Is Judaism a Cult?

Many parents, as their child get interested in Judaism, worry that their child has joined a cult. Religious cults are a serious concern, especially after events like the armed conflict of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and the suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult. And
considering the way leaders of cults generally take advantage of their members, the fear is not something to be ignore.

How can you tell if someone has joined a cult?

According to exit counselors (experts who help people trying to leave cults), someone who has joined a cult will usually show at least some of the following symptoms: a loss of free will; a loss of spontaneity; the loss of his sense of humor; an inability to form intimate relationships outside the cult; physical deterioration and/or signs of abuse; psychological deteriorations, sometimes including hallucinations; anxiety; paranoia; disorientation; disassociation; a development of dependancy and a return to childlike behavior. These are some of the standard effects seen in individuals involved in destructive cults. Do not, however, expect a cult member to show all those symptoms.

Are Jews brainwashed? Brainwashed people would not be expected (or allowed) to ask
questions. Cults never allow their members to ask questions. Judaism, on the other hand, thrives on questions. Judaism teaches that if you’re not asking questions, you’re not learning, and you’re not growing. The entire purpose of having Rabbis is so that they can answer our questions. We even have a Seder on Passover whose entire purpose is get people (especially children) to ask questions! Brainwashing relies on keeping the subject ignorant. Judaism heavily stresses study and knowledge.

Being brainwashed does not mean that someone has been filled with misinformation and propaganda. According to the Grolier’s Encyclopedia: «Brainwashing is the process of deliberately subjecting individuals to physical and psychological hardship in order to alter their thoughts, attitudes, and actions.» Brainwashing involves imposing an intensive,  forcible indoctrination, aimed at replacing a person’s basic convictions with an different set of fixed beliefs against their will.

If you have reason to believe that someone is being forced to change their beliefs against their will, speak to a therapist. It is extremely unlikely, however, that someone learning about Judaism is undergoing brainwashing. The brainwashing techniques used by religious cults usually involve, according to the Grolier’s, «scourging, rhythmic dancing and drumming, and sometimes drugs.» I’m not sure what they mean by «rhythmic dancing,» since I’m not aware of any other kind of dancing and drumming. And obviously not all dancing and drumming is part of the process of brainwashing. Jews dance, from time to time, like at weddings, for example, just like everyone else.

Drugs not prescribed by a doctor are generally forbidden in Judaism, and scourging or in any way hurting another person is absolutely forbidden in any situation except self-defense. Scourging oneself is generally considered a sign of insanity (or at least a sign of a troubled person), in Judaism, and would normally be reported to a health-care provider or other authority. Judaism does not approve of asceticism, and certainly does not approve of a person inflicting corporeal punishment on himself. Even personal fasts are frowned upon, with very few exceptions.

Brainwashed people lose their original personality. A major element of Judaism is
self-improvement and self-development. A Jew becoming Orthodox should never lose his personality. Changes in personality for the better are a good sign. If someone becomes sullen, withdrawn, irascible, be alarmed. He is in some sort of danger, and possibly taking drugs. It’s even possible that he has joined a cult.

What are some of the other elements found in cults, and does Judaism have any of those?

Many cults depend on secrecy. They talk about a truth that no one else has. In order to learn this «secret» you must join their cult. Judaism claims no such secrets. The Torah is open and available to all who wish to learn. This website, and the many Orthodox-Jewish sites on the web prove that. Judaism, in fact, teaches that one does not even need to be Jewish to go to Heaven. «The righteous of all nations merit reward in the World to Come,» says the Talmud. Jews need to fulfill Judaism properly, but non-Jews do not. This is not the standard view taken by most religions, let alone cults. Most cults want to recruit and convert as many people as they can. Judaism forbids actively proselytizing to Gentiles.

In their efforts to boost their membership, cults often employ psychological coercion and/or manipulation to recruit and indoctrinate members. This does not happen in Jewish groups, and anywhere in the world that this occurs it should be stopped.

Dropout control is another element of most cults. However, Jewish groups are not so
coherent or rigidly defined. There are no absolute rules that clearly delineate whether or not you are part of a Jewish group. If you feel at home, you belong. If you don’t feel at home, you find another synagogue or another community to be a part of. Among Jewish groups people come and go all the time. People change groups, and sometimes even leave Orthodox Judaism entirely, unfortunately. We exercise no mind control over anyone, and we cannot prevent anyone from doing what they want. Of course, if we know someone is slipping in their observance, we will often try to befriend them and try to help them deal with their difficulties.

