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.