by Heshy Fried on May 2, 2014
I’ll be honest with you folks, I have always thought that by being an Orthodox Jew I was part of a cult, but Cross-Currents just published an article that has cleared my conscience and it has allowed me to breathe more easily because apparently there are cults and then there are legitimate cults, amen, I mean Torah organizations. Apparently, Ami and Mishpacha magazines have been competing with each other on the issue of whether or not Lev Tahor is a cult and Yair Hoffman (our dear friend who tried unsuccessfully to ban leggings) has finally given us a reason to believe that no other Orthodox Jews are members of any cult. Let’s take a look at his findings.
How do we differentiate a “cult” from a legitimate Torah organization? Much of this revolves around how we define the term “cult.” Chazal do speak of cults that existed in the time of the Beis HaMikdash and do refer to the cult of Essenes found in Yosifun (See for example a fascinating Maharsha on Kiddushin 71a). Chazal also reference a cult of misbodedim. There are also numerous pshatim in why Moshe Rabbeinu’s name is not mentioned in a number of places so that the religion not take on the characteristics of a cult of personality.
But aside from the issue of how a cult is to be defined, it is sometimes not so easy to tell. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) believe that a group that displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, is one such indication. This, however, can easily be confused with legitimate emunas chachomim. To differentiate, we can perhaps add the caveat that applies when this is being done against the belief system of the leading sages of Israel and against a clear indication in Torah sources.
Cults and their leaders are bad, but if they are gedolei hatorah, the Torah allows them. Thanks for clearing that up. As a frum Jew, I’ve never ever been exposed to anyone who’s overly zealous about anything.
A second indication is when? questioning and dissent are discouraged or even punished. Although this too can be found in some of our circles – the differentiation can be made in degree of discouragement and in punishment. It is not normal to lock children in a basement and there have been a few such allegations here.
Of course questioning and dissent of our gedolim are encouraged, that’s why the gemara is so vast.
A third indication is in implementing? mind-altering practices that are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). Were medications given to children without doctor approval to keep them in line? There are allegations of such practices here.
No one has ever suppressed doubts in the frum community, because we don’t have them. For someone not to believe in Sinai (we are the only people who claim such a big number at the revelation after all) is just silly. We also never try to keep children in line, we encourage them to pour out their feelings and to always talk about what happened to them in the mikvah.
A fourth indication is when the leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. This happens to a degree in some of our circles as well, even though many Gedolei Torah believe that it is very unhealthy and should be discouraged. The difference between a legitimate Torah group and a cult would seem to lie in degrees here.
Anyone who is truly a Torah Jew knows that our leaders never tell us how to act or think or feel. Only non-legitimate Torah organizations such as Lev Tahor would do this. Even the gedolim tell us to be free spirits.
A fifth indication is if the group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader and members, and has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. This latter point is the crux of the issue. The excessive practice of the burka here has created that.
As a lifelong Orthodox Jew I can say with full honesty that I have never heard any sort of us-vs-them spoken. I have never heard anyone call us the chosen people or chas v’shalom make a reference to us frum Jews vs. the modern orthodox, non-frum, frei, sephardic, kippah sruga, converts, or BT’s. Never in my life have a heard an orthodox Jews refer to whites vs. blacks, democrats vs. republicans, or Jews vs. non-Jews. We never see conflict with secular society and seek to embrace everyone else as our equals. Obviously there are bad apples everywhere, but as a group the frum Jews are better at this than everyone else.
A sixth indication is when the leader is not accountable to any other religious authorities.
Our leaders are accountable to Hashem.
Yair Hoffman has once again showed us why so many of our dissenters are wrong at labeling Orthodox Judaism as a cult, but he furthers his proof along by hammering the point home.
The ICSA lists other indications too. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. ? Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The group is preoccupied with making money.? Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. ? Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
I don’t devote much time or money to being frum, neither do most of the people I know. Frum people generally not friends with only group members, remember that famous picture from the kotel with a kippah srugah guy davening in close proximity to a guy in a black hat, such diversity! Kiruv organizations are preoccupied with making members frum, but not with bringing in new members. People who become frum or Jewish are never expected to break ties with their non-frum friends.
However, labeling an entire group of people “a cult” can very well be a violation of the laws of Lashon Horah, which are simultaneously both quite serious and complex. The ramifications of a violation of Lashon haRah can often be very devastating. Entire reputations can be destroyed in a matter of days. Indeed, Shlomo HaMelech – King Solomon wrote (Mishlei 18:21), “Maves veChaim beyad Lashon – Death and Life are in the hands of the tongue” which refers to the terrible consequences of Lashon Horah (Erachin 15b).
He had me until this, then I started doubting the whole thing because one of the things we commonly see is that any form of dissent against leaders or entire groups is loshon horah. This puts them in the protective custody of halachos created by folks who didn’t want any disagreement. In my opinion, the laws of loshon horah foster the Orthodox Jewish cult.
At the same time, however, an incomplete understanding of these laws could also lead to some dire consequences on the opposite end of the spectrum. When people erroneously forbid information from being disseminated on account of thinking that it is Lashon Horah and forbidden, people cannot take protective measures. At times this can be quite devastating.