Cults often employ violence against dropouts. Most of the time when someone leaves a
Jewish group no one even realizes it for a while. After all, how are we supposed to know, if he doesn’t tell us? Maybe he just went away for a while. Maybe he just decided to pray in another synagogue, or one of the other synagogues the same group may have elsewhere? It’s really not an issue.

Because of dropout control, many cults refuse to let their members live at home. Judaism, however, fosters good family relationships, and insists that children respect their parents and the feelings of relatives and friends (well, everyone’s feelings, actually). Most people joining Orthodox Judaism continue to live at home, though they often travel to Israel or elsewhere to study for some time in a proper yeshivah. Afterwards, if they so choose, they usually return home until they get married. Parents of a Bal Teshuvah (someone newly becoming Orthodox-Jewish) should not fear that they are losing their child. (See my article «Sudden Changes» for more on that subject.)

Cults enforce a great deal of internal control. In Jewish groups little or no real power is
exercised by the leader over the members. I’d like to see any Rabbi or synagogue president try that one! We do believe that we should obey one’s Rabbi, but that no one may pressure anyone into doing that. Which Rabbi you follow is a matter of your own choice.

Cults are generally created and/or led by charismatic leaders. These leaders almost always demand absolute fealty and loyalty. They usually have set themselves up as leaders, building a following. These leaders often teach their followers that the leader is divine, and he therefore demands worship. Cults are usually messianic, and consider their leader to be a sort of god-messiah. They follow him blindly, and they often spend most of their lives making money for the leader, who gets rich from their labor. The leader is seldom accountable to anyone for his behavior.

True, many Jews often follow a charismatic leader. Many Chassidim do this, for example. On the other hand, the leader never demands fealty; never calls himself divine; never accepts worship; is usually not self-appointed; is appointed by the group or inherits his position from his father or other relative; is not messianic (though there have been some notable exceptions — and most Orthodox Jews do consider those messianic groups to be cults); he *IS* accountable to the people for his behavior; they seldom get rich from their followers, and they do not demand that they give up all their money and work for him. They generally do not resemble leaders of cults.

Members of a cult have one primary purpose: to serve the leader or the group. Orthodox Judaism has no such concept. We don’t exist to serve a leader or a group. The members of the community are never forced or even asked to give our money away to the Rabbi or the group. Being part of a group, we might want to do things for the sake of the group, but that’s usually up to the individual. For example, they may ask everyone who is able to donate or fund-raise for the school or synagogue when it’s in deficit, but no one forces anyone to do so. We might be asked to donate to fill some basic needs, like help pay the electricity bills of the synagogue, since no one owns it and no one makes a profit on the synagogue. Some synagogues offer benefits to members (such as a share on the burial society plots). Full-time Rabbis often need to draw a salary as well. We are all responsible for the community’s needs, and if we want to keep it going we need to pitch in and help in one way or another. A relative of mine, who had very little money for a while, used to do all the electrician work for his synagogue, and saved them lots of money. This relative is a Rabbi, by the way, but he’s good at electrical work. So he helps out. (This should also dispel the myth that Orthodox Jews don’t know anything about mechanics or electronics.)

Cults almost always teach the infallibility of the leader of the cult. Jews do not believe that Rabbis are infallible, but generally we follow only a Rabbi we believe to be righteous and wise. We ask for advice and guidance from a Rabbi whom we have reason to believe has disciplined his mind to see things correctly and without stumbling blocks. Since he has made himself holy through separating himself from sin and all that is unholy, G-d is with him and guides him. Not that G-d speaks to the Rabbi per se, just that G-d sort of guides him, maybe on a subconscious level, to give the right advice. As a sector of the Orthodox, Chassidim will also generally believe that their Rebbe has Divine Inspiration to at least some degree, though not prophecy. (No one can have prophecy today.) However, even Chassidim admit that no one really ever knows for sure.

No one forces anyone to go to a Rabbi, and no one forces anyone to obey a Rabbi. The fact that we choose to ask Rabbis questions and often follow their advice does not constitute cult-like behavior. A Rabbi is like a doctor for the soul. If you want to stay physically healthy, you ask your doctor questions, and you follow his advice as closely as you can. If you want to stay out of jail, you ask your accountant questions before filling out your tax forms, and you follow his advice precisely. Taking and following advice and instructions is sometimes just a good idea. It doesn’t mean you’re brainwashed. And the truth is that a great deal of the time we either get lazy or arrogant, and we don’t follow our Rabbi’s advice. That 
is certainly not acting brainwashed. 

