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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 ignored.
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."