.
Why should a 17-year-old haredi youth be criticized for blindly following our gedolim? After all, he has been socially conditioned right from the start to act like a sheep. He has never been exposed to any other belief system. All his friends are sheep!
Yet the world does criticize us haredim for this. But why? If everyone is affected by social conditioning, how can anyone be morally responsible for his or her actions?
ABRAHAM: THE FALSE PARADIGM OF INDEPENDENCE
Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, confronted these issues head-on.
A young Abraham examined the physical world and, relying on his best scientific judgement, reasoned there must be a single Creator of the universe, rejecting his 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?
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.
Of course, both God and Abraham were wrong.
ABRAHAM WAS WRONG
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 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.
If we follow Abraham's incorrect example, we haredim who follow gedolim like sheep are responsible for our actions, despite our social conditioning. But, instead of recognizing the necessity to question our society, we chose to remain passive.
God's first command to Abraham, and to every human being, is to become independent. So it may appear as if we need to develop the intellectual and moral courage to live by what is true. Without it, it would seem, we are nothing more than a submissive product of society.
But, again, Abraham was wrong.
Author Biography: Rabbi Nechemia Foofersmith is the co-editor of Raishut.com and director of Research and Development for Raishut In The Name Of Torah in Jerusalem. He is the author of Follow Like Sheep: The Purpose Of Jewish Existence and Sheeple: An Autobiography. He lives in Jerusalem with his ewe and his small flock of lambs.