Lesson
Duration:
One 50-minute class period

Obedience and Traditional Jewish Texts: The Milgram Experiment

Learning Objectives

Students will begin to:

  • investigate why individuals can be coerced to follow directions or orders, even if they disagree with the outcome.
  • recognize the power of authority figures in causing people to act in certain ways.
  • study sources from Jewish tradition, and see how they shed light on certain moral dilemmas.

Overview

This lesson explores questions of obedience, and why people may participate in something against their conscience or harm others even against their will. It centers on an experiment about obedience performed by Stanley Milgram at Yale in the 1960's, described in Holocaust and Human Behavior. It is an important lesson in helping students connect the historical case study to issues relevant in their own lives.

Context

It is essential, before beginning this lesson, to have students consider the psychological power of obedience to authority. As well, it is essential to have reviewed some of the methods that enabled the Nazis to take power in Germany, pass many of their laws, and lead their citizens into committing atrocities. The materials below can provide this necessary context.

Materials

Activities

  1. Have the students write about what might cause someone to harm another person against their will. What are possible reasons that someone might say they would want to act one way, but in fact, act in a different way?

  2. Provide students with a description of the Milgram obedience experiment in the reading A Matter of Obedience from Holocaust and Human Behavior. Also show them a clip from the film Obedience: A Milgram ExperimentNote: We have found that the most effective clip in terms of time is about 15 minutes in, and shows approximately 20 minutes of a man going all the way up to 450 volts. After the clip, have students write their response in their journals.
  3. Divide the class into pairs or small groups, and give each group one of the texts below, all taken from Rabbinic Literature. Rabbinic Literature consists primarily of the Babylonian Talmud (codified in the 600's CE), and texts known as midrashim, which begin as expositions on the Biblical text, but often go in many directions. Rabbinic Literature is a mix of law and stories, and is traditionally studied in pairs or small groups. As each group looks at one text, they should think about these questions:
    • How does the text connect to the experiment?
    • How does it shed light on how we judge people's actions?

    Note: You do not need to use all of these quotes. We have found that using three to five quotes, with each group examining one quote, seems to work well. You can use however many quotes are appropriate for your particular class size and grade level.

    • ‘And the Egyptians made the children of Israel serve with rigor (lrpc, be-parek (Ex. 1:13)). R. Eleazar says: By gentle persuasion (lr vpc, be-peh rach). (Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:11).
    • No person ascribes guilt to himself. (Talmud Bavil, Shabbat 119a)
    • One may be compelled not to act in the manner of Sodom. (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 49a)
    • There is no messenger in the case of sin. (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 42b)
    • If a person says to his agent, "Go and kill so-and-so," and he does it, the agent is guilty. (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 43a)
    • Ten people join together to steal a beam, and are not ashamed in each other's presence. (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 80b)
    • A person is always liable for his actions, whether awake or asleep. (Talmud Bavli, Baba Kamma 3b)
    • Woe to the one who cannot distinguish between good and evil. (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 103a)
    • Who is wise? One who foresees the future consequences of his acts. (Talmud Bavli, Tamid 23a)
  4. Come back together as a whole class, and have each small group summarize their discussion. What was their text saying? What were the implications? How do they shed light on how we judge the actions of those who participated in the experiment? Do we judge people's actions based on their motives, on their consequences, or some combination thereof?

  5. Since the students should not leave the class thinking all authority is naturally evil, and that obedience is in and of itself is a bad thing, finish by describing the "obedience spectrum". Explain that our actions can range from blind disobedience to conscious disobedience to non-obedience to conscious obedience to blind obedience. Ask the students to come up with an example of each one, and then discuss where the true dividing line is: is it between obedience and disobedience, or between conscious and blind actions?

     

New Edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior

We've released a new digital edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior. We're working on updating all of our content to reflect the new resources and scholarship. For now, some content on this page may reference the previous edition.

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