Jewish Atheist

An agnostic atheist perspective
from a once orthodox Jew.
Judaism and Cults
I saw a few people talking about chassidic judaism and how it’s not a cult - and it got me wondering: Why not? Certainly it seems that way to many people, and certainly there are practices which seem… well… cultish.This is true of religion in general, unsurprisingly, but particularlyamongst “ultra-orthodox” jews.
Back when I was a religious undergrad, I actually wrote a research paper for my senior psych undergrad that was about brainwashing and cults. (Turns out, brainwashing doesn’t really exist… but heavy indoctrination and other psychological phenomenon do.) Anyways, it did give me an opportunity to study a lot about cults and I remember, even then, being uncomfortably surprised by the similarities to my then very religious circles. And while there are many ways to define a cult, certain behaviors are generally deemed to be harmful. Those are, for lack of better terminology, the differences between a friendly cult and a dangerous cult.
Googling about cult characteristics, I found two “checklists”. Now, this is too simplistic on three levels: 1) Determining a dangerous cult just isn’t that simple, but it’s a good way to start analyzing a group. 2) There are so many sects and philosophies in judaism, that I’d really need to do this for at least 6 different orthodox judaisms! (More on that soon.) 3) I also think a checklist is somewhat simplistic bc the answer isn’t always so black-and-white. As such, let’s imagine it as a scale of 1-5, where 1 = not at all; 2 = just a bit; 3 = somewhat, yes; 4 = much; and 5 = absolutely. I’ll provide my own scoring but I encourage you to score it yourself for your own assessment. Also, as one might expect, the scores will depend on which branch of orthodoxy one is talking about, so I’ll provide a range, where the lower score will typically represent the more liberal “modern” orthodox rating and the higher will typically represent the more ultra-orthodox fundamentalist rating:

Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - RevisedJanja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

…Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.‪
1) The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law. 
I’ll give this a 2 for orthodox Judaism in general. It does revere god, moses, the sages, and leading rabbis etc. but it is distributed amongst many people; however, let’s not forget, the range of power and awe narrows and those earlier people are essentially unquestioned (e.g. no orthodox rabbi can really overrule the opinion of a talmudic sage; instead, he must derive his opinion from theirs.)
That said, I would give this a 4 or 5 for chassidic judaism. They display a lot of ‘leader-worship’, with the best example being chabad and the late lubavitcher rebbi. However, that power too is still distributed to an extent, which is why I’m not giving it a strong 5.
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‪2) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
There are certainly sects of Orthodox Judaism for which I’d rate this as low as a 1 (maybe a 1.5 since these are often people who embrace questions - but give really misinformed answers), but certainly there are sects where I’d rate this a 5. Again, chassidic sects come to mind. And I’ve already written about many cases, such as the hasidic “morannos” who have to hide their true disbelief for fear of the repercussions. {x}
‪3)Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
I could give this a 1 for much of orthodox judaism, particularly those not particularly religious. But consider, for instance, prayer. It is essentially a chant and a meditation. Of course, many may not take “advantage” of that element, brushing through it (as I said, I could give their judaism a 1), but many take full “advantage” of it; again, chassidim come to mind.
Or how about singing and dancing? Again, could rate pretty low for some groups (maybe a 2) but pretty damn high for others. What are lots of chassidic people doing on their day off from work? They’re at a tish! Have a few drinks, sing some songs or chants, do some dancing, talk about god. Um yeah, I’d rate that around a 4 (not higher since it’s not really imposed on people in abusive ways). I’d also consider whether talmudic study - what many eat, breathe, and live while in yeshiva - fits into this category. But I’ll leave that. Btw, let’s not forget to mention the na-nach-nachman guys.
4)The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
I’d say that modern orthodox judaism scores pretty low here, maybe a 1 or 2. Aside from some basic laws about modesty, and some basic sense of jewish ethics, it’s pretty hands-off and not much more intense than how secular society promotes its values. But that’s modern orthodoxy; ultraorthodoxy could probably rate around a 4 or 5. There’s a lot of community pressure on who one can marry, what jobs are appropriate, very strict dress codes, where one can live (in the community, of course), how one should act, whether the internet or smartphones are “kosher” (which leads to the important point of controlling what information adherents have “permission” to learn!), etc. 
5) The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
Orthodox Judaism in general would have to score at least a 3 on this since we are “the chosen people”. And ultraorthodox groups could rate at least a 4 considering the esteem and status of their leaders. (e.g. talking to god, to angels, making golems, plummeting the depths of the kabalah, etc.) Again, need I mention chabad?
6)The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
I’d give orthodoxy a minimum of 2 bc so much of the orthodox mentality is just that: strength through resistance. Many of our holidays are stories of survival, of us vs the world. (e.g. purim, battling the world physically; and channuka, battling them philosophically.) And perhaps those sentiments are somewhat sensible - afterall, we’ve had a rather horrible history - but it does seem to characterize so much of the religious mentality. Furthermore, I’d give this a 4 or 5 for chassidism which sees all of the non-orthodox world is a heathen nightmare (and is probably wary of even modern orthodoxy). These are people who don’t teach their kids English bc they don’t have anything to do with the “others” - and these people can live in the middle of Brooklyn, NY! These are also the people who keep getting caught making outrageously racist comments. So, yeah, upward of 4.
7) The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).‪
I’d like to say that ability to abuse the position of power is very low in Judaism in general, but I know it isn’t quite so. Again, in the modern orthodox world, I’d give a 2 - but, again, in the ultraorthodox world it can go pretty high, depending on who you ask. I’d say at least a 4. There are quite many stories about rabbis doing horrific things but getting away with it simply bc they’re the big kahunas. What they say, goes. (At least until someone finally breaks and goes to the cops.)
8)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 (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
It’s somewhat difficult to imagine how people would’ve reacted before joining bc many, most, of these people were raised in it. But my guess is that if they didn’t have exposure to it beforehand, they’d probably find certain behaviors inexcusable. This includes using welfare money to study in yeshiva, using yeshiva as a way to skirt army service in Israel, relegating women to second-class citizens, depriving kids of a proper education, bigotry, etc. However, I don’t think these quite compare to the despicable practices some cults ask of their members. I’d give it between a 2 and 4.
9)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.
Guilt? Shame? In Judaism? 2-4. 
10)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.
Between 1 and 4.
11)The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Actually pretty low, but this is somewhat different since orthodoxy in the past few hundred years hasn’t really tried to convert people. Of course, this isn’t true of non-orthodox sects, and is somewhat true of a sect like chabad which evangelizes jews to become chabadnics and non-jews, to an extent, to become “sons of noah”. But all in all, I’m not sure this is good metric for Judaism. That said, I’d give it a 1-3, just bc there is an emphasis on getting non-orthodox jews to start practicing orthodoxy.
12)The group is preoccupied with making money.
Maybe individuals, lol, but as a group, I’d give this a 1 or 2. (I probably would’ve just said 1 had I not seen the chabad telethon recently… damn, chabad is not looking good here!)
13)Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
Anywhere from a 2 to 4.
14) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
2-5. Though many chassidic sects will include other orthodox sects as being “kosher.”
15)The most loyal members (the “true believers”) 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.
3-5. Simple as this: How many orthodox jews feel that it’d be fine to just become a conservative (more liberal) jew?How many of them feel there’s a purpose to life without Judaism? The group is their everything.
(So, not that it means much, but out of a possible score range of 15 -75, my total ranges from 27.5- 61.)
Here’s the second checklist I found(ironically, written by a Rabbi) {x}:

Cults are typically defined by five characteristics. First, cults tend to centralize power in the hands of a single individual or small group that is considered beyond questions.

2-4.5

Second, they treat all questions about the group and its beliefs as intolerable challenges to the group’s authority and authenticity.

1-4.

Third, they demean all those who do not share their beliefs and sow fear and mistrust amongst their believers about all such people.

2-5.

Fourth, they typically cut off all or most opportunities for members to interact freely with those outside the group.

1-5.

And finally, they take revenge upon those who choose to leave the group, in ways which include, cutting them off from all relationships with those who remain inside, confiscation of material goods and even physical harm.

1-5.
But again, that’s just my rating. In fact, the score doesn’t even matter. It’s just a springboard for discussion and analyzing it. For instance, I’m realizing that chabad is clearly more cultish than other chassidic groups - but also that ultra-orthodox groups are way more cultish than “modern orthodox” groups.
All in all, seems to me that ultra-orthodox judaism definitely has cultish characteristics, but could possibly be on the borderline to becoming a “dangerous cult” - but that might depend on the individual evaluating and the particular sect he has in mind.
But what do you think?

