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Religious Experience or Cult?

Perhaps because we live in the Holy Land, the idea of closeness to our Maker, and adherence to His will, is commonplace even among the most secular Israeli, particularly around Rosh Hashana, when Israelis from all backgrounds and religious levels turn their hearts and minds toward the idea of spiritual growth and healing, trying to find their way to a more intimate relationship with their God.

This longing for a purer life, has, unfortunately, given rise to a vast number of psychopathic and criminal gurus, ranging from completely secular to ultra-Orthodox, who prey on the most intelligent and innocent of victims.

The recent court case against Goel Ratzon is a case in point. This self-styled healer based in Tel Aviv advertised his services as a mediator and psychologist for troubled couples and young women. Slowly the men left, but the women stayed. Ratzon offered them marriage and life in a commune. Eventually, he amassed 30 “wives” and over 60 biological children, many of whom he physically and sexually abused, including committing incest with two of his daughters and fathering six of his own grandchildren.

Ratzon, who was convicted on September 8 of severe sex crimes, was nevertheless acquitted of the crime of enslavement. Israeli television broadcast the scene outside the courtroom where Ma’ayan, one of Ratzon’s “wives” and mother of six of his children, broke down in sobs at the verdict.

“There is no law and no judge in Israel!” she declared. “I was under complete enslavement.”

“The court has ruled that men in the State of Israel have the right and approval to take women and torture them, [and to be] acquitted because they didn’t cross the physical abuse border.” Ratzon, who called himself God, created his own “Torah” which the women were forced to study and obey.

Orthodoxy too has been used to lure victims to abusive cults. In 2011, an 18-year-old religious girl from a broken home visited Jerusalem. While standing next to the Bridge of Strings, she was approached by a woman she slightly knew, who invited her to learn about Breslov. Naïve and troubled, she found herself joining a communal household led by a gray-bearded “prophet,” who espoused what he said was Breslov hassidism, all the while trying to seduce her and make her part of his harem. Unlike the other women who succumbed to the physical and emotional abuse and sexual perversities visited upon them daily, which stunned them into terrified obedience, the youngest novitiate bravely found her way to the Israel Center for Cult Abuse, and its director Rachel Lichtenstein.

A petite young woman in a dark wig, Lichtenstein is a former Bais Yaakov girl, who became involved in the center after working against missionaries in Yad L’Achim. Disturbed at being told not to get involved with victims of missionizing haredi cults because it was beyond their mandate, she moved over to the center, first as a volunteer, and then as full-time director.

Lichtenstein is passionate about saving those who have been taken in by charlatans in religious garb spouting mystical gobbledygook whether claiming to be quoting from the Kabbala or the Bhagavad Gita.

She described a typical case: An innocent young girl is invited to a lecture on Kabbala. The girl walks into a crowded room, where the leader and teacher sits up front in a place of honor, surrounded by devotees who hang on his every word.

After months attending lectures, she is finally introduced to him personally. She is thrilled, overwhelmed by the honor. As he shows her more and more attention, she is flattered, feeling special. After all, so many admire this man, he is so holy, so learned, and he has singled her out. More months go by. And when the leader feels she is ready, he explains to her that her special kapara (atonement) and task in life is to bring the fallen sparks of holiness back to the world by sleeping with anyone he tells her too. He roams the streets, picking up men and sending her to sleep with them while he watches, pocketing the fee. She collects money for him, cooks for him and cleans for him. One day, he tells her to pick up a friend of his who is being let out of prison. She drives down to get him. As the released convict sits next to her, he asks: ”What is a nice, pretty young girl like you doing with this man? Don’t you know that he and all his friends are criminals and he is only using you?” This, she tells Rachel, is the first time she allows doubt to enter her mind about what is really going on. Her awakening is harsh and slow, her recovery taking years of intensive psychological treatment before she can rebuild her shattered sense of self. Just weeks ago, a similar cult was unmasked in Kiryat Arba run by hassidim of a messianic cult that drugged and prostituted women for cash, convincing them to sleep with gentiles because their act “would bring about redemption for the Jewish people.”

Normal people reading this might find it hard to believe that a regular, intelligent person could be fooled in such a way. Britain’s Cult Information Center, however, states that people in cults tend to be “intelligent, idealistic, well-educated, economically advantaged, intellectually or spiritually curious, and any age.” Cult recruitment techniques work equally effectively on PhD holders or high-school drop-outs. The only common characteristic is that the cult candidates are going through a difficult time in their lives that leaves them vulnerable.

The haredi world, with its emphasis on belief in a charismatic leader, complete obedience and discipline, leaves many of those searching for a deeper religious experience particularly susceptible.

What is the difference between a valid religious experience and a cult? According to Robert J. Lifton, an expert in the field of cult studies, cults exert total environmental control, controlling all information. The cult’s truth is absolute, members even depending on the cult for definitions of reality.

