Strive for Truth
I was learning with a student when she mentioned that a huge obstacle for her was her parent’s opposition to her religious growth. They often told her she had been “brainwashed” and that “these organizations” with whom she had taken classes and whose events she had attended had an agenda to make her into who they wanted her to be.
I find that this is one of the greatest challenges for baalei teshuvah. Family members don’t understand what they are doing or going through and often assume the worst. They hear rumors that “being religious” means “being brainwashed.” The media exacerbates this concern with coverage of horrific stories about cults where the followers of a charismatic leader committed mass suicides together. Who can forget Jonestown and other terrible tragedies like that?
Naturally, parents are worried. Here is their child in whom they have invested many years of their lives, and now it seems like they risk being rejected for some “otherworldly” reason! Rejected means their children will not eat in those familiar restaurants they grew up eating in or even in their parental home. It means not answering the phone on the “weekend” (now called Shabbos) or not attending all kinds of events that are part of “normal American culture.” Uh-oh!
Are parents worried about something that really exists or something they imagine could happen?
As I became interested in learning more about Judaism, I couldn’t forget the following experience. When I was in a Conservative Jewish camp as a child, one of the counselors had been to Israel and was now “keeping Shabbat.” I remember overhearing some of the counselors saying, “Ben has been brainwashed.”
So there I was, a young, impressionable kid, wondering, What does that mean? Was Israel a scary place, where people force strange things upon you?
When I began my own journey to becoming a religious Jew, I felt compelled to learn and grow and explore my own heritage. Yet, those thoughts lingered in my head: Is Orthodox Judaism a cult? And how will I know if it is or not?
When I arrived as a fresh, eager student ready to learn, I was daunted by the enormous gap between where I was religiously and spiritually, and where my peers and teachers seemed to be. Initially I felt overwhelmed as I was forced to really think about my Judaism for the first time in my life. The strange, new environment with what seemed like such an intense approach to religious observance catapulted me into a search to uncover the truth about understanding what “the truth” is!
The methods that cults typically use include refusing to allow their practices to be questioned, using social pressure to force unhealthy ideals upon everyone, providing inadequate food and not enough opportunities to sleep in order to prevent clarity of thinking, and punishing anyone who tries to escape. These are just some of the ways cults keep their followers in line.
Years later, I worked with a professional who had actually escaped from the Church of Scientology. Her story was not only eye-opening and frightening, but fit the bill for what cults do to maintain power and control. These oppressive methods are diametrically opposed to what Judaism has always offered in its truest form.
The places where I learned always encouraged personal growth for the sake of the individual, and my teachers were themselves positive role models who embodied the growth that occurs when we strive to become mentshen – good, honest, kind, loving Jews. It was clear to me that the Torah provides amazing tools that we can internalize and use to become better people.
Religious Jews I met – my teachers, rabbis, and the hosts who graciously fed and housed me in their homes on many Shabbatot – all made one thing very clear: The more questions the better! Asking questions was encouraged.
(Of course, learning Torah does mean verifying that our teachers are educated, qualified “experts” in conveying our mesorah, as it has been taught for thousands of years, since we stood at Har Sinai and received the Torah. When choosing a teacher, we must make inquiries and use discernment the same way we would choose a surgeon, physician, dentist, or anyone else in whose hands we place our physical or spiritual selves.)
I was very inspired by the many Torah Jews who really “walked the talk,” but they also emphasized that it’s a lifetime process, a long journey with ups and downs. They also explained that observance is always a choice, self-imposed, and not forced on us by others.
I can’t speak for every Jewish organization that exists, but Judaism in its purest form is not a religion that exerts detrimental influences onto a person or manipulates the behavior of its followers. There may be groups that push their own agenda under the banner of Judaism, but that does not reflect the religion at its core. And as with everything in life, you can’t judge a whole group by the behavior of some of its followers.
True Torah ideals emphasize that happiness comes from within, and specifically from forming meaningful connections – with ourselves, with our loved ones, and of course, with Hashem. The happiest moments in our lives can almost always be traced back to a connection of some kind. Judaism is there to encourage deepening those sparks in our lives.
A lot of the assumptions and fears that parents have are a result of the media attempts to portray the religious world in a very negative light, as though people aren’t thinking clearly. But yeshivos and seminaries are places where intellectual, rational thinking are the norm, not the supposed bastions of “brainwashing” we often hear them accused of. The Torah was given to every Jew and there is a direct path of connection to Hashem for each one of us.
For me, learning the historical proofs that show the difference between how the Torah was given to us really opened my eyes. Judaism isn’t about “just believe and be saved.” We have to know with our heads, as well as our hearts, the intellectual reasons that we as Jewish people have survived and thrived throughout the millennium of exile and persecution.
Standing at Har Sinai with over two million witnesses who saw and heard the Torah being given to us, after coming out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt together, is a very different beginning then any of the other religions in the world have ever claimed. This is all vital information to know and build our foundation on.
Rabbi Dovid Kaplan, who has been teaching baalei teshuvah for many years, advises every person who already has a strained relationship with their parents before becoming observant, as well as those seeking ways to improve their connection, to really learn how to keep the mitzvah of kibud av v’eim. When we visit our parents, instead of preaching, we can roll up our sleeves and start doing the dishes. We can stand up for our parents when they enter the room and explain to them that we are trying to honor them and to express our gratitude, “for everything you have contributed to my life for years!”
Try writing a letter thanking them for all the values they instilled in you, including the ones that gave you the intellectual freedom and courage to explore a new way of life. At the very least, express your gratitude for how much they provided for your physical needs throughout your life. Parents – all parents – are thrilled to receive credit for doing something right, and it’s a wonderful way to develop our attribute of appreciation.
Leaders of cult-like groups promote adherence to harsh rules and sacrifices as the keys to both earthly and eternal happiness. Advertising and secular society promote the consumption of materialistic products as a way to find happiness.
Only the Torah, however, promotes forming connections, within our inner selves, with the people in our lives, and with Hashem, in order to build true inner joy. True observance and religious growth is about accepting ourselves and others, creating a non-judgmental environment, and meeting others where they are at.
Judaism, unlike cults, provides structure and limitations in a healthy, guiding way, with independence as the ultimate goal. We must know who we are, where we are trying to go, and do our best to get there in our own time.