Judaism and Cults

I saw a few people talking about chassidic judaism and how it’s not a cult - and it got me wondering: Why not? Certainly it seems that way to many people, and certainly there are practices which seem… well… cultish.This is true of religion in general, unsurprisingly, but particularlyamongst “ultra-orthodox” jews.

Back when I was a religious undergrad, I actually wrote a research paper for my senior psych undergrad that was about brainwashing and cults. (Turns out, brainwashing doesn’t really exist… but heavy indoctrination and other psychological phenomenon do.) Anyways, it did give me an opportunity to study a lot about cults and I remember, even then, being uncomfortably surprised by the similarities to my then very religious circles. And while there are many ways to define a cult, certain behaviors are generally deemed to be harmful. Those are, for lack of better terminology, the differences between a friendly cult and a dangerous cult.

Googling about cult characteristics, I found two “checklists”. Now, this is too simplistic on three levels: 1) Determining a dangerous cult just isn’t that simple, but it’s a good way to start analyzing a group. 2) There are so many sects and philosophies in judaism, that I’d really need to do this for at least 6 different orthodox judaisms! (More on that soon.) 3) I also think a checklist is somewhat simplistic bc the answer isn’t always so black-and-white. As such, let’s imagine it as a scale of 1-5, where 1 = not at all; 2 = just a bit; 3 = somewhat, yes; 4 = much; and 5 = absolutely. I’ll provide my own scoring but I encourage you to score it yourself for your own assessment. Also, as one might expect, the scores will depend on which branch of orthodoxy one is talking about, so I’ll provide a range, where the lower score will typically represent the more liberal “modern” orthodox rating and the higher will typically represent the more ultra-orthodox fundamentalist rating:

Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups - Revised
Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

…Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.
1) The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

I’ll give this a 2 for orthodox Judaism in general. It does revere god, moses, the sages, and leading rabbis etc. but it is distributed amongst many people; however, let’s not forget, the range of power and awe narrows and those earlier people are essentially unquestioned (e.g. no orthodox rabbi can really overrule the opinion of a talmudic sage; instead, he must derive his opinion from theirs.)

That said, I would give this a 4 or 5 for chassidic judaism. They display a lot of ‘leader-worship’, with the best example being chabad and the late lubavitcher rebbi. However, that power too is still distributed to an extent, which is why I’m not giving it a strong 5.

‪2) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

There are certainly sects of Orthodox Judaism for which I’d rate this as low as a 1 (maybe a 1.5 since these are often people who embrace questions - but give really misinformed answers), but certainly there are sects where I’d rate this a 5. Again, chassidic sects come to mind. And I’ve already written about many cases, such as the hasidic “morannos” who have to hide their true disbelief for fear of the repercussions. {x}

‪3)Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

I could give this a 1 for much of orthodox judaism, particularly those not particularly religious. But consider, for instance, prayer. It is essentially a chant and a meditation. Of course, many may not take “advantage” of that element, brushing through it (as I said, I could give their judaism a 1), but many take full “advantage” of it; again, chassidim come to mind.

Or how about singing and dancing? Again, could rate pretty low for some groups (maybe a 2) but pretty damn high for others. What are lots of chassidic people doing on their day off from work? They’re at a tish! Have a few drinks, sing some songs or chants, do some dancing, talk about god. Um yeah, I’d rate that around a 4 (not higher since it’s not really imposed on people in abusive ways). I’d also consider whether talmudic study - what many eat, breathe, and live while in yeshiva - fits into this category. But I’ll leave that. Btw, let’s not forget to mention the na-nach-nachman guys.

4)The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

I’d say that modern orthodox judaism scores pretty low here, maybe a 1 or 2. Aside from some basic laws about modesty, and some basic sense of jewish ethics, it’s pretty hands-off and not much more intense than how secular society promotes its values. But that’s modern orthodoxy; ultraorthodoxy could probably rate around a 4 or 5. There’s a lot of community pressure on who one can marry, what jobs are appropriate, very strict dress codes, where one can live (in the community, of course), how one should act, whether the internet or smartphones are “kosher” (which leads to the important point of controlling what information adherents have “permission” to learn!), etc. 

5) The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

Orthodox Judaism in general would have to score at least a 3 on this since we are “the chosen people”. And ultraorthodox groups could rate at least a 4 considering the esteem and status of their leaders. (e.g. talking to god, to angels, making golems, plummeting the depths of the kabalah, etc.) Again, need I mention chabad?

