There is a statement in the Talmud that should scare us. I call this statement Menashe's challenge. It is part of a fairly well-known discussion that occurred in the dreams of Rav Ashi, one of the two editors of the Babylonian Talmud - clearly a man of tremendous stature.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) records Judean King Menashe engaging Rav Ashi in a halachic discussion, where he shows himself as Rav Ashi’s superior - in spite of Menashe's fame as one of the most disreputable kings in Jewish history. Duly impressed by Menashe's intelligence, Rav Ashi asks him why he worshipped idols. To this question, Menashe responds by saying, "Had you been there, you would have lifted the hems of your robes to run behind me (to worship the idols also)."
Menashe's challenge goes well beyond the issue of idol worship. Menashe is invoking the tremendous impact of one's society on one's behavior. He is saying that even a man of Rav Ashi's stature would have fallen prey to the social currents favoring idol worship, had he lived in Menashe's time.
If Rav Ashi can succumb to the pressures of idol worship, can we be surprised when fellow Jews succumb to the fashionable currents of our own culture. Whether it is crass materialism or atheism, can we expect it to be any other way?
I was once asked to identify people who actually shaped history as opposed to being shaped by it. The fact is that it is quite difficult to come up with many such people. Yet the Talmud seems to maintain that all Jews can somehow be above history. Menashe is, after all, not exonerated from his sin of idol worship, despite the societal influences that contributed to his behavior. And presumably, had Rav Ashi lived in the time of Menashe, he would not have been exonerated either. That is not to say that the gravity of the sin is not mitigated. Mitigated though it may be, however, the sin remains quite serious. Simply put, G-d demands that we resist incorrect or immoral cultural trends.
It is not enough to simply look at Orthodox society or its leaders and say that we will follow. At several points in history, most of Jewish society and its leaders made mistakes. The prophets rail against the ethical perversion of the Temple service, wherein the physical sacrifice became the ends and not the means. It does not appear that these prophets represented the national leadership. Rather, it was the very behavior they criticized which was characteristic of the national leadership. More recently, there were many rabbis who accepted the messianism of Shabbtai Zvi. Likewise, only a few decades ago, most women in many highly religious communities did not cover their hair. This does not seem to be based on a halachic decision, but rather on social pressures. The leaders let this go, allowing even their own wives to go along with this trend. As with social pressure, following our leaders mitigates our guilt, but it does not exonerate it.
It is obviously helpful to have the communities within which we live reinforce our religious behavior. For this reason, it is a good idea to live in communities that have high religious standards. Living in such communities often creates social pressure to do the right thing. It is not, however, a panacea. We are not allowed to take the bad with the good. Rather, we are obligated to determine what is bad and what is good. At the end of the day, like Menashe and Rav Ashi, we are held accountable as individuals, who cannot say, "But everyone else did it".
Indeed, Menashe's challenge is one of the most demanding expectations put on the Jew. It is demanding because it involves great awareness of self. It means really thinking for ourselves. It means deciding how much of our behavior is motivated by doing "what everyone else is doing," deciding how much of our thought is motivated by thinking "what everyone else is thinking." We have to ask ourselves to what extent we would be able to maintain our religious practices and beliefs were we to live in a neutral or antagonistic community. A hard question to answer, it is not something we can ignore.
The English poet, John Donne, was correct when he asserted that no man is an island. We will continue to be influenced by the society within which we live. That is to be expected. Within some parameters, however, Jews need to do more than what is expected. This is perhaps the message of our sages, when they tell us to ask ourselves, "When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov?" (Tanna deBei Eliyahu 25) The sages do not mention other great Jews here, because they had Jewish society to help reinforce their greatness. Not so with the Avot. They were individuals whose greatness was marked by determining their own behavior, independently of a completely antagonistic culture. As such they could truly claim their actions to be their own ("MY actions"). We should, indeed, ask ourselves: when will my actions truly be mine?