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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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Anonymous East Bay via chabadberkeley.org 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 Reply

Avraham Australia 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. Reply

Mohamad Palestine 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. Reply

Eugina G. Herrera New York City, New York 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! Reply

Moshe Git Minnetonka via chabadminneapolis.com 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 Reply

Tim Burns Phoenix AZ 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." Reply

JDV Psramus, nj June 29, 2017
in response to Tim Burns:

I agree. Totally. Reply

Anonymous usa 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. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel 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. Reply

Anonymous December 2, 2015

Judaism in not a cult. We have free choice. Reply

Anonymous Canada 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. Reply

Anonymous Southeastern PA December 1, 2015

The reverse question Why does no one ever ask the reverse question: is secularism a cult?

I grew up in an almost completely unobservant home, and found Judaism as an adult. I have family members who are extremely contemptuous of Judaism. My nephew is 18 and has never been permitted to have one single hour of Jewish education. If someone says to him "Sh'ma", he won't know what the next word is. A family member exploded with rage when I wouldn't buy her shellfish.

So tell me, isn't secularism a cult? Reply

MP NY November 30, 2015

Some people are looking to escape from the world, or looking for a place where they can check their sense of self in at the door, or even looking for a cult. Sometimes they find their needs met in an orthodox Jewish setting. Sometimes they find orthodox enablers, and sometimes they zone out despite the best efforts of their mentors. Doesn't mean it that orthodox Judaism is supposed to be a cult, not does it mean that it functions as one to the vast majority of its adherence.

Even with a very emotionally healthy person, depending on the particular group that they have become affiliated with, they may well be trying to 'jump in to the skin' of a very different culture and mindset than the one that they grew up with - in a relatively short time.

People often interpret things in the context that they are biased towards. Whether accurate or not, helpful or not. Reply

Albie Rosenhaus Morristown November 30, 2015

I would like to hear Rabbi Manis Friedman's response to this. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA November 30, 2015

Spiritual Connections – Loneliness as an Emotional Barometer The indicators of an answer are how connected does a proselyte feel with respect to heart emotions. It is not how many people are around, nor even how often you are able to smile. We are only as lonely as we feel!!! If you are worried that your friend is joining a cult, then ask her questions like, “Do you feel more lonely than usual? Or, are you feeling unhappy?”
Loneliness is a horrible feeling. The most important antidote to loneliness is to gain more connection with Hashem. How do you know if you are connected? If you are able to trust Him, He will guide you where you need to go and help you blaze a new trail to happiness. Consider finding the ability to connect with other folk not in number, but in quality friendships. The strength of Israel is not in her numbers. Reply

Anonymous Broojklyn NY November 30, 2015

Beautiful answer and I agree 100%. Never tell your child to just believe, always sate their questions and doubts. Reply

Diane Hewitt November 30, 2015

Is Judaism a Cult? Excellent and clear defining distinctions. Reply

Michael Fenton New Jersey November 30, 2015

Wise answer Excellent discussion and explanation. I'm a bit of a skeptic and I find this explanation quite realistic and clear. Reply

annette jorisssen Delft November 30, 2015

Like in all religions there is also in the Jewish religion different streams but I wouldn't call them cults. You don't call the Amish a cult either. I think one who studies at the jeshiva is taking in so much and don't have time for anything else. They do lose themselves a bit. But isn't a bad thing? Are we non observent doing any different. For the record I am not Jewish but married a Jew and have 3 sons. Short version, one of my sons studies at the Jeshiva and later on he went further and lives in a satmer community (wish it was chabbad they are bit more relaxed). But he is extremely happy and likes it. Of course he is still my son and he still makes the same jokes. He can never change who is. But he is more light and at peace (hard to find the right words) for which I am very grateful. Just as the person in the story, many people are what you call concerned that he is brainswashed e.t. That could never happen because he is to stubborn anyway for that. Reply

alex November 30, 2015

i interesting Reply

Yehuda Santa Monica November 30, 2015

What a interesting Question Obviously Judaism is not a Cult but there Exists Jewish cults that forbid their member from highr education and freedom to marry for love.

Elephant in the Room maybe ? Reply

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