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Is Judaism a Cult?

Is Judaism a Cult?



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?


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
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Discussion (84)
February 6, 2015

You said "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."

Who are you to say what is G-d centered and what is not? Are you G-d?? Do you have any evidence of this? Or are you trying to control how others believe about G-d in order to suit your own world view?

We believe the Torah was given to us by G-d. Therefore, we are not making any human argument as to what G-d wants of us. We are not following any man that wants to control us. We are following what we believe is G-d's will. That is not my Judaism, but the truth of Judaism and why it is not a cult.

If you disbelieve that Torah was given by G-d, that is your business. But to say we are being controlled and therefore that is a cult is a ridiculous argument.
Yaakov Mark
Los Angeles
February 6, 2015
Rabbi Cotlar,

Regarding accepting a new mitzvah, you say "enjoy it".

1. How does that comport with "schar mithzvah - mitzvah"?
2. Doesn't "enjoying" a mitzvah detract from doing it "lishmah" and may even smack of Avodah Zarah (worshipping oneself, not G-d)?
moshe Git
February 5, 2015
At the givimg of the Torah this is indeed what happened. Our People accepted the entire Torah when we heard Hashem speaking to directly us at Sinai!

However, in a person's Jewish growth today, this "Naaseh V'Nishmah" "we will do and we will hear" happens one step at a time. We take a small leap of faith and take on a new Mitzvah though we don't yet fully get it. Then we work on understanding it better. Appreciate it. Enjoy it. And sense how it is the real I.

And then take on another Mitzvah. And then another.

Going too fast actually isn't recommended. Not only because it often is counter-productive. But also because the goal is that your entire inside gets uplifted, not pushed aside, through a life of Judaism.

This is so different from a cult where the transformation is sudden, the goal is to push aside your identity, and there is a focus on separating you from existing relationships..

Yisroel Cotlar
Cary, NC
February 3, 2015
Hands-down best answer I've heard to this question in a long time. Explains what's going wrong, when to start to worry, when to just let it go, what to do to help.

I was worried the author was going to refute the questioner's observations; instead he explains the dark side of things.

Incidentally, Rabbi Moss's cult definition (source? If not don't worry) was helpful, and the idea of "using something as a cult". As someone who has gotten lost a number of times, it's important to recognize what it is you're "using as a cult" so you can let go of that.

A couple of times it was some element of Yiddishkeit, and I had to fix that abuse, but other times it has been other things.

Good life motto: Don't stay in a cult, especially not one of your own making.
February 3, 2015
According to Rabbi Moss "Cults demand that you jump in unquestioningly". Isn't this Judaism par excellence ("Na'aseh Venishmah")?

Aren't all of his distinctions between "cult" and "religion" subjective or likewise contrived?
Moshe Git
February 3, 2015
And this is why I love Chabad so much. The Rebbe always wanted the Jew to be the best Jew he or she can be. He didn't want to turn them into someone else, some slavish follower, in fact he found that to be disturbing and discouraged people from hero worshipping him.
February 3, 2015
I believe it may be a case of enthusiasm when something is new to someone, be it a religion, a relationship, a car, video game or what ever the case may be one is always a bit over enthusiastic, its the honeymoon phase of anything new. Eventually she will settle down and be less enthusiastic but hopefully still devoted. Give her some time to find out what is a comfortable level of devotion. I do not believe Judaism is a cult, though there are some people who would like to make it sound as if it is to demonize it and get others to attack it.
Melzora Towne
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
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