Do you belong to the PC-DOS generation? Have you ever played Lemmings? Many people have speculated about the suicidal behavior of these small rodents, which are known to deliberately run in large numbers over high cliffs to their deaths. The Lemming Suicide Plunge was granted interesting evolutionary explanations. Some said it was a natural impulse associated with a built-in defense mechanism against lemming population explosion.
So why do they do it? Why do herds of lemmings have this drive of committing suicide together? Better yet, do they do it? Yes they do – in a Walt Disney movie called Wild Wilderness that was released in 1958. Few lemmings were actually pushed over a small cliff and filming tricks produced the effect of lemming mass suicide. This lemming exodus into the abyss later turned out to be a true story in the minds of many. There was no question of “if”, but only of “why”.
As for now, the Roman Empire was around much longer than Walt Disney Studios. Not too many Christians even know how during the Roman times, many of the rituals concerned with the Egyptian goddess Isis evolved into Virgin Mary rituals and related art.
Cults don’t need many centuries to form and evolve. Our present day Santa Claus stories are less than 200 years old and the famous red image is even younger, originated in a Coca-Cola commercial. Richard Feynman (1965 Nobel Prize winner in physics) talked about the ‘Cargo Cult’ of the South Seas islanders in post-World War II, where people developed a cult of imitating airport rituals and air controller behaviors (using mock wooden earphones and antennas), waiting for the airplanes to arrive and drop goodies. Just imagine how a few thousand years of politics and interests can promote memes and cults.
The Jewish religion talks about the chain of tradition: Allegedly, the Bible was dictated by God and written by Moses. Then it was passed from one generation to another, together with the necessary oral interpretations, which were also put into writing at a later time. To complete the picture, the original event was said to be witnessed by the whole nation and the knowledge of this has also passed between generations, to this day.
In a previous chapter, we mentioned Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy and his old book ‘The Kuzari’. Among other things, Mr. HaLevy actually compiled a kind of mathematical proof for the truth behind this tradition: “Suppose someone would suddenly invent such a new story,” he claims, “and suppose this person would start saying that all the people witnessed the revelation on Mt. Sinai. Then the neighbors of this individual would stand up and say they’ve never heard such a thing from their fathers, so it cannot be true.” Therefore, he concludes that the story has not been invented, and the event must have actually occurred as described from fathers to sons nowadays.
This so-called proof ignores the simple fact that traditions develop gradually. The story is not all-or-nothing. It has many components, and for a long time every father has told his sons slightly different things (mothers and daughters, apparently, don’t count). Many other traditions, some of which you probably know very well, have gone through similar processes. My own Jewish father, who has long history of speaking the truth, told me very different things. Furthermore, no neighbor stood up or said anything. Hence, chains of traditions do change with time.
In many other cases, a story had begun its journey as a folktale. It had been innocently told by fathers to sons and known to all. Much later it acquired the stamp of (allegedly) an historic fact.
When we try to analyze some more important ingredients of developing traditions, we may find a few more characteristics in common:
It typically takes several generations for a tradition to form – especially “big” and rich traditions. It is a slow process. The new tradition with all its myths and rules is formed not all at once, but with contents complementing and updating other contents, over long periods of time.
New traditions and beliefs are typically created based on stories which somehow satisfy certain desires of the believers as well as excite their imaginations.
The processes involved typically include large groups of people, and also the acts of promotion by some authorities and/or by the media, whatever that may be.
Faiths are typically implanted at a young age, or make use of related things that were acquired by the believer when he or she was young.
Hence, if you meet a stranger in the park, and he tells you about a purple omelet he had for breakfast, this can hardly qualify as the beginning of a new religion.
Don’t you want to hear what great rabbis have to say about the process of forming a tradition? Of-course you do! Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was a famous American Jewish Orthodox rabbi, who was born in Belarus and later lived and died in New York. Rabbi Feinstein was considered by many as one of the leading Orthodox rabbinic scholars of the 2nd half of the 20th century.
In his well-known responsa Igroth Moshe (Letters of Moshe), Rabbi Feinstein answered the difficult question of “Can so many people be wrong”. He stated that:
“Everything a person does and keeps believing as true – even if it contradicts the common sense – is not due to insanity, but even wise people start to believe in nonsense, mostly due to incitement. Seldom they are also self-mistaken due to something they imagine in a dream or also while awake. And after they have already started to believe in it, they just as well may give their lives for their nonsensical belief.”
Not exactly what you’d expect from an important Orthodox Jewish rabbi, right? Yes, unless you knew this specific answer was aimed at… Christianity rather than Judaism. It’s the tradition of the others that is formed in such a way (thank you Yaron Yadan for this reference).
‘The Song of Hiawatha’ was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the 19th century, based on North American Indian traditions of many years. Here are some short extracts from this beautiful poem:
Should you ask me, whence these stories,
Whence these legends and traditions,
. . .
I repeat them as I heard them
From the lips of Nawadaha,
The musician, the sweet singer.
. . .
On the Mountains of the Prairie,
On the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry,
Gitche Manito, the mighty,
He the Master of Life descending
On the red crags of the quarry,
Stood erect, and called the nations,
Called the tribes of men together.
. . .
And erect upon the mountains
Gitche Manito the mighty
Smoked the calumet the Peace-Pipe
As a signal to the nations.
. . .
From the Vale of Tawasentha
From the Valley of Wyoming
From the groves of Tuscaloosa
From the far-off Rocky Mountains
From the Northern lakes and rivers
All the tribes beheld the signal
Saw the distant smoke ascending
The Pukwana of the Peace Pipe.
. . .
All the warriors drawn together
By the signal of the Peace Pipe
To the Mountains of the Prairie
To the great Red Pipe-stone Quarry.
. . .
Oh my children! My poor children!
Listen to the words of wisdom,
Listen to the words of warning,
From the lips of the Great Spirit,
From the Master of Life, who made you!
I have given you lands to hunt in,
I have given you streams to fish in
. . .
If Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy is right, we should start worshiping Gitche Manito “the Great Spirit”, before it’s too late.