Another very common element in many cults is the manipulation by the leader of the
bedroom lives of the members (in the interest of holiness, I’m using euphemisms). This does not exist in Judaism, and could not. Our lives are private and our own. They are influenced by Jewish Law, but not by the whims of anyone else at all.

Cults strongly disapprove of jokes against the group or leader. Well, no one will appreciate jokes against the Rabbi, and we would probably look askance at such, but we all make jokes about our own group and the members or leaders within the group. That’s just human.

Cults practice a severe form of censorship. This could not exist in Judaism. We are free
people. We go where we please, we buy what we please, we read what we please. We are religious, but we are not controlled by anyone. Many Jews try not to read salacious material, because we wish to become ever holier. However, no one can control what we buy and eat except ourselves. If we want to be holy, we must practice self-discipline, not rely on other people to force us into patterns of behavior. Rabbis offer guidance, when we request it. Rabbis are primarily teachers.

Cults often impose an unbalanced, unhealthy diet on their members. Someone might argue that Judaism imposes a kosher diet on its members. Kosher food, however, is not unhealthy. It is simply a special way of preparing regular food. One can eat (and indeed, should eat) very well-balanced meals comprising all the proper food groups and still keep kosher. (No one ever got sick from refusing to eat ham.) Cults, however, generally force on their members a diet high in one food type, so as to impair their health and inhibit their faculty of clear thought.

Furthermore, Judaism takes into account medical needs. Some religions (even some religions that are not cults) refuse to allow a sick person to break their dietary code. Judaism, however, insists that a sick person take his or her medicine. One must try and obtain kosher medicine, but if none is available, then one must take the medicine that is available, even if it is not kosher. (Of course, we’re talking about serious medical situations, not hangnails. As always, read a good book on the subject, and consult a competent Orthodox Rabbi, as medical cases vary.)

Cults are said to have an immutable dogma. Most religions have that. Judaism has it too. Judaism, however, is much more flexible than almost any other religious dogma. I often like to say that the answer to almost every question about Judaism is «It depends.»

Most cults offer a newly invented doctrine, often a composite of other popular religions.
Judaism teaches a way of life that has been a tradition for over three thousand years. If you are Jewish, then the overwhelming likelihood is that your great-grandparents were fully observant Jews, and their parents were, and their parents were, and so on back for many generations. Surely you cannot believe that your own grandparents were members of a cult.

If you are concerned because one of your children is becoming Orthodox, or if you are a teenager becoming Orthodox and your parents are giving you a hard time, read my article «Sudden Changes

Sudden Changes

Part Two: For the Baal Tshuvah Son or Daughter

How Do I Live With My Parents?

You are becoming frum. You are moving along in what you know is the right direction. Suddenly, your parents’ attitude has changed. You know you’re the same person. Don’t they realize that?

The very first thing to realize is that your parents might just be a little confused, and very scared. There are a lot of cults out there, some of them even claim to be Jewish. How are your parents to know that you haven’t joined a cult?

If your parents express that concern, give them a copy of my article «Is Judaism a Cult?» (See the link to it below.)

The next thing to do is give your parents your Rabbi’s phone number. You do have a Rabbi, right?
If not, get one immediately. Every Jew needs a Rabbi. If you are a woman or girl, you should probably also get close with your Rabbi’s wife, the Rebbetzin. (It doesn’t have to be your Rabbi’s wife. It’s usually okay to get the legal rulings of one Rabbi and get the emotional support etc. from another Rebbetzin. Just make sure they are accepted by the Orthodox community.)

Your Rabbi can help explain things to your parent that you may not be able to explain. Besides, your parents might also be more willing to accept the word of an adult.

Never forget that your parents have feelings too. It sounds trite, I know, but believe me, it’s easy to forget. It is also wrong for you to insist that someone change his life to accommodate your feelings, no matter how close you are to that person. You cannot and should not expect your parents to become religious on your account. And never should you forget that your parents are also having difficulty adjusting to the changes taking place in your life.

 The Torah teaches us, «Honor your father and mother, I am Hashem.» The Torah means, «Honor your father and mother, but above all, I am Hashem.» One is required to honor and obey one’s parents in all things, except when they command one to transgress the Torah.

This does not mean that by so doing they lose that status. If your parents tell you to transgress the Torah, you must find a polite and respectful way to tell them that you cannot follow their wishes in that matter. You are still required to honor them, and to continue to obey them in any matter that does not contradict the Torah.

For example, if your father or mother asks you, on the Sabbath, to mow the lawn, tell them that you will do it at the first opportunity after the Sabbath ends. And then do it — as soon as you are able. If your father or mother asks you do something that does not violate the Torah, the Torah requires you to do it.