People are taught the meaninglessness and futility of their former way of life, and the necessity for a rebirth. All situations are reduced to black and white, with no gray areas, and the leader is infallible, cult members dependent upon him for information before they can make the slightest decision. Even child-raising is abandoned to the leader, the parents’ allegiance often measured by their willingness to follow the leader’s directives, even if it involves abusing their own children. In some parents, this is a stress reliever, freeing them from deciding anything, even child care.

Interestingly, secular Jews seem equally exposed to the same mind-control techniques.

Take Anat and Shmuel, average, middle- class, secular Israelis who are well educated with good jobs – she is a teacher, and he a systems analyst. They live in a spacious one-family house. Small children run in and out, and a 15-year-old is glued to her cell phone on the sofa.

One would never guess that until three years ago they and their children were members of an oppressive Krishna cult that controlled every aspect of their lives.

Beginning with a weekly lecture on meditation and higher consciousness, they were slowly drawn in until they agreed to move up North to join a new community with all their new friends.

As Anat, a lively, talkative woman tells it, slowly the noose began to tighten: “You have no one to talk to, except members of the group.” Their leader began filling their minds with the suggestion that they had been abused by their families. They broke all family ties. If they ever expressed doubts out loud, they were reported and punished with hours of verbal abuse.

For Anat, the end came when she was told that her children were evil, and must be raised by the group leader. She and her husband and family left, cutting all ties. But others stayed.

“They are still recruiting people,” Anat tells me. “They bring an Indian market with dresses and handicrafts to kibbutzim, and all the while they’re recruiting.” “Why don’t people leave?” I asked her.

“It’s like waking up from a bad dream. You have to face yourself. How did I let this happen to me? It is devastating, and takes years to rebuild your ego. For some, it’s simply easier to stay and never admit the truth.”

In short, all seekers of purity, beware. If someone offers you spiritual growth, but winds up telling you what to think, and how to behave 24/7, you aren’t having a religious experience, but a criminal one. Get out and call the police.

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 24 September 2014.

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5 comments on “Religious Experience or Cult?”

  1. Barry Appleby

    In Judaism, there is no need for a guru or an intermediary between us and the Deity, since this omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient spirit knows what is in our hearts and minds. Rabbis are teachers not infallible beings and we are free to debate and argue with them and maintain our right to interpret commandments according to our own values. For me, the prohibition on boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is about animal welfare, about an animal being allowed to grow up and be nurtured by its mother before it is killed and eaten. I find the idea that this commandment merely refers to a mundane prohibition on eating meat and milk products at the same meal, rather disappointing. This commanment is, after all, repeated three times in the Torah. I find the notion that a newborn animal could be killed and its mother’s milk used to cook it, an expression of the deepest callousness towards a living being. It may refer to a pagan practice which we should not imitate. We should all be very wary of those who set themselves up as authorities whose views may not be challenged. As for “ex-communicaion”, well it is still possible to pronounce “herem” on any individual whose actions are considered as harming their fellow Jews. For example, a British rabbi who attended an anti-Israel conference in Iran was ostracised by many people in the city where he lived.

  2. Sue Deutsch

    The fact is that these cults–both secular and religious are similar to those here in America–as well, I am sure, in other countries. The sexual abuse of followers of the cult leader–even of children–is also part of the whole cult mentality. I remember in the 1970’s cults were especially popular, Hare Krishna and the Moonies seemed to be everywhere. The followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh died as the result of their allegiance to their cult leaders. Recently fundamentalist Mormon groups have been in the news. Unfortunately Jews were involved in several of the cults. As you say, the young people attracted to such groups are often very intelligent and idealistic. They are looking for spiritual values in life and not finding such values in secular life or in “normal” religious groups. I don’t think that we should be surprised that cults exist in Israel as well as in other prts of the world. However, they must be strictly monitored by the authorities to make sure that no abuse of any kind is taking place, as well as financial crimes.

  3. Jacqueline Reckseit

    Regardless of of the religion of the perpetrators, moral atrocities like these are equally reprehensible. But I have a double standard in my heart. Jews are supposed to be better than this. I am deeply ashamed that any of my fellow Jews could do such repulsive things to other human beings. I wish there was “ex-communication” from Judaism for such people.

  4. pesach

    the above comment must be supported. humans have a need to attach to something be it the western wall, the rashbi shrine at meron or some charismatic person who becomes their ‘rav’ although he could be as sick as that described above. we elevate many of our ancestors and ascribe to them things not real nor intended by them. when will this sickness stop so that the true spirit of Judaism will shine to enlighten the world.

  5. Naomi R.

    Shana Tova. An excellent article that gets to the root of an ongoing problem; rabbis or other leaders who are venerated and raised to a level that almost considers them godlike. If one stops to consider the fact that this is a behavior that is Christian like in nature it becomes a chilul Hashem.

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