Dec 27, 2013
Cult Expert Explains Dangers
Raphael Aron, a specialist on mind control and cults, explains the dangers of Large Group Awareness Therapy such as Call of the Shofar. Update: Crown Heights Rabbonim issue a psak.
By Raphael Aron, Director, Cult Consulting Australia (cultconsulting.org)
This past month has arguably given the Call of the Shofar (COTS) more world publicity than a full page in the New York Times. The publicity has generated a spate of articles, comments on various Jewish websites and blogs.
The recent publicity was followed by an Asiphoh in Crown Heights on Tuesday evening attended by a crowd of some 2000 participants KAH which focused in part on the issue of Chassidai Chabad turning to outside sources for inspiration and guidance – a timely issue as we move towards Yud Shvat, a time of reflection and introspection for all Chassidim.
By now adding to the volume of material which has been published on the COTS issue, I am attempting to further clarify some of the points which have unfortunately in part been hijacked by emotion and mis-information.
In writing this piece I draw from my experience as the Director of Cult Consulting Australia (cultconsulting.org) and an author of two published books on the cult issue: “Cults: Too Good to be True” (Harper Collins 1999) and “Cults, Terror and Mind Control” (Bay Tree Publishers 2009.) Further information can be found on raphaelaron.com.
Furthermore, since addressing the Kinus HaShluchois three years ago I have been working by email and phone with Shluchim and Shluchos around the world in relation to the challenges of Shlichus including family issues and Sholom Bayis. In relation to COTS, the concerns of Shluchos have included, in particular, the observation that their husbands’ pre-occupation with their self-development and self-empowerment has impacted their Sholom Bayis as well as the centrality of Yiddishkeit in their lives.
By way of introduction, considerable time and space has been devoted to the question as to whether COTS is a cult. Generally speaking, this question is irrelevant. While there are many well known, religious, spiritual and personal development groups which have attracted the cult title, there is limited value in ascribing pejorative terms to particular organizations be they religious, spiritual or other. (Incidentally, it has been suggested that the term ‘cult’ is not necessarily a negative term in that there can be ‘pareve’ or even ‘kosher’ cults. I disagree with this premise. By definition, a cult refers to an organization or system which impacts on an individual’s ability to remain in control of his/her life and ultimately removes any opportunity of enquiry and free choice. Instead, the subject becomes the victim of a process commonly known as mind control.)
The fact is that there are thousands of people who have joined numerous suspect groups often referred to as cults and walked away unscathed while there are probably as many who have joined ‘established religions’ and acted in a very ‘cultish’ manner. One need not look further than numerous fundamentalist groups today – both Christian and Moslem – in order to observe this reality. The question regarding any organizations is far more about its agenda, its modus operandi and the long-term impact it has on those who join it. A crucial issue is whether the participation in the group is a one-off activity or whether it fosters dependence and an unhealthy relationship with the organization.
This is why it makes no difference and is not relevant whether the organization is headed by a guru or not. I have worked with numerous individuals who have been controlled by small groups or by natural healers and therapists in positions of power who have exerted an undue level of influence over their subjects. This is no less a cult-like relationship than what exists in some of the better known groups which have attracted that label.
Rather than refer to COTS in particular, I feel it necessary to discuss some of the processes used by LGAT’s (Large Group Awareness Therapy Groups.) It is for the reader to decide the relevance of these issues to the COTS organization.
One of the typical characteristics of an unhealthy or suspect organization is its ability to convince its members that having identified particular problems or deficits in their lives, it now has the solutions to these issues. Through a range of processes, these organization claim to be able to detect weaknesses or blockages in the emotional and psychological makeup of the client who is then given the message that only by joining the organization will it be possible to address and fully resolve these issues. Simply put, it is one thing to identify a problem, although in my view that identification process is often totally flawed; it is something else altogether to provide a solution to the problem.
