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.]