Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Judaism a Cult? Part II

In Part I (here), I suggested that Judaism may have cult-like elements, in that questions on certain topics are deemed to be beyond consideration. I also noted a key difference from a cult, in that the boundaries in Judaism are set not by “This is dangerous to the religion,” but by logical views about what Judaism is meant to address, and what it is not.

The post led to several insightful comments, including this from Fruma:
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

And this from R’ Joshua Maroof:
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).

These comments, and others I received, have led me to a better understanding of my own question, Is Judaism a Cult?:

My comparison to a cult is not really about whether we may ask questions on certain issues, or not. Rather, it’s about the way we manage/answer those questions.

Certainly, Judaism does encourage questions, even on the thorniest issues. It is legitimate to ask, “If Gd is benevolent and protective, how could Gd allow/enable the Holocaust?” and, “Why are babies born into suffering?”

But we answer those questions in a restrictive manner. They are not true questions; they are subjects for discussion, but the answer must fall within a pre-determined zone.

When it comes to, “How can Gd be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet allow Free Will,” or the abovementioned problems of theodicy, we are confined to either shrugging and accepting R' Maroof's axiomatic principles, or offering the half-answers of a mind that cannot grasp the infinite.

Therefore: For me to answer, “I don’t know,” “Teiku,” “If I understood Gd, I would be Gd,” is considered not only legitimate but admirable. But for me to answer, “This religious system is inconsistent, I reject it,” is off-limits. Judaism does not accept its own rejection as a legitimate answer.

An open philosophy accepts the possibility of its own rejection. A cult rules that rejection is out of bounds. And it seems to me that Judaism, by placing rejection out of bounds, does resemble a cult in that way.


  1. For an additional take on questioning, aka free thinking, see Igrot HaRAYH (Rav Kook) 20.

  2. But would Iyyov fall into the category of a pre-determined answer? It is extremely "out-of-the-box." What about Ralbag's limitations on G-d's omniscience? If you're going to answer that he is pushing the envelope (as his critics argued), that simply proves my point that it is very hard to generalize about "Judaism" when there are so many possibilities, and that different schools of thought exist.
    Moreover, "how we deal with questions" is different than saying "what answers are acceptable." Might the difference between open and closed-minded not be in terms of what answers we accept, but how we deal with the questioners? Students of the Rav have pointed out that he never accused any of his students of saying ideas that were heretical, no matter how extreme.
    This brings me to my next point. True cults are an extreme on a continuum; on the other hand, no system can be totally open. I don't agree that any open system has to be able to admit its own incorrectness. Pluralism/openness works both ways: the fact that the system posits certain ideas means that to reject those ideas out of hand would likewise be close-minded. Even democracies allow for heads of state to override certain democratic constraints in cases of emergency (kind of like "et la'asot la-Shem, heferu Toratekha"). In the case of Judaism, one would think that monotheism implies total rejection of idols' existence, yet there are some who insist that "idols" (natural forces) do exist even as they are under G-d's control and may not be approached and cannot act independently of G-d. Similarly, some sources such as portray evil as almost an independent entity at war with G-d and as a real danger, while others deny the independent existence of "evil," which is simply an illusion. Practically, you might decide in favor of one view over another, but that does not mean that the opposing view might not be true to a certain extent or in a certain context.
    Heresy results when you take the easy way out by INSISTING that a basic position of Torah is wrong. Note R. Hayyim Hirschenson's interpretation of Rambam, who assigns the term "kofer," "apikorus," etc. to people who "say," i.e. verbally insist, that a certain truth is incorrect, and who then try to lead others astray. The term does not apply to someone who simply does not "believe", nor to someone who simply expresses a doubt. This leaves room for plenty of conversation in a truly open-minded discussion.

  3. R' Mordechai-
    Thanks for the reference!

    Thought you would approve.

    I'm not sure why Iyyov is relevant; if anything, the non-answer finale supports the idea that certain conclusions are out of bounds.
    Ralbag is also not relevant; he is envelope-pushing, certainly, but he chooses to remain within bounds (as he understands them) rather than reject entirely.
    I do hear your point about heresy, and the continuum. (Side note: I personally heard the Rav's brother, Rav Aaron, label ideas heretical, and I have it on tape.)

  4. Iyyov is relevant not for the conclusion that is seems to suggest, but for its entertaining possibilities that would be out-of-bounds, and for engaging in such a discussion in the first place. Similarly, claims about the Rav (if they are indeed true, and it's not clear that one student's claim can be generalized to all students) point more towards the way a good rebbe/educator deals with a student's opinions; I wouldn't doubt that he would have regarded certain ideas as out-of-bounds. The point about Iyyov and Ralbag is that without them, certain ideas would be considered out-of-bounds, but the fact that they are stated in the discussion shows that the boundaries are broader than a simple analysis would suggest

  5. Rabbi Torch (still trying to figure out the best way to refer to you. You decide!):

    The biggest trouble with these posts: I completely disagree with your definition of a "cult". I was uncomfortable with it in the first piece, and I completely reject in in the second. If a "cult" is any system of thought or belief that will not acknowledge its being incorrect, then you can throw out all of the monotheistic faiths, and a fair majority of the polytheistic ones.