Family harmony is of paramount importance. The Torah desires peace for all of us. War is only waged as a matter of necessity. Peace is the preferred option. And the best path towards peace is silence. The Talmud teaches that the world continues to exist only because of those who keep silent during arguments.

A baal tshuvah should not try to make his family frum. That will result only in family strife and alienation. If you desire your family to become frum, don’t shove it at them. Rather, let your trust in Hashem fill you so much that it overflows around you, like a cup that overflows and spills its wine into the saucer beneath it.

It is possible to find a way to live together.

Do not impose Kashrus on your family. Get your own pot and pan, a few dishes (or use paper or plastic), a tablecloth, and find a way around the problem. Read a book called Keeping Kosher in a Non-Kosher World, by Rabbi Eliezer Wolff. (The title is a bit misleading, and is really about keeping kosher in a non-kosher home.) See the link to a good bookseller, below. And as always, ask your Rabbi for guidance.

It is best that you go to a frum family for Shabbos meals. In the first place, observing Shabbos needs a Shabbos environment. Keeping Shabbos at home when your family is going through their regular routine can be trying on both them and you. And let’s be honest: your one-man or one-woman Shabbos zemiros (songs and hymns) might be beautiful and moving, but they are unlikely to sway your family towards Judaism. Besides, at this stage of your life you should be at the absorbing end, learning whatever you can, and soaking up the proper atmosphere so that you can later, when you have your own home, imbue it with that Torah flame.

The title of this article is «Sudden Changes,» but it is most healthy to keep the changes gradual. Don’t expect to assume everything at once. It is impossible, and it is unhealthy. You can’t go from zero to one-eighty in sixty seconds. I say this only to you, not your parents, because in all probability, even when you make a change gradually your parents will think it was too sudden and too fast. Remember, they can’t see what’s going on in your head, and they probably don’t want to hear about «all that religious stuff» anymore.

There is an excellent book, called After the Return, by Mordechai Becher and Moshe Newman, published by Feldheim. It is a practical guide for the newly observant, it is very well written, and it gives all the Talmudic and Halachic sources. (See below for a link to my favorite Jewish bookstore.)

Above all, keep in touch with your Rabbi. That is of the utmost importance in Judaism. He will guide you in your growth, and he will advise you concerning your study program.

My article: Is Judaism a Cult?

Tiferes Stam Judaica and Booksellers (Tell them I sent you.)

Project Genesis’ Teen Classes web page. A good place to learn about Judaism and what’s going on today in the Jewish world.

Sudden Changes

Part One: For the Parents

Is Orthodox Judaism Driving Our Family Apart?

Your daughter looks very different today. Your son speaks differently. They have become aliens from outer space. What in the world is happening to them? Are you going to lose them entirely? What does it mean to your home when your children become baalai tshuvah?

There is a growing movement in the world today, that we call the Baal Tshuvah Movement. It is not an organized movement, but its ranks continue to overflow in overwhelming numbers. A baal tshuvah (or baalas tshuvah, for women) is a formerly non-religious Jew who has chosen to become Orthodox. Surprisingly enough, this is not creating the social turbulence you would expect such a large movement to cause. Nevertheless, there are difficult moments in store for everyone.

When any person in a relationship undergoes sudden changes, the relationship will inevitably also change. And it is simply to be expected that the other partner(s) in the relationship will view the changes with some degree of anxiety. Most especially when a parent sees a child changing. Parents (healthy parents, at least) will always worry about their children, and that’s only right.

Some parents are concerned because their children have suddenly become impossible to live with. Their children will no longer eat their parents’ food, because it isn’t kosher. Suddenly they refuse to join their families on their weekly Saturday outings. They dress differently. They refuse to fit in. They want to go to a different school. Are all these changes healthy?

If you are the parent of such a child, the first thing you need to know know is that you are not losing your child. Your child is not rejecting you, and probably for the rest of his or her life he or she will say «My parents always taught me to…» about something or other. You will always occupy an important place in your child’s personality. Whether it’s a fond and happy place, is up to you and your child.

It’s important for you to know that to a large degree your relationship with your child is up to you. Not entirely, that’s true, but if you don’t reject your child, and if you don’t reject the choices he is making in life, you don’t need to lose your child either.

I’m not saying that it’s always the fault of the parent when something goes wrong in a family relationship. That is definitely not true. Nevertheless, as the parent, you often hold more control in the level of the relationship than you may be aware. The Talmud says, «When you have to push someone away, do it with your weaker hand. When you draw a person close, use your stronger hand.» This is applied most especially regarding children.

