Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Judaism a Cult?

First, in the “O Canada” category: The radio is full of reports today that if we make it through the day without measurable snow, we will have the first snow-free November in Toronto since 1847. A snow-free November is an oddity…! And what really gets me is all the interviews with people who talk about how wonderful this is; don’t they know that most of the world doesn’t have snow in November? If they don’t want snow in November, why don’t they go join the rest of civilization outside the Arctic Circle?

Come to think of it, that actually relates to our topic; hold on to that question, please.

Last week I spent some time with a Christian gentleman who marveled to me that Judaism so encourages religious questioning. He was very impressed with our emphasis on religious literacy and serious continuing education for all, and he was certain that this must catalyze highly challenging debate for our religious leaders.

Judaism does encourage debate, of course, but only in certain areas (note: I speak here of traditional observance.); other areas are quite out of bounds:
• R’ Akiva decrees a ban on ספרים החיצונים, works of heresy (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).
• The mishnah forbids inquiring about “what is above, what is below, what came before and what happens after” (Mishnah Chagigah 2:1).
• Even the Rambam, Maimonides, the heralded advocate of secular study, writes explicitly (Hilchot Yesodei haTorah 4:13) that one may only study the cosmos after “filling his belly” with study of the Talmud, and that one may not study works of idolatrous or heretical thought, lest one be drawn after it (Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 2:2-3).

Certainly, Judaism endorses questioning, but specifically regarding the accepted text of the Torah, the accepted set of commandments, the accepted language of intramural debate:
• “What are we meant to learn from Yaakov and Esav, from Dinah and Shechem, from our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt?”
• “How are Rashi’s comments on the laws of eating a picked fruit on Shabbat resolved with the laws of muktzeh?”
• “What does the Torah say about surrogate pregnancy?”

All of our permitted investigations take as given that the stories of our ancestors are meant to provide ethical instruction, that the principles of Shabbat are internally consistent, that the Torah presents extrapolable guidance on issues far beyond its literal text. We are all required, by law, to begin from an identical starting point of axioms, and only afterward are we able to go for each other’s philosophical throats.

Which leads me to my title question: Is Judaism a Cult?

I define a “Cult” as an ideocentric group which forbids questioning and forbids interaction with those outside its boundaries, lest one be drawn astray.

And based on my principle that certain questions and certain materials are out of bounds, it is possible to argue that Yes, Judaism is a Cult.

I am often bothered by this question, particularly when I see Jews make claims about the special character of our Torah without actually knowing anything about others’ texts and traditions. How could I claim, “There is nothing like our Torah,” if I don’t know anything about any text held sacred by others? How could I say, “That rabbi is so brilliant, he could have been an incredible cosmologist/author/philosopher,” if I know nothing about those fields and their experts? Does that not reinforce the idea that we are, in fact, a closed-minded cult?

It’s like us Torontonians with our snow. People who are not thrilled with a frozen world of November snow, but who would never consider anything else, are cultic as well; it’s the Cult of Canada.

But I do think there is a difference between Judaism’s traditional restrictions on questions, and the cult’s ban on investigation. The result (non-questioning) is the same, but the idea behind it is very different.

I see a difference between a Jewish ideology that says, “This philosophy is designed to address certain issues, but as part of doing so it accepts certain items on faith,” and a cultic ideology that declares, “This philosophy is frightened of being undermined.” Both end up in the same place, but they take quite different routes.

The cult fears being undermined; any question which endangers its security is automatically verboten, not based upon a philosophical argument but based upon the natural danger to its system. That fear is what dictates what is in and out of bounds. One day the high priest could hold forth on a topic – and the next day he could refuse to discuss the same topic, when a question is raised. Rule One of the cult is, “Protect the cult.”

In contrast, Judaism is designed to address certain issues and so deepen and broaden and enrich spiritual life. It is meant to connect human to Gd, to build a healthy and faithful community, to address the way one lives life. It is meant to address peoplehood and individual growth. It is meant to address the place of a person in this world. And those are the areas that are up for discussion and debate within Judaism’s philosophy.

An organic part of that philosophy, though, is the concept of אמונה, of acceptance of certain, non-negotiable givens, elements that are beyond the scope of Judaism’s investigation because of the very nature of human and Deity.

This idea of אמונה, of core belief which is not logical or rational but simply revelatory and accepted, means that topics like “The Origins of Gd,” “Free Will: How do you know?” and “What will happen in the end” are beyond logical discussion. The discussions are off-limits not because they are a threat, but because they have no meaning within this religion and its goals and conversations.

