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Is Judaism a Cult?

Is Judaism a Cult?

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Illustration by Sefira Ross.
Illustration by Sefira Ross.

Question:

I’m in Israel now, and I’ve come across a situation that I don’t know what to make of; perhaps you can help. I’m asking you because you’re the only religious person I know.

Basically, I bumped into an old classmate of mine. She is studying here in some Jewish seminary, and she has become religious. After speaking to her for about five seconds, I felt that she has been brainwashed. The way she was speaking was as if she was in a cult. It was a bit scary.

I have nothing against religion, but could it be that religious Judaism is a cult?

Answer:

While it is not a cult, even Judaism can sometimes be used in ways that are disturbingly similar to how people behave in a cult.

What is the difference between a cult and a religion? Most people define the term “cult” so vaguely that anyone with strong opinions could be classified as a cult follower.

The best working definition I have heard is this:I have nothing against religion, but could it be that religious Judaism is a cult?

A religion is a movement in which people find themselves; a cult is a movement in which people lose themselves.

A cult hijacks your identity and makes you into someone you aren’t. A true religion should enhance and deepen your identity, to make you a better you.

People who find religion go through changes. They learn to explore parts of their personality that they never knew existed. As a result, they often re-evaluate themselves and their lives. All growth is accompanied by some upheaval and instability, so they may go through a short period where they seem a bit weird to their friends and family. They may even missionize a bit, and try to “convert” everyone around them. They mean well—they just want to share their newfound inspiration with those they love. This is normal, and the family should try to be patient.

However, if they start to turn into someone else altogether, if they seem unrecognizable, then there could be cause for concern. If they lose their personality, their sense of humor, their interest in others, or their ability to think, then they may have lost themselves. If these symptoms persist, seek rabbinic advice. They may have fallen prey to a cult—or are using a religion as a cult.

Cults demand that you jump in unquestioningly. But when you make such sudden changes, you will have to leave your self behind. This is not the Jewish way. Judaism encourages questioning, even honest skepticism. Jewish spiritual development is done gradually and with thought. That way the changes will be real, as they integrate and harmonize with your personality rather than overwhelm it.

Give your friend some time. If she is indeed brainwashed, it probably won’t last—she will jump out as quickly as she jumped in. Judaism can’t be used as a cult for long. But more likely she will settle to a balanced medium, where her old self will come back again, but with a depth and direction that she never had before. Sometimes you have to lose yourself a little bit to find yourself again.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Discussion (104)
May 17, 2016
Important: No Jumping In/Out of Cults
While the Rabbi may not have intended to do so, he makes a dangerous and groundless claim in advising, "If she is indeed brainwashed, it probably won’t last—she will jump out as quickly as she jumped in."
Individuals do not, generally, jump in and then easily and/or quickly jump out of cult groups. Quite the contrary! They often face considerable internal, social, and sometimes physical obstacles to leaving, and even to recognizing that freedom is possible (consider how long it took our people in Mitzraim!) Sometimes they must be rescued by professionals (e.g., retired SWAT or military) hired by their loved ones. Only after they're free do they realize that they had fallen prey to spiritual, psychological, or physical coercion in a soul-bending bait-and-switch that, harnessing the power of group-think
obscures one's sense and valuing of their own inner spark and that of _all_ others. How do I know this? Lost and then found (Jewish) folks who experienced it with "Moonies" and similar
Anonymous
East Bay
chabadberkeley.org
December 7, 2015
Cult or Normal Judaism?
Could it also be that the person who asked the question is viewing their friend's as "cult-like" when in fact they are acting normally religious? I mean, I have friends who aren't religious but would think that I am involved in a cult or fanatical group if I started speaking about Judaism. It is not that I am in a cult, it is that they haven't been exposed enough to Judaism that they can differentiate between Judaism and cult behaviour.
Avraham
Australia
December 3, 2015
God's religion
The Jewish religion is the first known God's religion. fully documented and well known. Haters to the Jewish religion it self is a hater to God and his creation.
Mohamad
Palestine
December 3, 2015
Belief is a belief and Faith is Faith
That is So true about how people perceive religions and spiritualities. Belief is a belief in what you heart desires and Faith is faith of how you see life with Love for what you believe in those who motivates and inspires you to be the best.
Thank you for pointing that out. So True!
Eugina G. Herrera
New York City, New York
December 3, 2015
Rabbi Moss' definition of cult/religion is laden with subjective words to the degree that renders it useless. Examples: "find themselves", " loose themselves", "hijack identity", "enhances identity", "jump in unquestioningly," "encourage questioning" ,etc., etc. (How about the "Naaseh Venishmah"'s jumping-in unquestioningly?)

Sincerely

Moshe Git
Moshe Git
Minnetonka
chabadminneapolis.com
December 2, 2015
Excellent answer!
So very well stated! "A religion is a movement in which people find themselves; a cult is a movement in which people lose themselves."
Tim Burns
Phoenix AZ
December 2, 2015
It depends on what is the definition of religion.
If your definition of religion is a set of worship and living laws given by G-d, only the Jews received religion. All else, although maybe not a cult, is not religion by that definition.
Anonymous
usa
December 2, 2015
Cult and Bnei Brak Culture
When I walk the streets of Bnai Brak and look at the similarly dressed and similarly behaving people there, I often wonder if this is indeed a Jewish cult. The case for being born into a way of life is not mentioned by writer Aron Moss, but it is obvious to me that many of the Jews who are living that kind of hasidic orthodoxy are not thinking about how their religion is affecting them--they are simply following the "rules".

Does this imply that they have all successfully gone through a crisis in beliefs. I doubt it. As a critically thinking Jew, this situation bothers me, cult or culture as it might be. And also this is why a person who has returned to our faith (baal tsuva) should be better regarded than a similar person who has never seriously considered leaving it.
David Chester
Petach Tikva, Israel
December 2, 2015
Judaism in not a cult. We have free choice.
Anonymous
December 1, 2015
I have seen this in a number of different contexts, political, athiest, religious -- and what you say is so very true. I have noticed it takes about 2-3 years for a person to "digest" the experience and integrate it into their self.
Anonymous
Canada