Is the Shofar a cult? What is a cult? One of the most defining aspects of a cult is the presence of a constant attempt to suck you in and keep you in, or an attempt at controlling you or your life, for the sake of some power, money, religion or other hidden purpose. Additionally, with any cult, there would be some sort of idolization or veneration of either an individual, or the group itself. Finally, I expect that the cult would have some sort of built-in mechanism for ensuring adherence to it’s principles and tenants, such that it could promote/praise those individuals who adhere, and shun those who don’t. (Google definition link)
I’ve been to the Shofar three times — once as a participant in the Seasons of Transformation program (basic), then the Advanced workshop, and then as a staff member. In none of these sessions did I personally experience any of the above mentioned phenomenon.
- There is no attempt to suck you in or keep you in — meaning, once I left the workshop, I was never contacted at all by any member of the Shofar staff for anything – not my time, my money, or my support.
- Never was anybody positioned in anyway to be idolized, etc. Quite the opposite. It was clear right away that we participants and staff were all in the same boat, and we all had areas in our lives that needed improvement.
- There was no reward for becoming a “shofar-head”, meaning somebody who enjoys going to the shofar programs. Again, the opposite is true — Simcha actively shunned people who could only activate the principles learned in the program while in the Shofar environment. He strongly stressed that the Shofar weekends were designed as a one-time peak experience to give you all the insights you needed to incorporate the lessons into your daily life. No Shofar weekend followups needed.
This has been my experience. I guess I just fail to see how this can be called a cult, when there is almost no follow up, no idolization of anybody, or any ability to progress in the organization (without tremendous effort). True, there are weekly meetings you can attend if you wish (meaning nobody is harassing you to go). But this is more of a support group format, akin to weekly weight-watchers meetings or men’s RAP groups, etc. Importantly, the topics and discussions at these support groups are focused on the individuals and their personal issues rather than on building the “Shofar” organization.
Within certain frum circles, there have been claims that this program is a cult — namely Shea Hecht. A quick reading of the article posted on Collive.com reveals that in his opinion, the Shofar is a cult because they utilize “mind-control” techniques such as asking people to put away their cellphones, ask you to remove your watch, and restrict chatting with other participants for the first 24 hours of the program (unless you are in session). Also, there is a lot of chatter on the forums and in articles suggesting that the Shofar is based on a cult — namely the Landmark program.
The Landmark program is based on the work and theories of its founder, Werner Erhard. It falls into the category of an LGAT or a Large Group Awareness Training program. The anti-cult psychologist Margaret Singer attempted to classify LGATs such as Landmark in her definitions of a cult, and was subsequently completely denounced by the American Psychological Association. Trying to prove her point, she then brought the APA to court for slander, and lost. She followed up this debacle with a book, Cults in our Midst, where once again, she implied that Landmark was a cult. She was taken to court for defamation, and again, lost. She then issued a statement that she did not intend to call Landmark a cult, nor did she consider it a cult.
In my opinion, although Hecht is correct in his observation that the Shofar program does ask you to put away your cellphone, etc, his understanding of the Shofar’s motivations are all wrong. These are forms of enabling people to better absorb information and creating a certain atmosphere (that’s why in a shul, a public library and in Yeshivas we are told not to chat with others and to put away our phones); it is not done with any cult-based motivations in mind.
I find it ironic that middle-aged Chabad chassidim, out of all people, should decry a 48 hour ban of cellphone usage (unless it is an emergency), 25 hours of which are Shabbos anyways. First of all, all these men grew up in an age, like myself, where there were no cellphones. Calling home or family was a huge chore, and done rarely — perhaps once a week. Additionally, these same middle-aged Rabbis are the ones who firmly believe in the perils of the “instant gratification” of the internet age, and how awful it is that the younger generation cannot function without constantly checking their phones. They wax longingly for the days of yesteryear when chassidim could serve Hashem in purity, without the constant buzzing, chirping and distractions of these handheld devices. On my Shofar experience, I found it interesting that many of the younger, business-oriented, modern Jews, including the “Chabad-lite” were eager and relieved to put away their phones for a day, whereas some of the “alter Chassidm” appeared to be glued to their screens and acted as if their phones were some sort of life-support system.
Hecht adds on his personal interpretation of the Rebbe’s words regarding meditation, implying that the Shofar is an abstract form of idol worship, which he then retracts by calling the Shofar a “Kosher Cult”, albeit not “Chassidus”.
Interestingly, I didn’t find any of Shea Hechts cult-definitions in Google, especially the one about a “Kosher Cult”. What I did find, was articles ridiculing Hecht, as in “the pot calling the kettle black”. Here, at FrumSatire.net, internet blogger Heshy Fried pokes fun at Hecht for calling the Shofar a cult, when in many people’s books, Chabad is a cult — “Does he not realize that much of the Jewish world considers chabad to be a cult that is into avodah zarah?” For those who are confused and want to get a good laugh, check out the comments section for more humorous detail.
For an official Call of the Shofar response, Simcha has added a section on the site addressing the issue.
Disclaimer: Truth about Shofar blog is not in anyway affiliated with Call of the Shofar. All opinions are of the authors.