    If anything, you're really having a conversation about whether or not Judaism is a religion that contains dogma (I was tempted to say "is a dogmatic faith", but that clearly isn't your concern. You're correctly stating at the outset that Judaism is a religion that may not necessarily be defined as dogmatic, but that it certainly does have its areas of inviolable dogma).

    Suggestion of an exercise to test your premise: make a list of groups you would define as cults, and a list of groups you would define as religions. Run them each through your definition. See which ones do or do not pass.

    While this won't help the conversation any, in college I came up with the following definition of a religious cult:
    "A negative term by which we denigrate any system of belief and practice which was not existent or commonly-known in the Western world prior to the mid to late 19th Century; thereby engendering suspicion because it didn't get grandfathered in with all the others".

    This definition has been slightly modified over the years, but overall . . . I'll stand by it.

    Reuven (who still can't track down those report cards!)

  6. Just to add to Reuven's comment, there is a lot of academic literature on "cults." Many theorists start from the premise that few groups in real life actually fit definitions we give them. That having been said, cults are generally defined by how they deal with deviants (by kicking them out) and by the fact that they sever contacts with other groups. This policy allows them to preserve the purity of their ideology, and allows them to present a united front against adversaries - their battles are not on the inside, so to speak (they simply get rid of troublemakers) but are directed outwards. (This policy also limits their numbers as well as their influence on others.) Most standard religions don't fit this definition, since they tend to allow a lot of variation among themselves and allow certain amount of contact with outside groups. Too broad a definition of the term would render it meaningless, since we could apply it to anything. In any case, I was not as troubled by your use of the term, since openness is an important topic, and too much of a lack of openness will lead to cult-like characteristics.
    I should add one point regarding Iyyov: the "I don't know" at the beginning of the book is very different than the "I don't know" at the end - or else why would Iyyov have been so satisfied afterwards? Clearly, the discussion and the revelation allowed Iyyov to access knowledge that he didn't have before. Based on the Rambam, I'd argue that reaching a deeper understanding how and why human beings can't fully understand G-d is a type of knowledge. Paradoxically, we understand G-d's relationship with the world better when we prove to ourselves why He is so different from us (but not when we simply take that difference for granted without any effort). In that type of discussion, openness is a necessity.

  7. Hello Reuven and Joseph,

    I recognize your point regarding the definition of cults, which is why I prefaced my discussion be presenting my own definition.

    I agree with your assertion that many (if not most) religions would fit that definition. I have no problem with that; just the opposite, I think the problem is inherent in religious belief, and in any trust-based system.

    How many chapters does Iyyov need in order to reach his deeper understanding of why he cannot comprehend Gd? Is the build-up necessary to that point?

  8. I think those chapters are necessary and are never actually finished. Professor Reuven Kimelman once compared Iyyov to a drama - everyone asks what the answer is, but that's not the proper question. The ending leaves the audience hanging. Iyyov might be satisfied at how far he's come, but the issue is never fully solved.
    Iyyov's question is at the heart of the matter: we say G-d is just (which presumably means we can understand His justice, or else claiming that He is just would be meaningless), but we also say human beings have limitations in understanding Him. Rambam emphasizes the limitations; for him, showing why the statement "G-s is merciful/just" does not apply in human terms can take years of study. Abraham Joshua Heschel takes the opposing view, that G-d is moved even more than humans are, as other statements in Tanakh imply. Why wouldn't it take a lifetime of study to reconcile the two extremes? And how can you do it if you limit the discussion? The fact that we have apocryphal alternatives of Iyyov that make him much "frummer" than the one we have shows some Jews were not comfortable with this type of openness. Our Iyyov is different. The question is where we stand.

  9. No intellectual system is designed to allow for its own rejection. By definition, rejection of the system cannot been a component of the system itself.

    Although a scientific hypothesis lends itself to being disproved, this is not an aspect of the specific hypothesis in question but of scientific inquiry in general.

    Similarly, what allows for the potential rejection of Judaism would be one's search for truth in general; we can't reasonably expect that Judaism would tolerate its own disproof - that itself would be a contradiction, since Judaism, as a framework of thought, makes certain assertions about the world which it, by definition, holds to be true.

    What distinguishes Judaism from a cult is that it encourages analytical thinking and the critical examination of its premises. Asserting that these tenets are true is not itself cult like. Cults discourage the very process of investigation.

  10. R' Maroof-
    I hear, but I'm not sure I agree. Could science not tolerate a modification of the scientific method itself?