I once got into a debate with a friend about cults, and whether the Hasidic community qualifies as one. We were at a fancy-shmancy wedding, and we argued our way through some gnocchi appetizers, a delicious mushroom soup, and semi-edible centerpiece chocolates. Was it, was it not? Halfway through the meal and our animated debate, we realized that, while we both were knowledgeable about Hasidic ways, we had never established an agreed-upon understanding of cults. What was a cult anyway? What did we mean when we called Hasidim a cult?
I regularly hear people call Hasidim a cult. On Facebook, it’s people who have left or live underground. On Reddit, it’s basement dwellers who also live underground, but in a much worse way. In the comments of the New York Times, where a lot of boomers with fairly homogenous opinions congregate to express them, all agree Hasidim are a cult—say so and you’ll get liked to the wazoo. And in real life, people will say it to me all the time. Just the other day I got to talking to a Jewish feminist woman at the gym, and we agreed on pretty much everything. Except she called the Hasidic community a cult.
The problem I have with the word “cult” is that it is a pejorative that is slung around vaguely, in the same way you say “she’s brainwashed” or “he’s crazy.” These insults are really meaningless. They don’t explain why we think someone is unstable or manipulated; you can use these insults on anyone, because there is no hard qualification. The word “cult” doesn’t tell us anything either, except that we think a society is hurting its people and pretty crazy. It doesn’t differentiate between a cult and a culture, or a society, or a religion.
Since that wedding, I’ve been thinking and reading about what makes a cult. In western pop culture, a cult is a sinister group that preys on the vulnerable, lonely, and feeble-minded, and recruits them into a society where one is forced to cut off contact with the outside world and comply in order to survive. Think of the Jonestown cult, which ended in 1978 when 909 people lethally poisoned themselves, because the higher-ups declared a “revolution by suicide.” Or the Manson Family Cult, where leader Charles Manson ordered his underlings to commit all sorts of crimes, culminating in the horrible slaughter of the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. These cults capture our attention, because even cults that are entirely peaceful are so antisocial, so untethered from reality. The people who join these cults are nuts, carried away in their fervor and convictions to the point of self-destruction and a loss of their entire world for the whims of their charismatic leaders.
“I’ve always been struck by the sensationalist and reductive way that sixties and seventies cults are portrayed in the media. In a nation fixated on individualism, cults and communes are easy objects of disdain—and perhaps envy. Their members are breaking the rules, discarding the sacred nuclear family. It’s libertarianism plus sex and drugs, and it’s wrong, but do tell me more.”
This pop-culture idea of the “cult,” which is a sensationalist take on strange subcultures and communes, makes for the most delicious satire. What’s not to laugh at in a bunch of overly-earnest, incredibly-easy-to-dupe, idiotic people who fall for the most obvious emotional scam? SNL has a hilarious skit about the cult they call “Neurotology,” which seems to suspiciously spoof pop culture’s version of Scientology. I have watched it a bunch of times, sometimes just for the terrific vests.
An even funnier take on this type of cult is the Documentary Now! episode on Batshit Valley, which is a spoof of Wild Wild Country, the original documentary about some Indian guru who set out to build a Utopia in the Oregon desert. The spoof had us crying in laughter. One of the most hilarious scenes reports that the cult leader convened with fruits and vegetables, and that a local non-cult member who sold produce at a farmer’s market tried to be a little funny by adding a cardboard sign to her stand that said that the cucumbers are “not the talking type.” This set off the cult members, as they were incredulous at this mockery. As if the cult itself wasn’t mockery enough. Hilarious.
The type of cults that these parodies represent are small, emotionally intense, led by a large personality, with unusual sexual morals (everyone sleeps with the top guy, hurray!). Some cults might be a lot less nutty than the examples that are etched into our memories because of the tragic ways they went up in flames. Oftentimes they resemble more a commune than a manipulative scam, as in the Lyman Family, which calls itself a family and runs a home renovation business out of Los Angeles.
The Chabad Hasidic sect might have some semblance to these “ecstatic” movements, because it maintains the zeal of the convert, because there are many “converts,” or baal teshuvas, and that creates a dynamic of propaganda and enthusiasm. The Bratslav sect, which I call the Hippies of the Hasidim, definitely has the zeal of the convert, but they are far from representative of mainstream Hasidism.