We do end up in the same practical place as the cult – note the Rambam’s language above, “lest one be drawn after it” – but that’s for causes pragmatic rather than philosophical. The core difference remains: A cult’s philosophy is to protect itself. Judaism’s philosophy is to answer great questions and inform lives. And therein lies the difference.

Enough bloviation. Am I wrong? What do you think?

[Note: Part II is here.]


  1. Although you reiterate that there's no practical difference between the closedmindedness of a cult system and that of an Emuna system, you seem to hint that there could be some practical distinction (nafka mina) when you suggest the example of a cult's high priest lecturing on a topic one day and refusing to talk about it the next. Are there, in fact, actual nafka minas, and if so, could you flesh out a little more what they might be?

    If not, what difference does it make what the underlying reason for the philosophical circumscription is? Whether or not we should feel good about it?

  2. Hi Isaac,

    I believe that this is an important practical difference; the systematic exclusion of irrelevant topics is far more appealing, to me, than the simple rejection of all that one fears.

    But in the end, I believe that the practical differences may not be as important as one's personal comfort with the system, as odd as that sounds.

  3. If it walks like a duck.....

    IMHO the transmission in many circles is exactly what you articulated-we are afraid of being undermined , so why expose ourselves to any thoughts that might cause trouble.

    Trouble is you can't build the walls high enough.

    Joel Rich

  4. I don't see the distinction. 30 years ago you could believe in an ancient Earth and in Hashem working through evolution - today many Jewish leaders insist that is heresy. What is that if not the cult leaders changing their views in order to protect the cult?

    Too many people think Chillul Hashem is caused by evil acts performed by Jews becoming known - simply performing the evil acts is not considered a Chillul Hashem. What is that but protecting the cult?

  5. I don't think you can make the statement about Judaism per se -- even traditional orthodox Judaism. After all, "traditional" is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak.

    Some groups of Jews insulate themselves from the rest of the world and discourage questions around certain topics, but others do not have an insular an existence -- and are still very traditional Jews.

    I think there's another difference with the limits of questioning: Jewish children (and adults) are encouraged to ask questions as they learn. Perhaps it's the way the questions are handled that makes a difference

  6. Joel-

    Regarding the former example: I'm not that old, but I am fairly certain, based on published works from the period, that the same circles that protest such thinking today did the same 30 years ago.

    With great respect, I must differ here. I use the word "traditional" in its most literal sense - following the path of Judaism's practitioners across the generations. You will not find anyone among Jewish sages and leaders, pre-Enlightenment, who presented Judaism as permitting, let alone encouraging, certain lines of questioning.

  7. 30 years ago Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's works were accepted as acceptable even by charedim. Much of what he has to say about the age of the Universe is exactly the same as Rabbi Slifkin says today.

    See Failed Messiah for a summary of Kaplan's teaching.

  8. Judaism certainly has aspects that can be considered cultish. I worry about friends who are involved in communities in which asking questions is frowned upon.

  9. Throughout my experience of Jewish education, questioning - even of fundamentals - was encouraged, provided that it was motivated by a sincere desire to understand.

    But I would mention that there is a real difference between asking "what is above and what is below", which is moving beyond the limits of the human intellect, and asking whether or not we have reason to believe the Torah is true, which is a legitimate question to raise (even if you may choose to simply accept the truth of Torah as an axiom based on tradition).

    Moreover, at least in the circles in which I travel, asking very strong and strident questions on the Torah, Nach, Hazal, Rishonim and Aharonim was par for the course, as long as these questions were raised in the context of a respectful search for knowledge. And at times the questions were not resolved, we were left with "teiqu", yet no one was disenfranchised for asking.

    We must keep in mind that even the nevi'im were not afraid to challenge the devar Hashem when they couldn't make sense out of it, although their commitment to fulfilling it was a given, as you stated. The assumption was that Hashem's directives are intelligible and coherent and therefore worthy of study and analysis. This attitude distinguishes Judaism from a cult, since in the latter framework even exploratory questioning like this is perceived as an encroachment on the leader's authority.

  10. Fruma, R' Joshua-
    Based on your comments, I think I need to post a sequel. You have helped me clarify my thinking on this; I am most grateful. Sequel to come shortly, Gd-willing.

  11. Larry-
    Thanks, but R' Aryeh Kaplan's views on this were not accepted in certain circles back then, and those same circles are the ones that reject those views today.
    Please don't shoot the messenger - I am a fan of R' Kaplan - but this is my understanding. The opinions have not shifted, it's just that the voices have grown more strident.

  12. R' Maroof-
    Challenges to Tanach and Chazal, as well as questioning among the neviim, are well-established. My point is on the challenging of the out-of-bounds areas. I hope to expand on this in my sequel post.

