Our Western society is, in some ways, better than those that preceded it. There is more and more widespread tolerance and equal justice than perhaps throughout all of history. In other ways, however, our society represents a regression from a more moral, more pious past (although, in truth, in many segments of the world’s population, in many societies, that piety and morality was often just a veneer, covering up tremendous lust and violence). As religious people, we hope that we can combine the progress of today with the qualities of yesterday, but in our secular age, modest, moral, pious people are in the minority. Jews are particularly a small minority, and have always been one, outside of Israel.
Is there a rational hope to impact, influence and elevate society all around us? Can Orthodox Jews hope to impact and elevate all Jews? Can moral and pious people everywhere in the West rationally hope to impact and elevate all of Western society, to help society slowly veer away from hedonism and irreverence, to a golden fusion of freedom and piety, to a society where responsible freedom and responsible piety rule?
According to a recently published article, which agrees with an old biblical teaching, I’d say the response is a resounding yes.
When Abraham argues with G”d, pleading that He spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18), he repeatedly asks whether G”d would not spare those five cities on account of a certain number of righteous residents. At the beginning, Abraham imagines there being fifty righteous people in the five cities, and from G”d’s promise to spare them on account of the fifty (ten per city), Abraham immediately gets the hint: there aren’t fifty righteous people left in all those five cities. So he tries again with a progressively smaller number of people, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten, but he realizes there aren’t even ten righteous people in the five cities put together. The only somewhat meritorious family is that of his nephew, Lot, who was a or perhaps the (chief) judge of Sodom (“sitting in the gate,” as Lot does in verse 19:1, invariably means being a judge, in the Bible), and with his family, did not even number ten people.
As I explored more extensively in a previous post,Rabbi Ovadya Sforno argues rather convincingly that Abraham was not trying to save the righteous at that point. That had merely been his first plea, in verse 18:23. From 18:24 on, however, Abraham expands his plea to save all the wicked, about whom the Bible states (Genesis 13:13) they were “evil and sinners unto G”d,” on account of the few righteous people left in their midst.
While Abraham is first and foremost pleading to save even a sinful city, he is also exploring a theme central to his mission: what is the smallest number of people necessary to turn a society around, which, based on G”d’s theoretical acquiescence to his unsuccessful plea, is ten, a minyan! How could a minyan impact a mnuch larger society? Well, it turns out that if the minority is sufficiently dedicated and foolhardy, and they grow to become a critical, significant minority of even barely ten percent (and I guess we can lump in these ten percent both our minyan and their sympathizers together), they can then pull along even the majority, as scientists at Renselaer Polytechnic Institute have recently figured out [from Science Blog]:
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. …
“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”
So, is there hope for society to turn around, or not? What this requires of course, is that we be fully dedicated to our founding values of mishpat, tzedaqa and lishmor derekh haShem – justice, equity and guarding the path of the L”rd-Eternal (cf. Genesis 18:19).