6)The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

I’d give orthodoxy a minimum of 2 bc so much of the orthodox mentality is just that: strength through resistance. Many of our holidays are stories of survival, of us vs the world. (e.g. purim, battling the world physically; and channuka, battling them philosophically.) And perhaps those sentiments are somewhat sensible - afterall, we’ve had a rather horrible history - but it does seem to characterize so much of the religious mentality. Furthermore, I’d give this a 4 or 5 for chassidism which sees all of the non-orthodox world is a heathen nightmare (and is probably wary of even modern orthodoxy). These are people who don’t teach their kids English bc they don’t have anything to do with the “others” - and these people can live in the middle of Brooklyn, NY! These are also the people who keep getting caught making outrageously racist comments. So, yeah, upward of 4.

7) The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

I’d like to say that ability to abuse the position of power is very low in Judaism in general, but I know it isn’t quite so. Again, in the modern orthodox world, I’d give a 2 - but, again, in the ultraorthodox world it can go pretty high, depending on who you ask. I’d say at least a 4. There are quite many stories about rabbis doing horrific things but getting away with it simply bc they’re the big kahunas. What they say, goes. (At least until someone finally breaks and goes to the cops.)

8)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 (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

It’s somewhat difficult to imagine how people would’ve reacted before joining bc many, most, of these people were raised in it. But my guess is that if they didn’t have exposure to it beforehand, they’d probably find certain behaviors inexcusable. This includes using welfare money to study in yeshiva, using yeshiva as a way to skirt army service in Israel, relegating women to second-class citizens, depriving kids of a proper education, bigotry, etc. However, I don’t think these quite compare to the despicable practices some cults ask of their members. I’d give it between a 2 and 4.

9)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.

Guilt? Shame? In Judaism? 2-4.

10)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.

Between 1 and 4.

11)The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Actually pretty low, but this is somewhat different since orthodoxy in the past few hundred years hasn’t really tried to convert people. Of course, this isn’t true of non-orthodox sects, and is somewhat true of a sect like chabad which evangelizes jews to become chabadnics and non-jews, to an extent, to become “sons of noah”. But all in all, I’m not sure this is good metric for Judaism. That said, I’d give it a 1-3, just bc there is an emphasis on getting non-orthodox jews to start practicing orthodoxy.

12)The group is preoccupied with making money.

Maybe individuals, lol, but as a group, I’d give this a 1 or 2. (I probably would’ve just said 1 had I not seen the chabad telethon recently… damn, chabad is not looking good here!)

13)Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

Anywhere from a 2 to 4.

14) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

2-5. Though many chassidic sects will include other orthodox sects as being “kosher.”

15)The most loyal members (the “true believers”) 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.

3-5. Simple as this: How many orthodox jews feel that it’d be fine to just become a conservative (more liberal) jew?How many of them feel there’s a purpose to life without Judaism? The group is their everything.

(So, not that it means much, but out of a possible score range of 15 -75, my total ranges from 27.5- 61.)

Here’s the second checklist I found(ironically, written by a Rabbi) {x}:

Cults are typically defined by five characteristics. First, cults tend to centralize power in the hands of a single individual or small group that is considered beyond questions.

2-4.5

Second, they treat all questions about the group and its beliefs as intolerable challenges to the group’s authority and authenticity.

1-4.

Third, they demean all those who do not share their beliefs and sow fear and mistrust amongst their believers about all such people.

2-5.

Fourth, they typically cut off all or most opportunities for members to interact freely with those outside the group.

1-5.

And finally, they take revenge upon those who choose to leave the group, in ways which include, cutting them off from all relationships with those who remain inside, confiscation of material goods and even physical harm.

1-5.

But again, that’s just my rating. In fact, the score doesn’t even matter. It’s just a springboard for discussion and analyzing it. For instance, I’m realizing that chabad is clearly more cultish than other chassidic groups - but also that ultra-orthodox groups are way more cultish than “modern orthodox” groups.

All in all, seems to me that ultra-orthodox judaism definitely has cultish characteristics, but could possibly be on the borderline to becoming a “dangerous cult” - but that might depend on the individual evaluating and the particular sect he has in mind.

But what do you think?

  1. jewishatheist posted this