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December 29, 2018 |Obedience to Authority Parashat Shemot By Rabbi Tucker 

As an undergraduate psychology major, one of the most memorable experiments I ever studied was that of Stanley Milgram, the Yale (and later CUNY) professor best known for his research on obedience to authority.  Some of us will remember the construct – a subject walks into a laboratory believing that he is participating in a study on memory and learning.  After being assigned to the role of instructor, the subject is asked to teach a group of word associations to a fellow participant (who is actually a confederate of the experimenter) using a most unconventional method – he is to administer an increasingly painful series of electric shocks to the learner.  As the experiment continues the purported shock level at some point reaches a sufficiently high threshold that the subject is thrown into conflict – the (supposed) learner seems to be suffering, demands to be released, and even – in some versions of the experiment - appears to lose consciousness.  All the while, the supervisor insists that the test is not as dangerous as it appears to be and that the experiment must continue.  What does the average person do?  In sharp contrast to expectations, some 65% of all studied continued to administer shocks up to the most severe levels displaying a very high degree of obedience to authority, even in a situation of clear moral ambiguity.  Milgram understood this phenomenon by explaining that once “a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes…he therefore no longer sees himself as responsible for his actions.”[1]  All of this may be very interesting in the laboratory, of course, but it is absolutely terrifying when it comes to the real world.  In fact, that is one of the lessons of this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot.    Continue Reading --->


[1] MIlgram, Stanley (1974).  Obedience to Authority.  New York: Harper & Row.  pp. xii, xiii.


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Rabbi Annie Tucker

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