It is essential to remember that sometimes the majority—even the vast majority—is radically wrong. Our tradition reminds us of this, and urges us to take precautions.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’chah recalls one of those critical moments. As the Israelites approach their destination, Moses sends twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan and then report on how to proceed. All agree that the land is bountiful, but ten of the twelve argue against crossing the Jordan, fearing the military strength of its inhabitants. Only two of the scouts—Joshua and Caleb—dissent, urging the people to have faith and move forward. The majority wins—and the nation loses. The Israelites, defying Moses, choose not to enter the Promised Land—and are thereby condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years.
This experience teaches us to be wary of commonly accepted wisdom, to maintain a healthy skepticism and to question authority. This is especially critical, because sometimes the errors of the majority are compounded by groupthink; outliers are tempted to second guess themselves and go along with the majority even when they are convinced it is on the wrong path, just because everyone else is doing so. It must have taken Joshua and Caleb a great deal of strength and clarity to stand by their position in the face of so much opposition.
How do we avoid the pitfall of mindless majoritarianism? Not surprisingly, the Talmud—the great Jewish compendium of debate and dissent—offers wisdom here. In talmudic argument, one encounters the Aramaic phrase ipchah mi-stabra. It is invoked when there seems to be a consensus on an issue—and one of the Sages questions it, suggesting ipchah mi-stabra—just the opposite is, in fact, the truth. It is a gambit to challenge conventional wisdom and offer strikingly different perspectives.
This ancient phrase—and the insight it contains—was famously invoked by the Israeli military in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, which proved the overly confident pre-war consensus in the intelligence community to be devastatingly wrong. Citing ipchah mi-stabra, institutions were put into place to reduce the chances that groupthink and overly dominant commanders would prevent diverse opinions from reaching decision makers or even being initiated at all. One of these was a unit known as the Devil’s Advocate office, with a mandate to question any and all proposals coming from the majority of the defense establishment. This approach has proven to be very fruitful in the intervening forty years.
Healthy skepticism and thinking outside the box have long been strengths of the Jewish people. This week, question something in your life that you’ve too long taken for granted. Perhaps—ipchah mi-stabra—you’ll discover something very different and new.