The Last of Deuteronomy
Cursed be he who will not uphold the terms of this teaching and observe them – and all the people shall say, “amen.” Deuteronomy 27:26
Ah, the power of the crowd. If you have ever been a part of one, you know what I mean. You go to a home-town game of your favorite sports team and the energy of thousands of fans, cheering and booing, adds to the experience. Seeing a comedy in a crowded theater (remember that?) makes the laughter more contagious (and the ill-timed silences more profound). And when the familiar opening riff of a rock-and-roll classic blasts from the stage, you, along with everyone around you, are born to run.
I leave it to scientists to explain the physical reactions that are generated by being a part of such a collective experience. I myself can report both as participant and as observer that there is an undeniable energy that emanates from an inspired crowd. The question is, what inspires them?
Back when I was a congregational rabbi, I was glad to exploit this group mentality. When I was skilled and fortunate enough to compose a lesson that engaged people, I could feel the intensity and perceive, when I brought a teaching or a sermon to conclusion, what my wife called a “quality of silence” that vibrated through the sanctuary. I had the privilege to work with a cantor whose voice had the same effect on worshipers. And on those occasions when we integrated our presentations – for example, one memorable time that I discussed and she sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – the effect was so electric it likely violated the prohibitions of labor on sacred Jewish holidays.
But I have seen that collective energy used for less holy purposes. A couple of summers back, when we were not prisoners of a virus, I stood on the desolate parade ground on the outskirts of Nuremberg looking up at the concrete platform that hosted evil incarnate before I was born. The quality of silence in that place was of a distinctly different nature, still whispering the deafening shouts of (mostly) young (mostly) men in adulation of someone asking them to do what, in private reflection, they would most certainly know was wrong.
Somewhere between these two extremes are political rallies in this our democracy.
My college roommate, still my best friend, refuses to participate in the chanting that is so often a part of rallies. He can’t stand the exercise. While people around us were being led in “Hey hey, ho ho, [political figure] has got to go” he would just be shaking his head. I think of him whenever, in my capacity as the leader of an advocacy group, I attend a demonstration and get handed a printed list of chants to lead when I conclude whatever brief remarks I am asked to give. Rather than choosing to channel Country Joe McDonald (“gimme an F…”), I mostly decline, using my age as an excuse.
Plus, I have begun to see how dangerous this chanting business can be when the crowd is encouraged by a manipulative speaker. I guess “four more years” is innocuous enough, but “lock her up” or “stop the steal” encourages and justifies the diminishment of the social order and the humanity of those who disagree.
Reading a bill of particulars and asking people to shout a verdict is mob rule. It may be as old as the Bible, but it has a decidedly unholy purpose. It is one step away from the townspeople grabbing torches and marching on Baron von Frankenstein’s mansion, which makes for great entertainment but very bad – and very illegal – public behavior.
There is one thing that commends riling up a crowd and it is this: the Riler-in-Chief of the moment is face to face with the Rilees. The speaker must take responsibility for what comes out of their mouth, and there is collective witness (and most often a record) of what they said. Those who succumb to herd impunity cannot deny its origins. The amen-activity is attached by a string that is fixed at one end to the speaker and the other end to the actor.
It is different than the anonymous (or, at least, mitigated) rabble rousing of social media, where Q can dodge the onus by remaining Anon.
And it is because of this last technological innovation that I understand Moses reciting the imprecations and demanding the affirming chant at the end. The feedback is immediate, the effect is electrifying and the message – in this case – is essentially moral. Yet I cannot help but think that if Moses had thought it through, he would have rallied the crowd around blessings.