The Hasidic groups in Williamsburg and Borough Park consist almost exclusively of people born into the faith, and there is a stark absence of the “convert” brand of endless enthusiasm; no one is being recruited or swept up or manipulated into the lifestyle. People are only born into it, which means that some people feel it more so the way that an American might feel patriotic than how a Scientologist might connect to extraterrestrials. Many people are internally critical—the religion is just an accidental setting for their lives. Most people in Williamsburg seem much more consumed with buying Bugaboo strollers and Ferragamo shoes and Coach bags than with spreading the word of their religious superiority. The Rebbes of Williamsburg are no more cult leaders than the Pope is, or the Queen of England; they are aristocracy. And most of all, people don’t stop their lives in order to live out their religion; the religion forms the backdrop in which they live their lives. That’s not a cult; it’s a culture, a religion.
I’ve also seen cults defined in more specific terms. Steve Hanson’s Bite Model is very popular. Hanson defines a cult as a society that cumulatively engages in BITE, which stands for: B=Behavior Control, I=Information Control, T=Thought Control, E=Emotion Control. Hanson is, ironically, a bit of a cult figure in online circles that love to call things a cult, because based on this model, it’s very easy to call any social organization a cult. Let’s see if Brooklyn College is a cult: Is there behavior control? Yes, you have to be in places certain times, be dressed somewhat appropriately, spend long nights working on their evil homework. Is there information control? Obviously, you get curated textbooks that leave out The Truth and make sure you never find it. How about thought control? Of course; all those books assigned at colleges will certainly brainwash you. Is there emotion control? Just try failing a class, handing in a paper late, not making a payment for your tuition. Oh, you will be very hurt.
So if Brooklyn Community College is a cult, and the Hasidic community is a cult, and my Orange Theory gym is definitely a cult, and Bernie Sanders is a cult, and LGBTQ is a cult, and Ecoactivism is a cult, then what does the word even mean? This model is faulty because it fails to acknowledge that the factors it calls a cult are simply factors of human social organization. In every society there is socialization, the imparting of values, the censures and norms of its own world. I get frustrated with it because it is very adept at seeing problems in other societies while exhibiting zero self-awareness about its own problems. When you spend your childhood hearing about Jesus having been born to a virgin woman and watching over everyone all the time despite being dead, it doesn’t sound as nutty as a belief in an apocalyptic end-time marked with the arrival of a UFO.
In fact, when we use the term cult, we often give away our own biases. We show that we think our normal is the objective truth and that anything foreign is by definition stranger than our own insanities. This is what bothers me about the anti-cult movement: It denies that we are all in societies that influence us. It pretends that modern society is made up entirely of individualistic, rational, and self-driven actors who are never vulnerable to peer pressure, social contagion, cognitive biases. It’s wrong not because of how it sees the cults it diagnoses, but in how it sees itself.
There are also people who feel that all passionate beliefs are cultish. You believe strongly in animal rights? You’re in the vegan cult. You watch Fox News? You are in the Trump cult. You are a feminist? Ditto, man-hating cult. The person who cries cult at all movements—especially all movements outside the Overton window—uses it to dismiss all passionate beliefs as irrational. He holds himself up as a wiser person for being apathetic and non-committal. Essentially, he is a cynic, someone who comes close to having no soul or having squashed whatever he has. This person is, of course, in denial of his own emotional investment in his ego, in risk aversion (so as to not having espoused anything that turns out to be the wrong side of history) in seeing his individuality as apart from the collective plight. This person might be, if we follow his own definition, in a cult up his own ass. His disdain for “cults” is merely disdain for those who stand for something.
In “How Cults Made America,” Tom Bissel describes the difference between a cult and a religion as merely a matter of the passage of time.
“At its core, the only difference between a cult and a religion is antiquity. But antiquity amounts to a lot. Among other things, it allows followers to live and believe within the parameters of a complex intellectual tradition. A human claiming to be God, and making concomitant demands of his or her community, falls into a much simpler intellectual tradition: the cult of personality.”
This again brings us around to the idea that a cult requires the zeal of a convert in order for it to stand apart from religions. If we consider how deeply problematic religions can be, ordering for killing of heretics and prescribing hell for harmless deviance, it’s not at all hard to see that religions and cults are quite similar: Both can be deeply flawed, yet both can offer community and meaning to their followers. But the technical category the near 300-year-old Hasidic movement falls into is the one that’s been around a while.
In a more academic sense, the term cult can mean something neutral: a subculture that’s very different from its parent culture. If you want to say that the Hasidic community is a cult in this sense, you’d be right—but you’d also probably very misunderstood by everyone who thinks cults equal crazy people in boxy vests who talk to pickles and have communal orgies. But if you want to use the term cult as a way to highlight the community’s problems, we’ll be arguing long past the wedding dinner and into the couple’s last dance.