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Attraction of Jews to Cults Assessed

January 26, 1979
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Jews are attracted to “cults” in somewhat greater proportion then their percentage of the population, according to Dr. Irving Louis Horowitz of the Rutgers University Department of Sociology. This general assessment was accepted by the score or so participants educates sociologists, political scientists, theologians and community relations experts of a two-day Conference on Cults sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith at the Summit Hotel this week.

The fact that large numbers of young Jews become members of new religious movements was given as a prime reason for the conference by Theodore Freedman, director of ADL’s national program division. He said that although no hard facts are available, the ADL decided to critically examine the cult phenomenon because of reports from various parts of the country about the “involvement” of young Jews in various new religious movements, although the total number involved may not be as large as popularly imagined.

“The events in Jonestown” (Guyana), Freedman said, “appear to be symptomatic of a malaise in American society and we decided to take a look at the phenomenon. There is deep concern about the political connotation of many religious cults and the possibility that there may be more Jonestowns.”

Horowitz, indicating that the current rise of cults is a Christian as well as a Jewish problem, said it is a problem of the confrontation between science and Judaism “in which the rational component has created a schism as in all religions.” He added that those attracted to cults seem to be “yearning for certainty.”


To a comment that Hasidism is a “cult,” Rabbi Israel Miller, vice president of Student Affairs at Yeshiva University, declared that “Hasidism does have all the characteristics of a cult charismatic rabbi, uniform garb, warm, loving structure, the people live close to each other though not in common, use music–with one important difference, it adheres to the traditional value system of Judaism.”

Miller stressed that while the Hasidim succeed, other branches of Judaism apparently fail in transmitting this value system to the next generation. He said, therefore, that “we have to seek out what is missing in our society that deprives us of this ability, that makes people fell they can move on to a greater good without these values.” He noted that one problem in this area is that “we have permitted government to take over too much of our lives so that it has taken over responsibilities once accepted by the family and religion.”

While no consensus developed in the course of the conference as to the best way to approach the rise of “cults” in the recent period, there seemed to be agreement that more study is essential, that new religious movements are not uncommon in American history or, in fact, human history, that it represents some kind of failure of transcendent religion, that the new religious groups should not be prosecuted because of their beliefs but only if acts of force and fraud are employed.

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