A father emailed me once to complain that Orthodox Judaism made him lose his children. His wife and children had decided to become Orthodox, and he had tried to prevent them. He and his wife eventually got divorced, and now he complains that the children refuse to visit him. Why? Because he refuses to comply with their religious requests. When they visited him, he refused to allow them to attend an Orthodox synagogue, he refused to serve them kosher food, and in general refused to accommodate their religious needs.

He argued to me that as one of the parents he has the legal right to decide his children’s religious future, just as much as their mother does. He doesn’t want them to be Orthodox, and therefore when they are in his house he should not be required to allow them to live Orthodox lives.

True, he has the right to refuse to feed them kosher food. But by insisting on his rights, he lost his children. His children have decided to be Orthodox, and he is ignoring their feelings on the matter.

 I can’t say he was morally wrong for insisting that his home and life not be disturbed by his family’s choices. But the problem is that if you look at everything solely in terms of right or wrong, you are forgetting to take into account how people feel. He can’t, in all fairness, complain that Orthodox Judaism is to blame for their feelings about him when he himself never bothered to care about their feelings!

Yes, you, as a parent, have feelings too. And it is wrong for anyone to ignore that. It is also wrong for you to insist that someone change his life and compromise his own decisions to accommodate your feelings, no matter how close you are to that person. And yes, dependent children becoming religious should take that into account as well. They cannot and should not expect their parents to become religious on their account. And never should they forget that their parents are having difficulty adjusting to the changes taking place in their child.

If your children are adults, then the matter is less complicated. They have made a choice, and they have the right to stand by it. In all probability, they do not wish to lose you as a parent either.

If you are concerned about the way your child is acting, speak to the one who has the most influence on him right now — his Rabbi or religious teacher. Don’t be afraid to talk to the Rabbi. He is very unlikely to pressure you to become religious. That’s not the way Judaism operates. The Rabbi will probably be a good mediator, and can advise both you and the child how to work together.

The Rabbi or teacher should also be able to explain to you what is going on, if your child cannot. Another benefit of this is that the Rabbi or teacher can set your child straight if he is going about things the wrong way.

So talk to the Rabbi. But if you get upset with him, the Rabbi might get the idea that you are unreasonable, and that could hurt your relationship with your child.

Rabbis almost never advise anyone to cut off their relationship with their parents, unless the parents are abusive.

The Torah teaches us, «Honor your father and mother, I am Hashem.» The Torah means, «Honor your father and mother, but above all, I am Hashem.» One is required to honor and obey one’s parents in all things, except when they command one to transgress the Torah.

The Talmud also advises parents not to tyrannize their children. Being overbearing to your children is a good way to drive them away from you. Try to work with them in this new situation. If you suspect that your child is inventing Jewish Laws in an attempt to weasel out of chores, approach his Rabbi and ask him about it. It is not far-fetched to propose that someone who has recently become Orthodox may not know all the Laws perfectly.

There was a young woman whose parents tried their hardest to prevent her from being religious. When she got some kosher dishes, her parents took them and made them treif. The end result was that when she got married she was afraid to leave her children with her parents, for fear that they would spitefully feed them non-kosher food, or do something else of that sort. This severely harmed their relationship with their own grandchildren. Thus, these parents later regretted their earlier attitude.

Family harmony is of paramount importance. The Torah desires peace for all of us. It is possible to find a way to live together.

Because your child is still learning about Judaism, expect him or her to be attending classes, or reading a great deal of the time. This is healthy, but you are not out of line to suggest that they also occasionally get some physical exercise. Just bear in mind that in his (or her) new chosen way path, your former baseball star is quite likely now to opt for a more academic lifestyle.

Your child will also be spending time at the homes of Orthodox Jews, especially during the Sabbath. It is very difficult to properly observe the Sabbath in a home where everyone else is violating it. It is not another rejection. For your child, it’s a learning opportunity. If you are concerned about who these people are, you might call your child’s Rabbi and ask about them.

Readers of this website may already know that I married a baalas tshuvah, and that she has her own website, Kresel’s Korner. She has written about this subject as well, and on her site you can find an article called Mom and Me, which has an open letter from my my mother-in-law about how families can bridge their differences in religious approach. That, and my wife’s response attached to her mother’s letter, is the perfect companion article to this one.

Though my mother-in-law makes this point as well, it can’t be said often enough. Be grateful that with all the things that kids get into these days: drugs, cults, alcohol, raves, rampant pre-marital relations, suicide, and who knows what else, your child is turning to Judaism. It could be a lot worse.