And herein lies one of the fallacies of many suspect organization and practitioners. We all have problems; we all have issues be they in relation to our families, marriages, work place, our sense of self and direction on life and our personal relationships. When others are able to articulate these issues, in our vulnerability, we tend to believe that they – and sometimes, only they – have the answer.
The vulnerability of the individual is further enhanced by the group dynamic which can create a momentum and a desire to ‘go with the flow’ in a compelling manner. The group dynamic can introduce feelings of accomplishment, even euphoria. Suddenly and powerfully, the participants ‘get it’ – an expression commonly used by well-known personal development groups. Feelings of closeness and affinity between group members who may have little in common and have never met until the particular event can be a strange feature of this experience. In the extreme – and this is not always the case – the participant begins to realize that only through this group can one reach the heights and level of fulfillment which until now appeared unachievable and well out of reach. Nothing else compares.
Within that mindset, participants are often requested to connect with long-lost relatives or to make amends with people with whom they have fallen out in the past. This may be a worthwhile idea which incidentally often forms a part of many therapeutic processes which deal with relationship resolution issues. However, in the heightened environment of an intensive weekend program, these processes can often take on an exaggerated value further convincing the participants of the almost unreal nature of the program.
The counter-argument to these concerns is that if it works what’s the problem? Isn’t the result what really counts? I have no problem in accepting that in certain situations the results may justify the means by which they were achieved. If a couple has found Sholom Bayis, if an individual can now return to study or work or if a relationship has been repaired, these people should feel fortunate. My experience is that these results can be short-lived in situations where there are underlying mental health and emotional issues which may remain unresolved. The participants may also rely on a continuing and often ongoing dependent relationship with the organization.
Furthermore while many participants may not be experiencing any significant personal challenges, others may be participating because they have unresolved personal or relationship issues. Fragile and possibly the victims of abuse and trauma, they may be at serious risk if they replace the need for qualified professional assistance with participation in a group which may not screen or assess its clientele nor provide ongoing support and expertise demanded in these situations.
While I applaud Mashpi’im for recognizing that they alone may not be able to provide the support some of their students require and therefore they refer them to other sources for assistance, I question whether these Mashpi’im, as well intentioned as they are, have the understanding and expertise to make these “referrals.” There may be other professional avenues which Mashpi’im should seriously consider in assisting their students. Indeed a Mashpiah is often in a unique position to assist a student receive long-overdue personal assistance but such action requires wisdom and careful consideration. I believe that especially in today’s climate, Mashpi’im would benefit considerably from an understanding of some of the mental health, family, emotional and personal issues which some of their students confront. This applies to Mashpi’im not only of students but also adult members of our communities who turn to them for guidance and advice.
I also recognize that many participants have written about the lack of relevance and connection between the values of Chassidus and its implementation in their daily lives. While many were inspired by the recent Asiphoh, others were concerned that it did not go far enough in assuring young people that Chassidus does not only provide the inspiration for happiness and meaningfulness but also the means and the tools by which to achieve these goals. This is a very critical issue which requires careful consideration which I would hope would now receive the urgent attention it deserves in the light of the discussion over the past few weeks.
The Mashpi’im, Rabbonim, Shluchim and Shluchois of our communities must now respond to COTS in light of serious concerns which have been raised by participants and observers of these programs. To recommend any potentially ‘life-changing’ programs to others is a huge responsibility, in particular, when they have the potential to capitalize on the vulnerability of people searching for direction. Against the backdrop of our community which is confronting its own challenges, this is certainly the immediate call of the hour.
Raphael Aron is in New York until Sunday 5 January and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Crown Heights Badatz members Rabbi Yaakov Schwei and Rabbi Yosef Braun have issued a psak din regarding attending "Call of the Shofar" programs.
The sign, posted in 770, states that one may not participate in any workshops, seminars etc. of the group "Call of the Shofar," or any other new age therapies.
They also ask "not to spark arguments or sow discord or strife in the community," and to judge fellow community members favorably.