What Do Shrinks and Ancient Israel Have in Common?

What Do Shrinks and Ancient Israel Have in Common?

There was an interesting tidbit in The New York Times you might have missed last week: Patricia Cohen posted a small item about a research paper presented at this year’s American Psychology Association convention. The researchers were from Yeshiva University and argued that the Sanhedrin–or, the judicial body that governened Jerusalem in ancient Israel–was surprisingly effective at combating "groupthink."

The term was used by the 1970s psychologist Irving Janis to describe the phenonemon of social conformity. Janis showed how deliberative bodies tended to come to unanimous consensus not because they all actually agreed with one another, but because of various social and psychological pressures.

In their paper, the Yeshiva University researchers–led the by the prominent YU professor and an ordained rabbi, Eliezer Schnall–suggested that the Sanhedrin enacted various successful procedures to prevent groupthink. They’re not bad ideas: the Sanhedrin, for instance, made younger members give their opinions before the older members to prevent pressure to agree with their higher-ups; they made members consult outside experts so their opinions weren’t hindered by lack of expertise; they postponed announcing their final decison by one day to allow for second doubts to emerge, and give time for members to later announce them; and most interestingly, they used 100 percent unanimimity as grounds for a recall, a worrisome sign of conformity.

Think about that last one for a minute: if a person was unanimously found guilty of a crime, that might actually be grounds to set him free–something the Sanhendrin occasionally did.

That got me thinking: are all these procedures necessarily wise? Some undoubtedly are–I like the youngers-speaking-first thing, personally. But others are much less attractive, like the unanimous consensus policy. I’m all for looking to old practices — religious ones, secular ones, you name it — for inspiration. But that this paper, which seemed like a sunny embrace of all things religious, was presented by Yeshiva University scholars made me suspicious. After all, isn’t the general tone of that paper–the seemless compatibility of Jewish practices with modern society–a reflection of Modern Orthodox groupthink?

Turns out the researcher in charge of the paper, Eliezer Schnall, has a knack for finding results that tend to bolster religious belief. Last year, our paper covered a survey conducted by Schnall that found "Orthodox marriages may be happier than their secular counterparts," as our reporter wrote. Schnall’s research showed that 72 percent of Orthodox men and 74 percent of Orthodox women rated their marriages as "very good" or "excellent," which was significantly higher than the overall U.S. population, who posted 63 percent satifisfaction for men and 60 percent for women.

A couple years before that, The Times published another religion-boosting study by Schnall. It found that post-menapausal women that prayed at least seven times a year were 20 percent less likely to die than those who did prayed any less. The study didn’t care what God you prayed to–the Jewish one, Jesus, Allah; no matter–but only that you did.

I’m in no position to claim Schnall’s research false. But the strange conformity of his findings–with its clear thrust toward favoring religion–should give one pause. If religion, and Judaism in particular, does have benefits–and no question, it does–I’m not sure science, anyway, is the place to prove it. It’s not so much that science and faith are necessarily incompatible, it’s just that the justifications for each exist on different planes.

How’s that aphorism go, again? I’ll paraphrase: For the religous skeptic, there is no answer; for the religous believer, there is no question.

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