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Is Judaism a Cult?

Is Judaism a Cult?

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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.
About the artist: Sarah Kranz has been illustrating magazines, webzines and books (including five children’s books) since graduating from the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, in 1996. Her clients have included The New York Times and Money Marketing Magazine of London.
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Discussion (77)
July 25, 2014
Re: By some defintions - yes
I am not sure where you and Rabbi Moss disagree. Judaism is susceptible to misuse, as any ideology is. However, one will not find aspects of a cult in the foundational teachings of Judaism, the Bible, the Talmud, and the Code of Jewish Law. Jews have lived and thrived by these for millennia, not collapsed into self-destructive obsessives. As to the Akeida, the "Binding of Isaac," there is much to be said about this, some of it here:. But there was no cult involved in this, in any case, as it relates to the actions of one individual under the influence of no leader.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org
July 20, 2014
By some definitions - Yes
By some definitions Judaism is a cult, just like the Vatican can be seen as a cult. Special rituals, thinking they are the chosen group, some groups have a strong leader and do not tolerate questions, they use guilt and shame as a means of mind and social control. Look at rituals in the Torah and try to tell me it did not start off as a cult. The akidah - blind obedience to some psychopathic anthropomorphic god. All signs of a cult.
R A - jewish by birth no by choice
NY State
May 3, 2014
the essence of Judaism
"Judaism is a cult to and of ethnicity..."

That's perhaps the pithiest summation of this religion I have seen. It's veracity is borne out by the fact that atheist Jews can continue to identify as Jews and to be recognized as such by their co-ethnics. Get your heads around that if you think this is just another religion.

Shabbat shalom.
Avi Marranazo
Sefarad
April 17, 2014
Good G-d, may HaShem have mercy on you for thinking Judaism a cult. i hope you are not Jewish. This is the one religion that has so much historical basis, it is most certainly not a cult.
Eleazar Rosen
San Diego, CA
April 16, 2014
I really and respectfully believe that when a so-called religion demands you to remove yourself from your family members, your neigborhood, your eating habits, and stop buying/consuming from society in general while you keep selling all you can to them, IT IS indeed something larger than a cult, or worse. Some forms of Judaism are all of that. I disagree how you characterize cults, by defining it as a loss of yourself, when control of the person is at the heart of a cult. The person doesn't have to change or get lost in a cult, it is just absolutely controlled. An open religion where G-d is really the center of all has no controlling agents like in fundamental Judaism or other cultish religions around the world, but leaders, authentic, responsible leaders.
Elias
Texas
April 16, 2014
You said first, "...a cult is a movement in which people lose themselves..." Then you ended your answer, "Sometimes you have to lose yourself a little bit to find yourself again." Sounds like Judaism has led you to where you just don't know what you are saying anymore. I don't even want to ask you how much is a little bit for you.
Elias
Houston
December 18, 2012
Judaism...
If it is a cult then all followers of Torah are in a cult and let's not leave out all christianity as well as Islam, Gnostics, Hindus, etc. People who are ignorant use words like cult. G-d loves us all, each one of us...

Everyone knows that the Jews have survived against all odds. Most individuals know that the Jews have been the Almighty's choice since the Torah was given to Moses.

A priestly nation will not blossom from an American movement, but from ones that care more about a Torah-oriented life than some of the secularized movements which will fade. Perhaps they are cults, not born from following the Holy directives clearly established in the Holy Torah, but from following secular nonsense. I mean what's a priestly nation supposed to look like? Walk the talk Jews! Thank G-d for Chabad! CHABAD means Wisdom, knowledge and Understanding.
David Kelly Austreng
Vancouver, WA
September 14, 2011
anonymouse
I think we should respect those who choose to sign, however they sign, what they are writing.

I could make a point in saying that those who remain anonymous could be gifting anonymously, which is a great way to gift, others, as ego is not as out front, as in putting one's name to something we do.

I think we are gifting each other on line, and I do think about the contributions of nameless others in this way, too.

It doesn't bother me that people choose to be, anonymous, and often I think it's better to be that way, in some ways. Just taking the other tack, sails to the wind.

We all have our reasons and I respect this.
I think biting comments, whether signed or unsigned, are not the way to go. Respect is where it's at. Can't we agree to disagree in a polite manner?
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
September 13, 2011
To Jack
While i have never yet signed myself anon I can understand that on this particular thread their may be greater reason. People who have been in a cult can suffer various symptoms due to their experiences such as paranoia and general fearfulness (which may or may not be justified). The option to remain anon can give them the chance to speak for the first time about things which have been kept secret to avoid retribution. Others may have their own reasons. Some are not here to be liberated but to liberate - maybe.
julie
Durham, UK
September 12, 2011
To Julie, Durham, UK re: Anonymous
People who sign their comments Anonymous give me the impression that they do not mean what they say.. They may be saying what somebody else thinks. Stand up and speak for yourself. You will find it to be liberating.
Jack
Midland Park
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