What is a Cult?

Cults start off with smiles but get controlling and nasty very quickly. Questions about the organisation, its beliefs and particularly about its leader are forbidden...

3 min

Rivka Levy

Posted on 14.05.2014

People from our secular past sometimes accuse us of being a 'brainwashed religious fanatics.' The other thing baal teshuvas (returnees to G-d) often hear is the accusation that they've joined a cult.
In the spirit of open debate, I thought I'd go and research what a cult actually is, and then you, dear reader, can decide for yourself (unless you've already been brainwashed 😉
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "cult" this way:
1) A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
2) A system or community of religious worship and ritual.
According to this second definition, all organised religion (even the Progressive Temple you belong to, Madam) is a 'cult'. But when people throw the word 'cult' at you, they're usually talking about the first one, with all its connotations of brainwashing, thought reform and control. So let's explore what would have to be going on for my yeshiva, dorm or synagogue to really be considered what we'll call a 'destructive cult'.
First, destructive cults fool people into joining them. They won't tell you that you're about to be brainwashed into giving up all your personal freedom; or that there's a charismatic (and mentally-ill) 'leader' with 83 BMWs just waiting for you to join his organisation and donate your life savings to help pay for his opulent lifestyle.
So if the religious organisation is being honest and transparent about what it says and what it does, it's not a 'cult'.
Another thing that happens is that destructive cults start off all smiles, and get manipulative, controlling and nasty very quickly. Questions are discouraged. Questions about the organisation, about its beliefs, and particularly about its leader are forbidden.
Anyone who tries to go against the party line will be publicly humiliated and shamed, sending a very clear message that you have to put up and shut up. Again, this is the polar opposite of what goes on in bona fide orthodox Jewish institutions, where questions, and thinking for yourself, are encouraged and even relished.
Next, we have what's popularly called 'brainwashing'. This is where a person's ego, or sense of self, is routinely broken down, until all independent thought is eradicated, and they all just parrot the same lines, and express exactly the same opinions as other cult-members.
I can't count the number of times I've been called brainwashed. Usually, I get called 'brainwashed' when I'm challenging someone else's long-held, destructive, false belief that 'Aliens created the world (as opposed to G-d)'; or, 'I'm perfect and don't need to change'; or 'there's nothing wrong with spending hours surfing the net."
Just before Galileo got burnt at the stake for challenging official church doctrine that the world was flat, they probably also accused him of trying to 'brainwash' people. I know you're not meant to quote secular films, but out of all the rubbish I watched, the scene in the Life of Brian where all the 'devotees' start chanting together that they 'are all individuals' still pops into my head with frightening regularity. (They stoned the person who dared to say he wasn't an individual…)
Again, authentic Breslev, and authentic Judaism is a million miles away from these sorts of tactics. Breslev in particular puts the emphasis on making people feel GOOD; and encourages them to find and develop their unique, individual talents in the service of G-d.
This is the popular opposite of 'breaking down people's ego' and making them into depressed religious robots.
If people start accepting themselves (and others) more; if they start loving themselves (and others) more; if they start developing some genuine humility and awareness of G-d; and if they walk around much happier, and with much more peace of mind – then they're not in a cult and they're definitely not 'brainwashed'.
What's more, if they've stopped tuning into the secular media (which really is one of the biggest brainwashing scams on the planet), then they're probably some of the most self-confident, authentic and independent-thinkers you'd ever care to meet.
Am I saying that cults never happen in the Jewish world? Nope, I'm not. How do you think Xtianity got started, or the cult of the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi? What I am saying, though, is that if you're becoming a kinder, more accepting, more loving and less-judgemental person; and if your rabbis are pushing you to grow and to question and to challenge societal norms (especially Facebook and i-Phones…) – then you are about as far away from being in a cult as you can be.
And anyone who can't see that or accept that has clearly been brainwashed 😉


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