  13. First of all, Canadians (and i can say this because i am one) like to kvetch. A lot. If they moved away then they wouldn't have anything to kvetch about.

    Ok, cults. The term "cult" was used to describe deviations from the mainstream religious practices (roughly). So to say Judaism as a whole is "cultish" is a bit strong. There were rules set up in Judaism (like not studying about idol worship) because face it, humans are weak, and easily tempted. The more you study about something the more you may get involved in it. (or pulled away from something else).

    I think limiting studies of the "cosmos" is actually pretty smart. There are so many basic lessons to learn from the Patriarchs, which everyone skips for something "bigger". If they look to the skies so to speak, they can continue to feel small in comparison without guilt. But if one keeps their feet on the ground, they might have to actually look to their own behaviour with other people. Much harder to deal with.

    The usual two cents

  14. This is an interesting post. I would take the question on a different level and go back to basics. You cite a number of texts that discourage certain questions, though it can be argued that rabbis themselves have dabbled with precisely those questions. The issue is, what is the basis for discouraging certain questions? It is because you may come to reject a dogma, or because you will simply become frustrated without an answer? Sifrei Yonah and Iyyov deal with the issue of theodicy, despite the Mishnah in Avot that says that we can't explain these things. And will shutting out discussion prevent heresy or encourage it by frustrating the questioner?
    I wonder if the discouragement of "learning" heresy is related to how and why it is done. I refer you to the work of Jose Faur's explanation of Rambam's understanding of the derash "ve-lo taturu aharei levavkhem - so minut - ve'aharei eineikhem - zo zenut." The connection between minut and zenut is what is stressed: heresy results from exploring questions without a full control of your passions: your conclusions in your quest will not be based on pure reason but will be clouded by your own uncontrolled impulses, which is what you are really after. But not all inquiry fits this category. Rambam forbade the study of idolatrous texts but allowed battei din to do the same so they could poskin properly in those cases. Rambam's exploration of Aristotle was not "secular" - Rambam included science as part of Torah! A contradiction is not automatically heresy.
    Clearly there are Jewish groups out there who assur inquiry because they are afraid of kefirah/the system falling. Others encourage inquiry. The question of whether Judaism, as an ideal form, is a cult (as you define it), would depend on how you interpret the purpose and scope of the forbidden/discouraged areas of inquiry.

  15. Just as any discussion of the Rambam's codification of a prohibition on perusing works of idolatry must also include the fact that he himself read widely in such works, so too any discussion about Judaism's views on intellectual openness must also include what people actually did, as opposed to only the stridently negative things that were written.

    That said of course there are cult-like tendencies in religions.

  16. Shorty-
    Thanks; that's certainly a new angle on the whole issue.

    Joseph, Mississippi Fred-
    Thanks for commenting. I agree that these texts were studied, albeit in the specific circumstances of דע מה שתשיב, involvement with secular aristocracy and beit din necessities - but these are all justifications which hardly address the breadth of popular inquiry.
    More to the point: In my Part II, I get down to what I think is the real issue, the pre-determined exclusion of certain conclusions. Inquiry with guaranteed results or an "out of bounds" area is hardly inquiry at all.

  17. But that's my point. "Secular" aristocracy does not explain any of Rasag's, Rambam's, or tens of other rishonim and aharonim's incorporating the sciences and philosophies of their day; they regarded it as part of hokhmah, which was itself from G-d, and therefore a part of Torah (that is why we say such a berakhah when we see "secular" scholars). Just peruse through Rasag's Emunot ve-Deot, and you'll see huge numbers of citations from Tanakh on this point. I'm not denying that the need to engage new systems of thought prompted these works, but that need does not make these works a bedi'eved. Torah thrives and grows because of such challenges, and I would assume that these rabbanim truly believed in what they were writing.
    Incidentally, the case of pre-determined conclusions is the precise debate over Rambam's position that had the theory of the world's eternity been more convincing than the alternative, he'd re-interpret Bereshit against the grain. You can also take into account the debate over at his critique of reliance on tradition to determine reality. Can we generalize about Judaism at all given all of these debates, or do we have to differentiate between different kinds of Judaism? In any case, I'll read your second post.

  18. Sorry, Rabbi, there are far too many circles in which the kind of Judaism practiced is, in fact, a cult, from bans on certain questions to sanctification of leaders.

  19. Joseph-
    Thanks for your follow-up. I agree with much of what you say here, although I am not as certain that RSG's writings, as well as those of Rambam, were not products of need rather than ab initio ideology.

    Ah, there you are. Took you a couple of days!