"There are factions in Judaism which want you to lose your identity for the sake of the identity of the leader or group. In fact, for some this is placed as an ideal. In that sense they are cult-like, and I would argue not natively Jewish. In native Judaism everyone is seen as an individual and respected for their own uniqueness no matter what level they are on."
Above right: The Skvere Rebbe, Rabbi Dovid Twersky
Is Judaism a cult?
Judaism offers, through Torah, a practical structure for living, but does not impose rigid way of thinking and theology
Rabbi Levi Brackman • Ynet
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief" by Lawrence Wright is a truly troubling book. It details the “religion” of Scientology from its founding in the 1950’s to the present day. What I found most disturbing, however, was the description of the Sea Organization, which is Scientology’s Religious Order that makes up its most dedicated members.
Members of the Sea Organization sign billion year contracts with the church and they lose all rights to their own identities. They make very little money and small infractions against the church can cost them their liberty. This is one of the reasons Scientology is considered a cult by many.
One of the major differences between a cult and a religion, in my opinion, is that in a cult the higher you get the more your identity is expected to be subsumed into the group. Which got me thinking about Judaism.
There are factions in Judaism which want you to lose your identity for the sake of the identity of the leader or group. In fact, for some this is placed as an ideal. In that sense they are cult-like, and I would argue not natively Jewish. In native Judaism everyone is seen as an individual and respected for their own uniqueness no matter what level they are on.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the concept of counting. Counting is mentioned about two primary issues in the Torah – the counting of the Israelites in the desert, and the counting of the Omer, which are the 49 days that are enumerated between the festival of Passover and the festival of Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks).
In addition, the Israelites were counted in the form of a census, done in an unusual way. People donated a coin that was worth half of a shekel to the temple and then the coins were counted. The number of coins therefore told Moses how many Israelites there were of fighting age (Exodus 30). According to tradition, God had the Israelites counted to show his love for them – just like a person will count the things they hold precious (Rashi, Numbers 1:1).
We also count the days between Passover and Shavuot (Leviticus 23). Tradition has it that the ancient Israelites were so excited about receiving the Ten Commandments that they counted down the days. In addition, they had a lot of preparation to do for the awesome day of revelation that was to come at Sinai, so they counted the days to ensure that each day was used properly.
Inherent in this is the idea that each day is unique in its own right but ultimately leads to one aim--in this case, the revelation on Sinai. In this sense the individual days lose their identity in their ultimate aim of day 50 – the day of revelation.
Judaism gives power to the individual
Interestingly, there is a prohibition against counting Jews directly. This is based on the verse which states, "And the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted" (Hosea, 2). This is why the Israelites were counted using half shekel coins as proxies.
But why shouldn't Jews be counted directly?
Tradition gives numerous reasons, but I suspect that it also has to do with the implication of counting itself. As with the counting of the Omer, inherent in counting is the idea that each individual part makes up a whole. When you say you have a thousand objects, each individual object is, in a way, subsumed in that final number of one thousand. In that sense the one thousand imposes its identity on each individual object.
In Judaism, identities are never imposed from above. Each individual is charged with finding their own identity within the service of God. Therefore, even when all Jews come together as “the Jewish people” they are not counted because the final number would, in a manner of speaking, subsume their individual identities, which is primary.
It is their own individual identities that make up the whole of the Jewish people. It is not the whole which informs the identities of the individuals, rather it the other way around. It is the identities of the individuals that informs the whole. The prohibition against counting individuals as part of a whole reinforces this idea in the most profound way.
This is one of the aspects that makes Judaism so wonderful to me. Judaism is not and could never be described as a cult precisely for this reason. Cults start with the leader to whom cult members must be subservient and to whom their identities are subsumed. Judaism gives power to the individual – much like a democracy that has laws and structure but allows the individual to think for themselves and express themselves freely.
Judaism offers, through the Torah, a practical structure for living, but does not impose a rigid way of thinking and theology. On the contrary, it allows the practitioner and the one who studies the Torah the ability to express their own individuality in terms of interpretation and scholarship. This is why Jews discuss the Torah and, even young yeshiva students, are encouraged to have their own opinions and to create and write their own novel interpretations on the Torah.
Enforcing mind control or asking the individual to subsume their identity into the identity of the leader or the group misses this important and fundamental element of what makes Judaism special. Such an ideology is cult-like and should not be confused with native Judaism.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life