Let's table the discussion" is a new Adath Israel Shul initiative where a story or thought is presented in order to stimulate exciting and constructive discussion around our Shabbos table or among friends and children. (Dedicated to the Refuah Sheleima of Shalva Adina Bas Sarah Chana & Eliyahu Aharon Ben Yocheved Yetta Ettel).
Crowd behavior is often associated with irrationality. Crowds form mobs and cults (Think Salem witch trials). At least that is the common perception. But scientist Sir Francis Galton discovered that not all crowd behavior was negative. Indeed he found that if you asked enough people the same question, they might come up with better answers than even the experts.
In 1906 Galton made his discovery “The Wisdom of Crowds”. He attended a farmers' fair in Plymouth where he was intrigued by a weight guessing contest. The goal of the contest was to guess the weight of an ox when it was butchered and dressed. Around 800 people entered the contest and wrote their guesses on tickets. The person who guessed closest to the butchered weight of the ox won a prize.
After the contest Galton took the tickets and ran a statistical analysis on them. He discovered that the average guess of all the entrants was remarkably close to the actual weight of the butchered ox. In fact it was under by only 1lb for an ox that weighed 1,198 lbs. In other words, the average guess of all the people was not only better than the actual winner of the contest, it was also better than the guesses made by the cattle experts at the fair. It seems as if the collective can also be productive.
Which begs the question – When is the collective helpful and when does it turn into a dangerous mob?
Rashi (Devarim 1:22) notes that when the Jews approached Moshe and asked him to send the spies, they came with a mob mentality – with the young pushing the older ones and without any sense of order and dignity. Moshe begins his rebuke of the people for the sin of the spies by highlighting this point. But, ask the commentaries, if this is the case, isn’t the issue of the mob a small detail in the bigger picture of the sin of the spies?
The Netziv quotes Rav Itzele of Volozhin who notes that from the beginning of an episode we can see in what direction it will head. When we REACT to the fear instead of setting up a rational approach to a challenge, it is often hard for us to properly insure the success and even correctness of our approach to dealing with challenges facing us or our nation. In those instances it isn’t the crowd that causes the lack of focus and correctness in charting a course of action – it is the mob mentality – reacting and feeding off one another’s fears instead of thinking and planning accordingly.
Jewish history is replete with examples of bad choices made by the Jewish nation in reaction to challenges and threats – choices that were made by emotional mobs (think of the Biryonim mention in the Tisha B’Av aggadot in Gittin who burned down the storehouses of the people in order to force a reaction) that did not go well for us. Conversely, we find countless examples of Jewish collective activity that worked to our benefit and that of our people (the building of the Mishkan and of the Beis HaMikdash to name a few). The difference seems to be based in our ability to think and work together toward a goal versus emotional fear-stirring that often incites mob behavior. The former helps, the latter destroys.
What forces in our lives exist that inspire More mob-style approaches to challenges? Which forces promote more collective thinking? How do we tease them apart?
How can we work WITH our friends and neighbors to build a stronger, more committed Judaism?
How can we harness our thinking and emotions to aid us in achieving the goal?
Let’s “table” the discussion – by discussing it with our children, spouses, families and guests and open an exciting discussion into our homes and community.